In 'Redeployment,' Former Marine Explores The Challenges Of Coming Home
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Phil Klay won the National Book Award for Fiction last week for his collection of short stories, "Redeployment," about Marines in the Iraq War and their difficulties adjusting to life back home. Add that award to the praise the book had already received. Journalist Dexter Filkins who covered the war in Iraq called "Redeployment" the best thing written so far on what the war did to people's souls. In the New Yorker, George Packer described "Redeployment" as the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America's recent wars. Klay's fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought. Klay is a graduate of Dartmouth College and served in the Marine Corps in Iraq's Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a public affairs officer. After he was discharged, he went to Hunter College where he received an MFA. Phil Klay, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the National Book Award. That's wonderful.
PHIL KLAY: Thank you so much.
GROSS: So let's start with a reading from your book. I'm going to ask you to read the opening of your story "Bodies."
KLAY: Sure. (Reading) For a long time, I was angry. I didn't want to talk about Iraq, so I wouldn't tell anybody I had been. And if people knew, if they pressed, I'd tell them lies. There was this Haji corpse, I'd say, lying in the sun. It'd been there for days. It was swollen with gases. The eyes were sockets, and we had to clean it off the streets. Then I'd look at my audience and size them up, see if they'd want me to keep going. You be surprised how many do. That's what I did, I'd say. I collected remains. U.S. forces mostly, but sometimes Iraqis, even insurgents. There are two ways to tell the story - funny or sad. Guys like it funny with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad with a thousand-yard stare out to the distances as you gaze on the horrors of war they can't quite see. Either way, it's the same story. This lieutenant colonel who's visiting the government center rolls up, sees two Marines maneuvering around a body bag and decides he'll go show what a regular guy he is and help.
GROSS: So that's an excerpt of the story "Bodies" by Phil Klay in his collection of stories "Redeployment." We should mention we find out on the next page that the person speaking works for mortuary affairs, so it is his job to deal with the remains of soldiers. You know, after reading that passage I was thinking, OK, so what Phil Klay is saying is that's it's really difficult to talk about what you see in war. And there's different ways you can tell it, and sometimes you just lie. And so now I'm talking to you, and you're a vet. And we both know what you've just written there. Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: So it just makes me feel so - almost uncomfortable asking you about the war, about writing about it, about your own experiences, about putting you through that, about putting you on the spot about what it's like to always ask or not ask a veteran about what they've experienced.
KLAY: Don't feel uncomfortable. I mean, that's part of why I wrote the book, to have conversations about it. One of the things that he's dealing with is he went over and he experienced some very hard things, but he doesn't have the war stories like people imagine. And he doesn't feel about what he did - he doesn't feel the sort of unallied pride. He feels conflicted, and he doesn't know how to feel about what he's done. And what he's done doesn't fit comfortably into what people would expect. So he tells these stories where he knows how to get a reaction and how to fit into a particular type of narrative.
And it's also a way of keeping people at a distance. There's another veteran author, Michael Petrie, who talks about decoy stories which are the stories you tell about Iraq that are funny or interesting, but that are, in some way at an emotional level, removed from the things that are really important to you. And in many ways, that story is about that narrator trying to find a way to get out and find the right audience for the kind of stories of his deployment that really matter to him.
GROSS: You described this character in your short stories who worked in mortuary affairs in Iraq as not having the war stories people expect. And I suppose you don't have the war stories people expect because...
GROSS: Because you were a public affairs officer.
KLAY: Yeah, absolutely.
GROSS: In Anbar Province, which, I mean, that - Anbar Province has now - a lot of it's been taken over by ISIS. But...
KLAY: Yeah, which is an absolutely horrific tragedy. It was a very strange and very interesting job. I got to travel around Anbar Province, had a great group of Marines who worked for me who traveled around Anbar Province. I got to hang out with a lot of different types of Marines and soldiers and sailors. But, yeah, it was a staff job. So I was not - I was not kicking down doors. I was not in combat. And, you know, I went outside the wire from time to time. But it was for the most part a relatively safe job in a very dangerous place.
GROSS: What was your job as public affairs officer?
KLAY: So I had a group of Marines who worked for me who wrote stories and took photographs, and we organized interviews with press. We handled media embeds. I was an adviser to the general at Taqaddum, which was where I was based, which is a base just south of Habbaniya in between Ramadi and Fallujah.
GROSS: So when you were working with embedded journalists, what was it like for you? Because, you know, like, you're a writer. I'm sure you respect good journalism. And, you know, there are war reporters who are really like heroes to me because they're extraordinary writers and reporters and risk their lives to, you know, bring us the story. So I'm wondering what that relationship was like for you. And I don't know what kind of pressures are put on you by the military itself, you know, by the Marines to be very protective and not show certain things to reporters.
KLAY: I was interested in good journalism, right? If things aren't going well, it does the military no favors to have a press that is not reporting accurately on the situation - right? - because ultimately the American people are supposed to be holding our elected leaders accountable for the decisions that they're making and for the conduct of military policy. And they're not going to be able to do that without accurate information about what's going on - good or bad.
So I was less frustrated by, you know, good or bad press necessarily than press that I felt was unduly partisan or not interested in what was happening. And I met a lot of really good, good journalists and also very courageous journalists while I was over there. I think it's, you know - people talk about the media as this abstract entity, but, you know, there are good journalists and bad journalists.
GROSS: So you weren't in combat, but you did see the aftermath of combat.
GROSS: And you wrote about that in a piece in The New York Times. And you write that most of the suffering that you'd seen didn't affect you as you thought it should have.
KLAY: Well, in that piece, I talk about a truck bomb that happened in I think the first month that we were overseas. A suicide truck bomber had exploded in a crowd of families going to mosque, and Marines brought the wounded onto base. Very early in the night, I was carrying a stretcher with a young, Iraqi kid. It was the first time I'd ever seen anybody, let alone a child, who had those kind of injuries. Bombs do very, very bad things to human bodies. It's incredibly shocking to see. And I remember thinking that I would never forget that child's face, and then by the end of the night, I couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. I'd seen far, far too many injured people. The surgeons were doing surgery on the floor because the wounded had swamped the trauma tables.
And, you know, in that sort of environment it's just - it's very shocking. And you look for a thing that you can do. There's a long line of Marines and soldiers waiting to give blood; the medical personnel were, you know, working frantically; other people were helping with stretchers or bring supplies or doing whatever it is they can do. And you sort of settle in to the routine. You do what you can do. You do your job. It's a little bit too much to take in, and then you think about it later.
GROSS: You write in that article when you tried to describe death that you witnessed, the telling tends to decay into a kind of pornographic voyeuristic experience. You seem to really have this push-pull of, like, wanting to tell, but at the same time not wanting - not wanting what? What scares you about telling stories like that?
KLAY: Well, it's why you're telling them, right? Are you telling them for the voyeuristic shock in the way that the narrator of "Bodies" is telling that, you know, lie to just kind of provide a particular type of shock? I mean, there's a kind of fascination with war, right? For about half a year, I taught middle school students, and when they found out that I was a veteran, they were all like, oh, did you kill anybody? You know, and then I said, no. And we talked a little bit more about why that might be a sensitive question. And I've been asked that question by plenty of adults, too.
GROSS: If you've killed somebody?
KLAY: Yeah, with a lot less excuse than a sixth-grader. And, you know, I've talked to veterans who say that's the most obscene question you can ask somebody.
GROSS: So why is that the most obscene question?
KLAY: Because as another veteran who had actually seen a lot of combat put it, he said it's not so much the question that offends me, it's the people asking it don't seem to respect the moral seriousness of the question. And so for me writing more stories - writing more stories where there's a lot of shocking things happening where people are dealing with the aftermath of having seen or witnessed or been party to a lot of just really horrific things - why are you telling the story? What are you trying to do with telling the story? And what's the outcome, right? Are you enthralled to a particular kind of spectacle? Are you trying to really work your way through the really grave issues at the heart of the conversations that we need to have about war?
GROSS: Let me just ask you while we're talking about experiences at war what it was like for you to have a desk job, but watching your fellow Marines go out of the wire every day. And you did a lot of traveling, so you were exposed to your share of IEDs - I mean, to the possibility of IEDs. Your job was pretty dangerous even though it was a desk job, but when you watched men that you knew well go out every day, what did you feel about that?
KLAY: Well, you know, that you always feel - it's not just while I was there - right? - because, I mean, there's always somebody who's risking more, who has given more. And that continues when you leave the Marine Corps, particularly during these wars because it's a small, all-volunteer military. So, you know, I got out and yet the people that I knew were continuing to go over.
Every once in a while I'd find out about something that had happened to one of them. And you feel guilty about the fact that you didn't choose to do the harder thing, and you feel respect for those who did. I knew a Marine who had had - a friend of his died saving his life. And he volunteered to go to Afghanistan - this is when Obama was increasing troop presence in Afghanistan. Everybody knew that was where the fighting was. And I remember asking that Marine, you know, why he was doing it. He basically explained that he knew what it was like to lose somebody and then have to go out the next day go on patrol and continue to do your job and continue to look out for the Marines around you. And he said, look, these guys are going to be going through a tough deployment. I think that I could - I can help them. And, you know, he went to Afghanistan, and he died midway through his deployment in an IED blast. And so if you know somebody like that and instead of making that kind of very serious choice, you've chosen to, you know, go live in New York, it's something that you think about. I'll put it that way.
GROSS: Well, I think what you're describing is also survivor's guilt. It sounds like you'd feel guilty no matter what because you're here to talk about it.
KLAY: Yeah. I think a lot of veterans feel that way, even guys who have been through a tremendous amount of danger feel that way. You know, there's that feeling, and then there's what you do about it. I think - and it's not just - it's not just, I think, the guilt that people feel towards the, you know, Marines around them. But there's also the feelings that people have in relation to the amount of suffering that's happening in Iraq right now. And, you know, what do we do about that? There are, you know, veterans working with the, you know, Iraqi Refugees Assistance Project or - I mean, there's a whole variety of ways that people sort of answer the questions of, you know, what I do in relation to some of the things that have happened?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Phil Klay and last week he won the National Book Award for Fiction for his first book, a collection of short stories called "Redeployment." And the stories are all about the war in Iraq and the experiences of veterans when they come home. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Phil Klay. Last week, he won the National Book Award for fiction for his collection "Redeployment." It's a collection of stories about people fighting in Iraq and about those people when they come home as veterans and what their lives are like. So I want you to read the opening story "Redeployment" - it's actually the title story of your now National Book Award-winning collection of short stories. So do you want to introduce it for us or just start reading?
KLAY: Sure, it's actually the first story that I started writing. And it's told from the perspective of an infantryman who served in the Second Battle of Fallujah, which was in very intense urban combat. (Reading) We shot dogs. Not by accident; we did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I'm a dog person, and so I thought about that a lot. First time was instinct. I hear O'Leary go, Jesus. And there's a skinny, brown dog lapping up blood the same way he'd lap up water from a bowl. It wasn't American blood, but still there's that dog lapping it up. And that's the last straw, I guess. And then it's open season on dogs. At the time, you don't think about it. You're thinking about, who's in that house? What's he armed with? How's he going to kill you, your buddies? You're going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you're killing people at five in a concrete box.
GROSS: So that opening sentence of that story, we shot dogs, that's the first line that you wrote when you started writing about Iraq. So why is that the first thing that came to you?
KLAY: It was an entry point for me. I had known a couple of Marines who'd actually talked about the experience of watching dogs eat human corpses in the Second Battle Fallujah. And one of them had talked to me about Operation Scooby. And it seemed to crystallize something for me, or at least that sort of the strangeness of the actions that people take in a war zone, the actions that make a certain kind of sense in a war zone and then how those same states of being, those same actions, how those feel when you come back to America. And that story is about that character's return, right when he gets back and, you know, sees his wife and comes home to his own dog who he loves very much.
GROSS: Yes, and this is going to be my one spoiler in this interview, so I apologize. But I really want to talk about this with you. When this soldier comes home, and his own dog is old and very sick and the dog's body has lot of tumors in it. And he and his girlfriend agree it's time to put the dog down. And she's expecting to take the dog to the vet and have the vet put him down. But the soldier says, no. This is on me.
KLAY: A Marine. The Marine says...
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. So the Marine says, no, this is on me. And the Marine takes the dog in his car, drives down a dirt road by a stream, takes his automatic weapon and shoots his dog quickly three times because that's the way the dog's going to feel the least pain because the bullets come quickly. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about that, like, why you wrote that ending and what you were thinking and what - what you think it says about this Marine's state of mind.
KLAY: Well, he's not the sort of guy to let somebody do something hard for him. His wife is very cautiously trying to push back and push him out of whatever place that he's in when he gets home. And she doesn't think it's a good idea, but she lets him do it. And, you know, for him it's this sort of strange act of love for the dog. And it's also related to some of the things that he did overseas. And so it's a kind of complicated moment for him.
GROSS: Well, I was thinking he might be thinking, like, how can he take the dog to the vet and have the vet put the dog down when he's shot dogs in Iraq? Do you see that at all as him just taking responsibility, or do you see it as atonement or a symptom of a kind moral injury from having shot dogs in Iraq?
KLAY: I think there's probably a little bit of all of those things that go into it, right? And the, you know - the last line is, I couldn't remember what I was going to do with the body, right?
GROSS: This is the body of the dog after he shoots it.
KLAY: The body of the dog.
GROSS: Yeah, he realizes he hasn't completely thought this through. What happens after you shoot your dog?
KLAY: Yeah, so it doesn't close the circle on any of those things.
GROSS: Phil Klay will be back in the second half of the show. He won the National Book Award for fiction last week for his collection of short stories "Redeployment." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Phil Klay. He won the National Book Award for Fiction last week for his collection of short stories, "Redeployment." It's written from the point of view of Marines in Iraq and veterans adjusting to life back home. Klay served in Iraq in 2007 and early 2008. "Redeployment" is his first book.
So there's another short excerpt from one of the stories in "Redeployment" that I'd like you to read. And this is from a story called "Prayer In The Furnace." And this story is written from the point of view of a chaplain in Iraq. Do you want to just set up the reading before I ask you to read it?
KLAY: Sure. So he's had a Marine come to him and give a sort of confession, and basically this Marine has intimated that his unit has perhaps - might've killed civilians, right? And he is having difficulty getting any traction in getting the command to look into this. It's a unit that's in an extremely violent section of Ramadi. This particular unit has very bad, very aggressive leadership. And he is struggling with figuring out what he's supposed to do, how he's supposed to minister to these men, what his responsibilities are as a priest as an officer in the military. And while all these things are going on, more people from the battalion keep dying. (Reading) Not long after Sepian's (ph) death, one of the Divine Office's morning prayers was Psalm 1:44 - blessed be the Lord, my help, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war. Kneeling against my rack in my spare little trailer, I faltered. I turned back to the previous prayer from Daniel - today there is no prince, no profit, no leader, no Holocaust, no sacrifice, no offering, no incense, no first fruits offered to you - no way to obtain your mercy. I stopped reading and tried to pray with my own words. I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew he would not. I asked him to bring abuses to light. I knew he would not. I asked him finally, for grace. When I turned back to the Divine Office, I read the words with empty disengagement.
GROSS: Why did you want to write from the point of view of a chaplain in Iraq?
KLAY: Well, I mean, in one level it just - it was fascinating to me, right? It was a way in to look at all these moral and spiritual issues that war raises. And so a chaplain seemed to be the perfect entry point for talking about the kind of impossible situation these Marines are in. He's at a staff level, so it allowed me to look a little bit at the structure of the command and how in a bad command - how that filters down to the lowest level and the things that happen at the lowest level. And also I've - you know, I've always been a fan of a lot of, you know, the great Catholic literature - Flannery O'Connor, Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh. And, you know - you know, I was educated by Jesuits, so that probably has something to do with it.
GROSS: You know, when - in the reading that you did in the story about the chaplain, he starts praying in his own words and then he says, I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew he would not. In another one of your stories, a soldier asked a chaplain, why should I pray? It won't protect me. And the chaplain said, that's not what prayer is for. It will not protect you. It's for your soul.
GROSS: And he says Jesus only promises we don't suffer alone. And...
GROSS: I was wondering if a chaplain had told you that or if that's what you were thinking yourself?
KLAY: That's what I was thinking myself. Sometimes people talk about it - it seems like it's a lot of the best, most courageous Marines are soldiers who end up being the ones who die. And, you know, it's not. There are so many things that are not in your control. And so what do you do? What is the purpose of religion in those circumstances where you know that, you know, you can pray as much as you'd like, but your turn could come, and that it won't, you know - won't protect you from physical harm? It's very much for him about - I mean, ultimately, you know, what is the chaplain? He thinks are the more important things. And how do you reach across within the context of a very violent place, a very terrible place within this sort of isolated, angry suffering that some of the people feel lost in? And how do you find a kind of crack to reach out in commune with another individual?
GROSS: This is a very personal question, but I was wondering if you had religious faith before or during or after serving in Iraq and if you prayed while you were there?
KLAY: I did. I did pray while I was there. I said - Jesuit-educated. So, yeah, I'm a Catholic.
GROSS: So just, you know, another question about prayer - did you feel any more certain of the presence or absence of God while you were, you know, facing some pretty awful things? And even though you were a public relations officer and weren't in combat, yourself, you saw terrible injuries. It was still an awfully dangerous place to be in Anbar Province whether you were officially in combat or not.
KLAY: When it comes to, you know, religion and the tradition of Catholic thought, it's something that I think very much helps you - helps you ask the right kinds of questions about these issues, right? There's a type of religious sentiment that is very certain of the answers and very certain about what should be proselytized. And there's another type of religious tradition, which is really much more about, you know, doubt and working your way towards more and more difficult questions, and I think that that's the tradition that appeals to me.
GROSS: You write once - that once you came home after war had become unpopular, and at that point, people at assumed that you had post-traumatic stress syndrome and that you are worthy of pity - they felt sorry for you. Did you face that a lot, and how did that make you feel?
KLAY: You know, I - it's not just me, but other people. At a certain point, I realized that it had happened a lot. You know, I had a guy tell me in a bar that all Iraq veterans were going to snap after 10 years, and since I've been back for three, I had seven left. You know, so I better make them good years. And it didn't affect me. I always kind of brushed it off. And earlier on in the war, particularly when the wars were more popular, I tended to get more of the kind of, oh, you must be a super badass kind of reaction. And it's strange, particularly, because it often doesn't seem that they're talking about actual post-traumatic stress. I have friends with post-traumatic stress - friends with post-traumatic stress who are, you know, highly successful, capable people. But it's a popular trope about the war, and it seems to be something that you can use as a placeholder. And it started to bother me because I think that pity is not really the right way to go about it. And, you know, I was talking to a veteran, who actually did have post-traumatic stress, and he said, you know, the people are only interested in the worst things that ever happened to me.
But it wasn't all bad, you know? They never want to ask about the people that I loved in my unit or, you know, what have you. So, for me, it was more about whether we're talking about veterans and thinking about them as having, probably, a symptom of whatever we want to project on them or, you know, whether we're thinking about the experience in a broader sense. The - Elizabeth Samet, who teaches at West Point, talks about how it's easier to pathologize veterans than examine our own relationship to violence, and I think that that's, you know - that's a good point worth thinking about.
GROSS: When you say our own, do you mean, like, those of us who are asking the questions at us?
KLAY: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, you know, this is - we feel comfortable about the wars that we as a nation have undertaken, and there are not a lot of veterans. And I think, you know, the individual experience of the veteran always kind of gets conflated with our feeling about the wars more broadly. And I think that's often insufficient.
GROSS: So I'd like to close this interview with another reading from your book. And it's actually like the last paragraph or two. And so I need you to set it up, but, I mean, it could probably stand on its own, but just kind of put it a little bit in context for us.
KLAY: So this character is an artillery man, and he's spent his time on a forward operating base. So very safe, but he has just for the first time - him and the eight other Marines who work on his gun, they've fired a round out at the first, you know, human targets they've ever fired at. And because it's a - it's a howitzer that they've fired, you know, the round goes off far, far away, strikes people that they never see, and they never see the aftermath of it. And he's thinking about, you know, did I kill someone? And what does that mean? And he's thinking about that, and thinking about all the, you know, the bodies of the dead that he doesn't see. And then he's walking through base, and he's recalling seeing a couple of Navy corpsmen carrying the body of a fallen Marine to be taken back home. And they'd all stood at attention because that's what you do when you see that. (Reading) Everyone's standing on the road as the body went past. It been so utterly silent, so still. There was no sound or movement except for the slow steps of the corpsmen and the steady progress of the corpse. It had been an image of death from another world, but now I know where that corpse was headed - to the old gunny at PRP. And if there was a wedding ring, the gunny would have slowly worked it off the stiff, dead fingers. He would've gathered all the personal effects and prepared the body for transport. Then it would have gone by air to TQ, and as it was unloaded off the bird, the Marines would have stood silent and still just as we had in Fallujah. And they would've put it on a C-130 to Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Kuwait. And they would have stood silent and still in Germany, and silent and still at Dover Air Force Base. Everywhere it went, Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen would have stood at attention as it traveled to the family of the fallen where the silence, the stillness would end.
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. And congratulations on the National Book Award win.
KLAY: Thank you.
GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.
KLAY: Thank you.
GROSS: Phil Klay won the National Book Award for Fiction last week for his collection of short stories "Redeployment." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "The Imitation Game" starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing who broke the Germans' Enigma code during World War II. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.