In 'Redeployment,' Former Marine Explores The Challenges Of Coming Home
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our guest Phil Klay won a National Book Critics Circle Award this month for his collection of short stories called "Redeployment" about Marines in the Iraq War and their difficulties adjusting to life back home. Last fall, it won the National Book Award for Fiction. These new honors add to the praise the book already has received.
In The New Yorker, George Packer described "Redeployment" as, quote, "the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America's recent war. Klay's fiction peels back every petty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought," unquote. 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. He spoke to Terry Gross last November after receiving the National Book Award.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
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'd 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 wanted me to keep going. You'd 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 distance 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 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. (Laughter) 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 a 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.
GROSS: You describe 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. I...
GROSS: ...In Anbar Province, which, I mean, that - Anbar Province is now - a lot of it's been taken over by ISIS.
KLAY: Yeah, which is an absolutely horrific tragedy. It's - it was a very strange and very interesting job. I got to - 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. I 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 is where I was based, which is a base just south of Habbaniyah, 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? It - 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? (Laughter) Because ultimately, the American people are supposed to be holding our elected leaders accountable for the decisions that they're making up 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; there are 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 bringing supplies or doing whatever it is they can do and you sort of settle into 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 try 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. For about half a year, I student-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: What, if you killed somebody?
KLAY: Yeah (laughter) with a lot less excuse than a sixth-grader. And, you know, I've talked to veterans who say that's - 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'd actually seen a lot of combat put it, he said it's not so much the question that offends me. It's that the people asking it don't seem to respect the moral seriousness of the question. And so for me, writing war stories - writing war stories where there's a lot of shocking things happen and 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 - what's the outcome? 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?
BIANCULLI: Phil Klay, speaking to Terry Gross last November. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with author Phil Klay. His collection of short stories about Marines in the Iraq war, called "Redeployment," just won a National Book Critics Circle award.
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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 do 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, you always feel - it's not just while I was there - right? - because, I mean, there's always somebody's who's risking more, who's 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 it to do the harder thing. And you feel respect for those who did. I knew a Marine who had had a friend of his die 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 and 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 and I think that I could - I can help them. And, you know, he went to Afghanistan and he died midway through his employment 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?
GROSS: 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 - has 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. Not long after Seppian's (ph) death, one of the divine office's morning prayers was Psalm 144.
(Reading) 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 prophet, 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 - 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'm - 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, 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 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 asks a chaplain, why should I pray? It won't protect me. And the chaplain says, 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 or soldiers who end up being the ones who die. And, you know, it's not - there's so many things that are not in your control. And so what do you do? What is the purpose of religion in - in those circumstances where you know that, you know, you can pray as much as you like, but, you know, it won't protect you from physical harm? It's very much, for him, about - I mean, ultimately, you know, what, as a 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 the 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 and 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: (Laughter)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 then there's another type of religious tradition which is really much more about, you know, doubt (laughter) and working your way towards more and more difficult questions. And I think that's the tradition that appeals to me.
BIANCULLI: Phil Klay speaking to Terry Gross last November. His collection of short stories about Marines in the Iraq War, called "Redeployment," just won a National Book Critics Circle award. Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reviews "Seymour: An Introduction," a new documentary directed by actor Ethan Hawke. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.