An Interview With Phil Klay

Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, is an alumnus of the College and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

In the summer of 2004, Phil Klay attended Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. Less than three years before, September 11th occurred the very year he had started school at Dartmouth College. In 2005 he graduated Dartmouth and was commissioned as a public affairs officer in the US Marine Corps that spring. Two years later, in January 2007, he deployed to the Anbar province of Iraq.

His tour ended in February of 2008 and he left the Corps in 2009. He started an MFA in Creative Writing at Hunter College in New York City, which he completed in 2011. This year, in 2014, he published his debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, to critical acclaim.

There were political considerations tied to the choice to serve in Iraq, manifest in the question of why we were there. With mounting casualties with each passing month, Klay recalled the mix of emotions that met his decision to enlist. Even taking the war out of its politicized context, he would go from taking classes on Joyce’s Ulysses and Japanese literature in Hanover, New Hampshire to serving in one of the most unstable regions on the planet, all in the space of a few months. Ramadi would be a far cry from the rugby pitch he competed on during his collegiate career. “Some of my professors were confused,” he recalled. Yet for Klay, the motivation was in many ways simpler than geopolitics, “I wanted to serve my country in a time of war.”

In the first month of his deployment, a truck detonated in a suicide bomb attack. Anbar was and is Iraq’s only province dominated by the Sunni Islam, the branch of Islam preferred by the majority of extremists. By the war’s end, the province would become the home to the war’s second most fatalities, behind only Baghdad.  Fallujah and Ramadi, two cities that would see battles in 2004 and 2006 respectively, are central in Anbar. Fallujah would see the bloodiest battle in the war. Meanwhile, Ramadi would serve as an inflection point: the Anbar Awakening, an unprecedented level of cooperation between Sunni tribes and coalition forces to oust al Qaeda, began around The Battle of Ramadi.

Though Klay’s arrival in Iraq coincided with a shift in favor of the Coalition Forces, al Qaeda continued to execute a program of assassinations, murdering political opponents and supporters of coalition forces while continuously detonating IEDs. Suicide bombers remained commonplace. Klay’s commission as a public affairs officer demanded travel throughout the province. Still, much of this exposure occurred indirectly. In his capacity he never saw combat, only its aftermath.

In an article written for the New York Times in October 2010, Klay describes the kind of horrific vestiges of combat he witnessed:

I saw women and children wounded or dying in trauma centers. Ruins left by explosives in towns and cities across Anbar province. I saw surgeons who could do no more because the body they were trying to repair was too badly destroyed. I stood in formations as the bodies were taken away.

Still, Klay remains constantly self-critical in his position as a storyteller. By relating events to the reader there is a necessary contamination of artifice; in reducing experience to language something is lost. In the same piece he comments:

I feel I do disservice to the enormity of my subject by making it a subject of conversation. And yet I know that keeping a hushed silence is a failure, too, because by not telling these stories we fail to process them.

His collection of short stories, Redeployment, denies that sort of silence any quarter. Through his fiction he describes twelve different characters and different times, places, and positions in the war in Iraq. As he had largely only seen the effects of war firsthand, his experience traveling around Anbar province and speaking with his fellow servicemen on the ground informed his understanding of the everyday in a combat zone with greater detail, aiding in the construction of each of his characters.

His shift from non-fiction to fiction was, in a way, necessary for his project to succeed. In order to convey the war, there was something implicitly limiting in unpacking only his own experience:

I wanted people to have to imagine all the different kinds of decisions that marines and soldiers, sailors and Foreign Service officers make at a human level. I wanted them to get a range. You come back from Iraq and people ask you what it’s like, but it’s incredibly complicated. 

There was difficulty here. In inhabiting so many different perspectives through the course of the book, the threat of falling into cliché, leaving each character as archetype instead of appropriately psychologically complex, persisted.  Keeping this in mind, Klay said, “was something I took very seriously. I did a lot a research, I talked to a lot of Marines, and spent a lot of time thinking about the subjects. Doing the kind of imaginative work, drafting stories over and over again until I had something that felt emotionally honest, which is also not the same as something that’s going to please everyone who’s been through that experience.”

Klay carries that emotional honesty through the rendering of each voice in Redeployment, producing a startling breadth of experience, all getting at what it means to go to war in one way or another.

In the collection’s eponymous short story, “Redeployment,” a soldier returns home to his wife and dog, now finding an American mall more foreign than Fallujah: “In Wilmington, you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it’s not there.”

In “Prayer in the Furnace,” a military chaplain tries to understand what‘s happening to the soldiers around him as he tries to make a positive difference among the violence: “How do you spiritually minister to men who are still being assaulted?”

In “Ten Kliks South,” an artillery gunner stands in a more diffuse relation to the killing, dropping bombs on targets and enemies he has never seen: “So there’s no indication here of what happened, though I know ten kliks south of us is a cratered area riddled with shrapnel and ruined buildings, burned-out vehicles and twisted corpses. The bodies. Sergeant Deetz had seen them on his first deployment, during the initial invasion. None of the rest of us have.”

Through the course of the book there’s a keen sense of these characters’ living side by side with death and killing, whether or not they carry a gun. “Bodies” follows a Mortuary Affairs Marine, whose job it is to collect the remains of the dead. “Money as a Weapons System” follows a Foreign Service Officer who, in sardonic humor, can only manage to organize a bee-keeping program for widows as a part of his nation building responsibilities.

Whether or not the act of killing is something actively engaged in, living day after day in a warzone wears on the characters. The events, and then their resulting memories, need to be grappled with. There’s a psychic cost to be paid here. Commenting on this theme’s presence in “Prayer in the Furnace,” Klay  says, “What those men in that unit thought might happen, the kinds of notions they had about themselves is very different from the lived reality of months in an intensely violent place.  And then they go back and they have to live with that and what they’ve done.”

“Prayer in the Furnace” and “After Action Report” both describe soldiers grappling with this cost of Iraq through the lens of faith as both stories explore the role of the war chaplain. Klay commented on the place of faith in war:

In war, certain notions of religion, like the “Thank You God, for letting me get a touchdown” notion of religion, don’t really play. It becomes abundantly clear you can do everything right; you can be a great marine, you can be a good human being, and yet you can still die or have something horrible happen to you. What you need from religion is not going to be particular physical outcomes that you’re not going to get. It’s providing a way to think through what’s happening to you.

War, then, appears at its root as an encounter with the unintelligible. No one is surprised when encountering gratuitous violence and desperation in a warzone. Though its scope, in its true visceral reality, is inevitably shocking, the randomness with which it visits soldiers and civilians alike yields something confounding.

While for the sake of survival some are able to push these thoughts out of their minds throughout the time of the deployment, returning, where all that is left is the “unquiet memories” and a home that has changed with the passage of time, is where some of the true struggles of the modern soldier come into play. Klay explains:

For a lot of the narrators, it’s not just about the experience you have overseas, it’s the experience you have coming home. The experience you have coming home is not just related to what you went through but how you choose to remember it and how you choose to talk about it, or not talk about it.

Yet all of this internal conflict occurs over the greater backdrop of the war’s political context. For many outside eyes, the veteran’s experience is one necessarily colored by political preferences and opinions on one of our country’s longest running wars.

On the other end of the spectrum, those eyes are glazed over. The length these conflicts and how far these theatres are from home have made the American public’s attention harder to hold.  Klay comments on this experience:

One of the very strange things about coming home from the modern wars is you’re coming home to a country where such a small percentage of the population is serving. You get a positive reception when people find out that you’re a veteran, for the most part, but mostly what people feel very keenly is a kind of apathy: a disconnect from the fact that we’re a nation at war.You come home and find out that the American people aren’t really paying attention and that is profoundly strange. The ability to bridge that gap is important. Veterans don’t want to feel isolated, and in order to do that you need to find some way of getting your memories and relationships to those memories across to someone whose notions of what you’ve been doing are very vague and defined frequently by a variety of clichés.

As a storyteller, then, Klay bears an added dimension of responsibility. Though the seriousness of his topic demands constant self-awareness in order to convey true and nuanced emotional honesty, this political context means that writing on war necessarily means catering to an audience that has next to no idea what such an experience is like. What is more, these are the people, the majority electorate, who ultimately make the decisions of when and where to wage war. The gravity of such a responsibility, then, becomes all the more stark, especially when popular conceptions of war are fed by a variety of misleading media coverage, cliché, and poor story telling. “I think we need good story telling to get a better, and more complicated notion, of what military service actually entails,” Klay said.

All too often, that notion is over simplified, especially in the given media fixation with this generation of veterans’ problems with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). “Either you’re a hero or you must be traumatized,” Klay explained:

You have some really egregious stuff in the media. After the second Fort Hood shooting there was a lot of deeply irresponsible discussion about PTSD. There were people speculating it that had caused it. Of course if you actually sit down and did the math you found that veterans committed fewer acts of violence than civilians. If you look at studies of PTSD, veterans with PTSD are less likely to commit acts of premeditated violence than veterans without PTSD. I think there is certainly a lot of negative stuff in the media that is worth fighting back against.

Klay now stands in the vanguard of a new generation of writers, largely comprised of veterans, or those affected in some capacity, who, after all these years, have reached a point where they are finally becoming capable of unpacking what exactly happened in those two countries half a world away.

Thus, as we move farther away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our understanding of both conflicts will continue to deepen. “It takes a long time to figure it out and it takes a while for  the fiction to come out,” Klay said.