Saturday, 1 October 2016

Redeployment by Phil Klay

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There are certain books that I find hard to review. It's not about the quality of the book, it's a deep-seated conviction that no matter how hard I try to put the book and its themes into words, I'll be doing the author a disservice. Those books where it feels that there's something to them that defies efforts to parse it out, that makes those efforts feel flat and misrepresentative. Like I'd be trying to muscle the book into being something else by describing it, instead of being able to write about it as it is.

Redeployment is one of those books.

I finished this book over a week ago, and every time I think about sitting down and writing this review, my mind stutters, because it feels like if I sat here and listed all the things I think this book is about, it'll sound flat and forced, where the book is not at all. It feels like if I try to get at the politics that are here about the Iraq War, I won't be able to capture it.

This is a powerful book, and it's hard to put your finger exactly what it's saying about war because it's said so directly that analysis feels like distancing myself not to understand more fully, but to put layers of meaning between us so it's further away.

Phil Klay fought in the Iraq War, and so did all the main characters in the short stories that comprise this book. Many fought in non-combat roles. Many killed people outright. Many deal with their tour convinced that there is nothing wrong in anything they're doing, including killing people. Others are uneasy in ways they can't put their fingers on, some few are driven to oppose the war, many others don't understand that as anything but betrayal.

The messages that come through aren't direct, but that doesn't mean that these don't all hang together and create something of a whole. Many of the stories hinge on the distance between the battleground and the civilian world and the impossibility of actually telling someone what you went through without looking like you're looking for sympathy, a drink, or to get laid. (Or in one story, not to get expelled.) Is it possible to tell a story without having an agenda? Some of these characters are too smart not to realize that, and yet their stories want to be told, even as they're aware that they are being molded even in the telling.

The focus on support characters - chaplain, morgue attendants, paper pushers, psyops, rebuilding project leaders - is, I think, one of the most interesting things about these books. These stories examine those who aren't actively fighting and killing and their relationship to the war and to the civilian world, the stories they tell and how they tell them.

There are a lot of good stories here, but the one that struck me the most was the one about the chaplain, as much for what it didn't say as what it said. In particular, it got me thinking about the role of a minister and wondering what has been lost in our increasingly secular society. Speaking from the pulpit can be an opportunity to challenge power and encourage a group of people to connect in ways beyond what they're taught about ours and theirs, and spoken in a place and time that maybe, just maybe, allows people to listen to things they'd otherwise shut down. Where can that happen otherwise?

This is a strong collection of stories, and at the end of it, I'm still not entirely sure about the author's politics, but I get the feeling they're complex. And I sort of feel like I didn't entirely warp the story in writing this review.

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