‘At the Peak of the Terror’

Peter van Agtmael
Iraqi policemen and American soldiers waiting while their commanders plan a joint patrol of southern Baghdad, 2010; photograph by Peter van Agtmael from his book Disco Night Sept. 11, published by Red Hook Editions

Redeployment is a collection of twelve brutally effective first-person stories about the uselessness of stories. They are fictions from the Iraq war, but they draw on many conversations between soldiers and the author, Phil Klay, an ex-marine. Who tells them? Among the narrators are a military chaplain, a soldier in Mortuary Affairs, an artilleryman, a Green Zone contractor, an adjutant, and a number of combat marines who find themselves surveying the demolition of their inner lives. Some carried rifles or manned machine guns in Iraq, some commanded men, some merely paved the roads, which got them blown up anyway. War stories, in short, or at least stories gathered in war-like places—Fallujah, Ramadi, Haditha, and Baghdad around the year 2004. War stories: souvenirs for some, nightmares for others, all of them useless.

“That was that for me telling people stories,” says the Mortuary Affairs marine in the fourth story of this collection. “I don’t trust my memories,” thinks another marine, a pothole-fixer. “I trust the vehicle, burnt and twisted and torn. Like Jenks. No stories. Things. Bodies.”

Make a list of what stories are supposed to do, and Phil Klay’s narrators will show you the ways they fail to do them. In Redeployment, a story can get you laid but teach you to hate the woman you leave the bar with. A story transposes nothing, not guilt, not hatred, not suffering, no matter how true or false the story may be. It can’t shift the burden of the combatant’s experience. It can’t even begin to convey it. And woe to the listener who tries to sympathize. With perhaps one exception—the contractor in “Money as a Weapons System”—the narrators in this book, young as they may be, are ancient mariners, and we are all wedding guests, finely attired in our innocence, uncomprehending.

What the war story cannot do here, above all, is heal or offer balm of any kind. Communalize the trauma—that’s what Jonathan Shay advises in Achilles in Vietnam (1996), his poignant study of soldiers and combat trauma in the Trojan War and Vietnam. Shay, a highly regarded psychiatrist for the Veterans Administration, encourages soldiers “to talk about the traumatic event, to express to other people emotions about the event and those involved in it, or to experience the presence of socially connected others who will not let one go through it alone.” To which Klay seems to be saying no. Talk to other vets, perhaps. Other people, not a chance. Your buddies may have been with you when the story happened, but you’ll carry the story forward into life alone.

Klay taps into a deep cultural uncertainty about…

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