Awards: National Book Award for Fiction (2014)
Phil Klay's Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned.
In Redeployment, a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people "who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died." In "After Action Report", a Lance Corporal seeks expiation for a killing he didn't commit, in order that his best friend will be unburdened. A Mortuary Affairs Marine tells about his experiences collecting remains — of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers both. A chaplain sees his understanding of Christianity, and his ability to provide solace through religion, tested by the actions of a ferocious Colonel. And in the darkly comic "Money as a Weapons System", a young Foreign Service Officer is given the absurd task of helping Iraqis improve their lives by teaching them to play baseball. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier's daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier's homecoming.
Whoa. This book takes on some of the hard truths that soldiers and Marines returning from (and participating in) the longest two wars in American history have to face. As a veteran this was a difficult read for me. When I started the book I didn't realize it was a collection of short stories. At first I was disappointed because the first story is so raw and powerful. It's about how a man returning home from Iraq struggles to reintegrate back into everyday life with his wife and dog. I wanted to know more of that character's struggles. In the end though it turned out to be a good thing that this was short stories because I found that I could only read it in short bursts, so harrowing are the narratives at times. Perhaps this is the reason I don't read a lot of war fiction (or war non-fiction, for that matter).
In a time where less than one percent of the American population is in the military - it's so easy for some to forget the experience that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been through. There are many people who don't know anyone in the military. This book is important if not for that reason alone.
A line in the first story 'Redeployment' struck me so hard because it's the honest to god's truth.
"We took my combat pay and did a lot of shopping. Which is how America fights back against the terrorists."
What else is there to do after you're haunted by a war that makes little to no sense to you or the rest of the country? Another line that I ran across hit me hard because as a veteran I've always had a hard time with the "Thank you for your service" type gratitude actions that I would get. It's an awkward feeling that many veterans don't know what to do with (I'm not saying don't do it when you see a man or woman in uniform - just that it's a weird feeling - at least for me).
"I was angry. I'd gotten a lot of Thank You for Your Service handshakes, but nobody really knew what that service meant..."I worked as a Unit Deployment Manager for the Air Force, it was my job to tend to all the airmen that would be deployed, ensuring they had all their training, paperwork, and equipment. While because of my rank I was not the one making personal selections on who would go and who would stay at home (unlike the Army, the Air Force does not deploy entire units at one time, instead it's a piecemeal selection of individuals based on job functions that are needed down-range). Despite that I still fielded phone-calls from angry spouses and sent men and women away from their families to miss anniversaries, Christmases, and even the birth of their children.
The stories in Redeployment focus exclusively on the Army and the Marine Corps and I'm okay with that. The problem that I had with this collection is that there were no stories told from the point of view of female characters. Women, despite not technically being allowed in combat, are in combat. I felt that Klay might have strengthened his book if he could have told at least one story from the perspective of a woman.
The other thing that will probably drive civilian readers crazy are the excessive acronyms. It didn't bother me because I knew what most of them meant, but I can definitely see this as being an impediment for a reader with little to no knowledge of military jargon.
Like I said, this was a difficult read for me but I do think that it's an incredibly important and well written book. It's not really about the wars themselves, it's a portrait of the people who fight those wars at the lowest level. I have to highly recommend it to everyone.
As far as The Tournament of Books goes, I predict that it should at least make it out of the first round (depending on what it's pitted against), but it's unlikely it will take the whole hog.
What do you think, Reader? I know this has been a meandering review, but does this appeal to you at all? To those of you that are active duty or veterans, really, thank you for your service.