By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Phil Klay
Narration by: Craig Klein
“Redeployment” is a work of fiction. It is written by Phil Klay, a Marine officer who served in Iraq in 2007/2008. (Klay is the winner of the 2014 National Book Award for fiction for stories written in this book.) “Redeployment” is about military’ enlistment, deployment, redeployment, and combat.
Joining the military, particularly when one is in their teens or early twenties, is often an escape. Enlistment is often a way to escape (or transition) from parental control, poverty, or life’s rudderlessness. For a few, military enlistment is an adventure, a career, an opportunity to get in shape, a chance to see the world. For others, joining may be a family tradition, a romantic notion of defending one’s country, a desire to impress parents, guardians, or friends.
One of Klay’s characters joins because of financial help offered by the service to pay for an education; another character joins because of family tradition, another because it impresses his father. Klay’s stories offer insight by explaining most reasons are too simple, or clearly misunderstood by new recruits. There is an unpaid price for a military recruit who goes into combat. The price is unseen and unknown until after it is experienced. Those who first join have no idea what is in store for them when placed in a circumstance of killing or being killed.
Klay’s stories show that training for combat is not being in combat. Military training creates a sense of team entitlement; i.e. of being tougher, more unified, more capable and important than civilians. Training is meant to break-down individualism. Military training masks the humanity of anyone that is not part of the team.
Orders are orders. Hierarchy of command is inviolable. If a commander orders flattening of a town, soldiers are expected to act without thinking and remember without conscience. Soldiers are able to act by dehumanizing those outside of their team. In Vietnam humans become gooks. In Iraq humans become towel heads. These are tricks of propaganda that allow short-term actions but often fail to leave soldiers’ consciences. Command says we do not shoot children but children are killed. Long range artillery and drones mask the consequence of killing.
Klay tells the story of a soldier who wants to know how many of an enemy are killed in a bombardment. The soldier asks if there was an investigation. The commander says no and sees no reason. The soldier visits a behind-the-lines command post that cares for the dead. He asks if a team will be sent to the site that has been bombarded. The NCO asks if Americans were killed. The soldier says no. The NCO answers the question–“No, there is no investigation because we only concern ourselves with our own”.
Klay tells the story of the American financier that donates baseball equipment for Marines to teach Iraqi children how to play baseball. The request goes up and down military channels despite the ludicrous misapprehension of what is really happening in Iraq. A Marine officer is ordered to comply with the request to mollify the uniformed or ignorant financier’s request.
Another story is written about a civilian contractor hired to build a water power station in an Iraqi community. The Marine assigned to oversee the utility installation is told by a local Iraqi that the pumping station being built will create too much pressure and blow-up the plumbing in town. The Marine explains the problem to the civilian contractor but it does not stop the project. It is an assignment that is being paid by the American government whether it works or not. All the contractor is concerned about is completing the job and being paid. Klay offers more stories; i.e. equally appalling–examples of wasted dollars and efforts to rebuild Iraq.
Klay writes of the misunderstandings that compound America’s mistakes in Iraq. There is the story of the Egyptian American recruit that speaks Egyptian Arabic but does not know Iraqi Arabic and must learn the difference on his own because the military believes there is no difference.
The character Klay creates to oversee the water plant construction and the Iraqi baseball assignment is also responsible for producing Iraqi jobs. This Marine’s civilian subcontractors are often ill-equipped to do what needs to be done. One of the opportunities is farming but the civilian subcontractor assigned to help knows nothing about farming.
Another story is of an Iraqi who starts a women’s clinic to help women in Iraq who need medical assistance. However, because her clinic is not creating enough jobs, there is little financial assistance to expand the service. Klay implies Iraq is a “Bizarro World” where no one seems to communicate understandably, and most act without accomplishment.
Klay implies the experience of becoming a Marine saturates the being of some soldiers. Their experience in combat and the comradeship of belonging compel re-enlistment and/or redeployment. Being a civilian becomes too unstructured. In some cases, Klay suggests civilian life is threatening to a soldier with experience of combat. Some redeployed soldiers become command officers that live in a world of only “us and them” with all of “them” as expendable sub-human beings.
In a final story, Klay writes of a Marine veteran horribly disfigured by an IED. A Marine that joined and served in the same place and at the same time as the disfigured veteran is a close friend. The uninjured friend stays in touch with his fellow ex-Marine. They recall old times. They are close friends but the IED has so profoundly changed their relationship that the friendship has devolved into a friendship of un-equals. Intimate civilian relationships, taken for granted by both before disfigurement, are now probabilistically experienced by only one of the friends. Klay’s stories show that combat is a psychological; often physical life changing experience.
Klay is a veteran. He seems to be saying it is important to understand what it means to become a soldier before signing up. “Redeployment” is neither right or wrong but it can be right and wrong. The best civilians and soldiers can do is “try to do right”.