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 the nature and significance of the stories that combat heaps upon soldiers. Are they the vestiges of trauma? Relics of a higher awareness? The chemical traces of fear? Do they capture a sacred knowledge unavailable to civilians? Or do they savage the brain that bears them? To tell a war story, from almost any war, in almost any generation, is to witness the incomprehension of the civilian, who is trying to make all the right noises with no idea what a right noise would sound like. The story won’t even stay true to itself as it’s being told.

In Redeployment, it gets told and retold, with different emphases for different audiences, depending on whether you want laughter or tears, solidarity or sex, or simply to come home from a year in Baghdad with more to talk about than “the soft-serve ice-cream machine at the embassy cafeteria.” War stories—at least the ones told within this collection—simply fail to make sense of the reality of war: the pervasive boredom, the time-wasting struggle to fall asleep, the hard training that resides, like a hidden code, within these men and boys. Perhaps because there’s no sense to be made.

It’s an old, vital theme, the void between soldier and listener. Take, for example, a moment early in a very different book: Dispatches (1977), Michael Herr’s extraordinary Vietnam memoir. From a LURP—a long-range reconnaissance patroller—Herr hears a story “as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard.” The LURP says, “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Somehow Herr can’t stop himself from asking what happened anyway. The LURP “just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was.”

After reading Klay, you wonder whether it was sorrow on the LURP’s face or some feeling far more alien and remote. Looking him in the eyes, Herr says, “was like looking at the floor of an ocean.” The adjutant in one of Klay’s stories says something similar of a Marine Corps captain, with an interesting twist. He had “eyes that looked out from the bottom of an ocean.” How do you judge the expression in eyes that distant? How, both Herr and Klay ask, can you even bear to look into them?


What bothers the young men who tell the tales in Redeployment is this: they’re all too aware of the effects their stories produce, and they can’t hide that knowledge from themselves. They know how to manipulate them, how to twist the listener, but they don’t know how to ward off the hostility—just one bad feeling among many—that rises in the act of telling. (As one character says, “Talking with anybody who thought they had a clear view of Iraq tended to make me want to rub shit in their eyes.”)

Part of Klay’s artfulness is to dramatize this awareness, to show the story biting the teller who knows all too well the sensation of being bitten. The surface of these dozen stories, looking at them from the outside, has a simplicity, a directness, that’s no longer available to any of Klay’s narrators within. If soldiers refuse to tell their stories, as they do again and again in Redeployment, they’re also refusing to be the person they become in the telling, and for good reason. “I learned very quickly that talking about the war wasn’t just pointless but actually damaging in its own right.” So writes David J. Morris, another ex-marine, in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.* Or as one of Klay’s marines puts it, “You don’t talk about some of the shit that happened.”

And what happens in Redeployment? A former marine—black, Coptic, enrolled at Amherst—tries to lay his tale upon a young, black, newly Muslim female student. Another marine nearly confesses something—no saying what—to a chaplain, who tries to take the worry this causes him up the chain of command. In the heat of action, a marine kills a young Iraqi while his mother watches, and because he can’t bear the thought of it, his buddy agrees to say that he was the one who shot the boy.

An artillery man tries to calculate, to a fraction, the kills he should be credited with after a morning on the firing line. Burnt and twisted and torn, reconstructed after dozens of surgeries, a marine named Jenks agrees to tell his story to a hard young woman named Sarah—“to talk Iraq to a total stranger,” as his friend says. An adjutant writes a Medal of Honor commendation for a soldier named Deme and wonders, “Without the rare stories like Deme’s, who’d sign up?” Like Herr’s LURP, a marine fails to “hack it back in the World.” Preparing to shoot his dying dog, he recalls his training: “Focus on the iron sights, not the target. The target should be blurry.”

And focus on the iron sights is what Klay does all through Redeployment. Iraq—beyond the sights—is blurry. So is America. So is any kind of backstory. Beyond the sights, it all blurs into one. What falls away, as a result, is any sense of nostalgic distance between the theater of war and the home front, if you can call the United States in 2004 a home front. Klay vaporizes the distance between them. Not for these soldiers the profound ellipsis you often feel in the fiction of Tim O’Brien, for instance—the almost dreamlike longing for the faraway ordinary world.

Redeployment is defined by a sense of geographical compression that mirrors the psychological compression inside these men. What they feel is profoundly disorienting: nostalgia for the war rather than nostalgia for the world that preceded the war and that seems, somehow, to go on existing despite the war. They come home and look around and go shopping and soon enough, “I started feeling like I wanted to go back. Because fuck all this.”

One of the differences between the Iraq war and any earlier war was the ease of connection with the world back home via the Internet. It’s reflected in the immediate back and forth that occurs in these stories, which move about as if time and space were nothing. (Though to skillful narrators, time and space are always nothing.)

But what Klay portrays isn’t just a technological shift. Nor is it merely the quickness of the mind as it shuttles in and out of memory. He’s showing us the continuity of the mind’s affect, the blank, harsh light that shines equally on the desert and the mall, on the ex- girlfriend at home and on the body, seen through a thermal scope, giving up its vital heat. He gives us mirror images—the marine’s dying dog and an Iraqi dog lapping up human blood—and he reminds us that humans are too fragile to contain both images with impunity. “You held up your hand,” the Coptic vet thinks, “and said, ‘I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.’” You had to live with both the apparent nobility of the gesture and the cruelty of that merciless assessment and somehow figure out how you felt about yourself.


So the reader sits, Redeployment in hand, watching these terrible relics of combat, the scattering of narrative, the apparent death of healing. The only ceremony left intact in Klay’s abrupt, unceremonious world is shown in a work party of marines stopping to salute a flag-draped litter in the distance or the gesture of respect paid to the dancers in a not-quite whorehouse. As the storytellers show us the way their stories fracture, it raises a question. What kind of act are we engaged in—civilians reading these merciless stories by a former marine?

The question is more complicated than it seems, for we witness again and again within this book an almost universal failure to comprehend the soldier’s experience. And yet Klay offers us the nearly documentary illusion of comprehension, the feeling that we’ve seen deep inside the wounds that have been inflicted on these young men and women. It’s an old narrative trick—giving readers the illusion that we’re hearing a story the narrator has promised not to tell, a story the narrator, even as he’s telling it, would like to deny telling.

One of our proxies in this book is the chaplain in the story called “Prayer in the Furnace.” The chaplain is, of course, a noncombatant in a combat zone, and to illustrate his predicament, he feels called upon to quote Saint Augustine “sermonizing from safety about the sack of his beloved Rome.” But whom do we quote to account for our own predicament—our infinite distance from the fighting in Iraq, the doubly safe safety of the civilian reader?

The allusion to Augustine is interesting because of the way it conflates his contemporaneous response to the sack of Rome by Visigoths in 410. The chaplain quotes Augustine in order to capture the pathos of watching fellow sufferers from a distance. But for Augustine, the story goes much deeper. In his sermons that touch on Rome, and in The City of God, he’s speaking to a mixed audience, both pagan and Christian, living in a Roman province of North Africa. And what he fastens on, quite apart from the cruelty of the invaders, is their unexpected kindness.

“Whatever devastation, slaughter, looting, burning and affliction was committed during that most recent calamity at Rome,” he writes in The City of God, “all this was at any rate done according to the customs of war. What set a new and unprecedented standard in such affairs, however, was that the savage barbarians appeared under an aspect so gentle that the most capacious churches were chosen and set aside by them to be filled with the people who were spared.” This gentleness Augustine ascribes to “the name of Christ.”

Opening Augustine like this takes us well beyond Klay’s road map in “Prayer in the Furnace.” But in this story we can feel the narrator grasping for a richer setting in which to understand the invasion of Iraq and its human consequences. You can almost imagine the chaplain applying Augustine and wondering, who are the barbarians? What has become of the customs of war? The richer allusiveness of this story—the chaplain also quotes an astonishing passage from Wilfred Owen’s letters—helps us grasp how stripped down the rest of Klay’s stories really are. They are as close to the spoken bone as possible.

In military terms, they are operational stories—they give us no glimpse of the larger mission in Iraq or of the strategy that should have defined it. They give us, especially, no glimpse of the political backdrop that made that feckless war possible. It is entirely up to the reader to supply the background to these stories. Here is the bomb crater, the stories seem to say, and here are the wounded in mind and body. Here is the shell of Fallujah and the obscene notion of Americanization that prevailed in the Green Zone. Now, why do these things exist? That question is up to the reader to answer. That question is always up to the reader.

The soldiers in Redeployment distrust meaning as much as they distrust stories themselves. The narrators come to sharp, short conclusions that sound almost antithetical to any larger significance. The chaplain notes in his journal that Iraq seems somehow holier than “gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home,” but he’s almost the only one talking like that. “If the Marine Corps was any indication,” one soldier thinks, “idealism-based jobs didn’t save you from wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” It all comes down to the bitter, double-edged joke in the story called “After Action Report”:

A liberal pussy journalist is trying to get the touchy-feely side of war and he asks a Marine sniper, “What is it like to kill a man? What do you feel when you pull the trigger?”

The Marine looks at him and says one word: “Recoil.”

The upshot? “What happened in Iraq was just what happened, nothing more,” says the Mortuary Affairs marine in “Bodies.” No meaning, no message, no moral. In the land of war stories, it’s a conclusion you hear again and again, in one version or another, coming out of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. It may be good enough for the marine who’s telling this story—in fact, it may be essential for him. But it can’t be good enough for the reader.

In the story called “War Stories,” a soldier says, “Nothing’s an antiwar film…. There’s no such thing.” In other words, you can’t portray war without portraying its seductions. And yet, as Tim O’Brien says, “A true war story is never moral.” Any apparent discrepancy between those two statements is only that: apparent.

The lure of Redeployment, the lure of reading stories about war—and perhaps especially the reading that feels, like Redeployment, both the truest and the coarsest—is to edge up to the trauma, to the abyss, to the awareness buried in what one of Klay’s soldiers calls the “veteran mystique”: knowing “just how nasty and awful humans are.” The lure is trying to understand the wicked oscillation that takes place in combat. This is how one of Klay’s soldiers describes it. At the peak of terror, “you’re just an animal, doing what you’ve been trained to do. And then you go back to normal terror, and you go back to being a human, and you go back to thinking.” Some make it all the way back. Many don’t.

The stories in Redeployment feel as though they’ve just surfaced from a decade ago, when Fallujah was in the headlines every day. And yet they feel immediate, as caustic as the aftertaste of the way we went about that war. As I read them, I kept hearing in my head two quotations. The first is from The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s book about the origins of the Vietnam War. “Westerners,” he wrote, “always learned the hard way in Indochina; respect for the enemy always came when it was too late.” Such is the power of Klay’s focus in Redeployment, the accuracy with which he captures a moment in American blindness, political and military, that we see in these stories no respect for the enemy whatsoever.

And the other quotation? It comes from The Assassin’s Gate, George Packer’s book about the Iraq war. He is quoting the father of a young soldier named Kurt Frosheiser, who died there. After years of struggle, Frosheiser’s father finds what is perhaps the one good way past the emptiness of meaning, the barrenness, you hear again and again in stories of war. “What does it all mean?” he asks. “It means nothing. How we respond is what it means.”