Carolyn Hall might surprise you. She’s a Southern Belle and a Morehead Scholar. If she had to spend $10,000 in ten minutes, she’d invest it in a super-cool startup or hop a plane to Morocco. No one else in her family has any interest in Morocco, but she’s still thinking about how she might get there one day! In the meanwhile, she’ll pass the time with a craft beer, either Yazoo Pale Ale or Highland Brewery’s St. Terese’s Ale. (Carolina girls do enjoy a fine beer.) Her favorite book of all time is Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, but she also remembers the thrill of sneaking Jaws and Go Ask Alice. Today, Carolyn thinks about Redeployment, by Phil Klay.
From Carolyn: Something clicked when I read Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War for a Political Science class in college. I’d never enjoyed military history, war movies or even my grandfather’s stories of building air fields in India and Africa during World War II, but I was fascinated by Caputo’s memoir about his time in Vietnam. It resonated with me, and since then I’ve been struck by what happens when a son (or daughter), husband (or wife) comes home from war. How does what happened “over there” impact everything “back here.”
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I remember shaking my head when a political commentator said that the war in Iraq was not going to be “another Vietnam.” How do you know that, I thought to myself. I hated being such a pessimist, but I wondered about the physical and emotional impact this new war was going to have on the soldiers being deployed, and on their loved ones.
Recently, writers, actors and artists have begun to examine the impact of the war in Iraq and the war on terror in formats ranging from film (Zero Dark Thirty) to television (Homeland and Parenthood) to art exhibitions such as Steve Mumford’s War Journals, 2003-13, on display through June 8th at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. On the literary front, two of the five works nominated for the 2012 National Book Award in Fiction were novels related to the war in Iraq – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (which I highly recommend) and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (which has been highly recommend to me but still sits on my nightstand waiting to be read). But today I want to focus on Redeployment, a recently published collection of twelve powerful short stories written by Phil Klay, a Dartmouth graduate who served as a Public Affairs Officer in the Marines during the surge in Iraq.
I picked up Redeployment at Parnassus as I headed off on Spring Break but quickly realized that these are intense stories that I needed to ingest one by one, sometimes with days between them. I also feel I should give a particular word of caution to my friends with beloved family dogs. Klay’s opening story, “Redeployment,” will haunt you for days.
A few things stand out to me about this collection of short stories. First and foremost, Klay is an excellent writer who can really tell a story. His stories always involve what’s going on “over there,” but sometimes they are told in flashback, looking from “over here” to what went on “over there.” In addition, he tells these stories from a variety of equally convincing points of view: the young recruit, the middle-aged chaplain, the Amherst college student or NYU law student struggling to reconcile past experience with present reality.
While the seventh story, “In Vietnam They Had Whores,” was a challenging read for me due to some graphic sexual content, the opening line really struck me: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq.” This hit a chord with me because my 84-year-old father-in-law has only recently written about (and shared with family and friends) his reflections on his service as an Army officer in Korea. Why, I wonder, did the Greatest Generation regale us with stories of WW II over the years while many Korean and Vietnam veterans seemed to keep silent? Much about the experience of war and of coming home seemed to have changed for those who served in the second half of the 20th century. Where will those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan fall along the spectrum? Will they tell us what they experienced? Will we be able to hear them?
Phil Klay has honestly and powerfully added to the discussion about the war in Iraq. In an interview, he said, “I feel like it’s the things you don’t want to think about that are often the things worth writing about.” As difficult as it was to read some of his stories, each one made a point, made me think and made me ask myself some very hard questions. Questions about our troops and their families and how we interact with them, and provide for them, when they return home. And isn’t forcing us to stop, think and look at ourselves and others from a different perspective what great literature is all about?