TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been 11 years since the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. Most of the early stories to come out of that war were by journalists, but in recent years fiction writers have been exploring the war in such acclaimed novels as "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain and "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers. The latest to win acclaim is "Redeployment," a collection of short stories by Iraq veteran Phil Klay.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says that Klay captures the complicated experience of fighting in Iraq more completely than anyone before him.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Here is an old joke you may have heard. How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: You wouldn't know; you weren't there. This joke gets told in "Redeployment," a stingingly sharp short story collection that itself addresses the gap between the American soldiers who fought in Iraq and those of us back home.
It was written by Phil Klay who does know because he was there. After graduating from Dartmouth, he enlisted in the Marines and served as a public affairs officer in Anbar province during the 2007 surge. Klay's time there gave him something valuable that, consciously or not, he was surely looking for - great material.
Of course, countless writers start with great material and reduce it to mulch. Klay takes his experience and clarifies it, lucidly tracing the moral, political, and psychological curlicues of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like Tim O'Brien and his great Vietnam book, "The Things They Carried," Klay is conscious of how lived life gets translated into stories.
His first-person tales take us inside an array of characters from a Marine who tells us about handling dead bodies to a chaplain offering guidance to soldiers whose closeness to violent death makes them skeptical about God. In the blackly hilarious story "Money is a Weapon System," a provincial reconstruction official tries to rebuild the area near Tikrit only to have a fortune in American aid be lost to local corruption and an American millionaire's demented mission to teach the Iraqis baseball.
The wrenching title story "Redeployment," begins the whole book with two short, chilling sentences: We shot dogs. Not by accident. And weaves this into a metaphor for both the war and for returning home. Now, writers in earlier times often took a grand, even god-like view of war - think of Tolstoy in "War and Peace" - or at least, they stayed comfortably inside the action in novels like "The Naked and the Dead" or "The Thin Red Line."
War stories these days tend to be fractured and self-conscious as if a grand overview would be false. Klay quite pointedly doesn't offer a big vision, only a mosaic of smaller ones. In fact, what makes him so good is the way he can carry us from the battlefield to the strip bar, from the funny to the harrowing, to the heartbreaking.
This may have something to do with the nature of America's most recent wars. Where World War II felt conceptually clean - our soldiers were fighting an evil enemy's army - the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been anything but. They've involved moving among civilians you're theoretically trying to save but who may try to kill you and whom you often kill back, sometimes accidentally.
Such warfare is more surreal than clean and it feels even more disorienting when stoked by video games, knocked out by Ambien, and speaking in the obfuscating patois of military acronyms, the soldiers are performing a dangerous and brutal mission they suspect their country doesn't really believe in and would rather not think about. Heck, Americans won't even go to movies about our ongoing wars.
Klay makes you feel the physical and psychic cost demanded of our soldiers in Iraq and he may be even better on what it means to return to an America that pays gaudy lip service to honoring the troops yet doesn't try to understand their service. Because we have a volunteer army, our soldiers and vets remain weirdly invisible to their fellow countrymen.
Some of "Redeployment's" keenest moments show us returning soldiers' frustration in trying to communicate their disturbing, often inevitable experience to people who greet them with cliches, however well meaning. As one vet tells us, there's a perversity in me that when I talk to conservatives makes me want to bash the war and when I talk to liberals, defend it.
"Redeployment" is so wonderfully written it's a pleasure to read, yet it's hard not to be sad about what an ill-conceived mess the war in Iraq proved to be. After so much money and sacrifice, you'd hope to wind up with stories happier than the ones Klay tells us. Which isn't to say that he smacks us with an obvious or strident political message; on the contrary, you're struck by the gnawing, sometimes stunned ambivalence that Klay's characters feel about the whole enterprise.
His vets usually wind up feeling diminished, even soiled, by what they had to do in Iraq but also superior to the America they were doing it for. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself, one explains, how many people can say that?
GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed "Redeployment," Phil Klay's new short story collection. You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org.