Why? I suppose to stop and think about what we are asking men and women to endure and how we are asking them to change who they are in order to do what they need to do over there in a distant place we’d really rather not think about.
For me, the attitude that’s caught in the title story so clearly captures what must be a grueling transition from battle zone to, say, trying on clothes at American Eagle Outfitters.
“You don’t see or hear like you used to,” says the narrator of “Redeployment” once he’s back. And shopping. “Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block. It’s hard to even remember exactly what that felt like.”
I don’t know what it’s like to come back from war, but I’ve read plenty of fiction along those lines and some non-fiction, too (including Helen Thorpe’s brilliant Soldier Girls.) I thought the movie version of “Unbroken” (based on Lauren Hillenbrand’s book of the same name) ducked the most stunning chapters of all, when after all the trials he had endured Louis Zamperini faced the biggest hurdle of all: re-adjusting to life in the United States. He barely survived. Again.
In one brief short story, “Redeployment” nails that in-between mental state. It’s one of the most powerful short stories I’ve ever read. (In order to shoot something, by the way, it’s easier if you focus on the sights and not the targets. Good luck holding it in at the end.)
And that’s just for starters.
All 12 stories in this collection by Phil Klay focus on soldiers or veterans of the Iraq war and they are written in an unassuming, non-flashy, desert-dry style. In the end, you’re left with a kaleidoscope of perspectives with an underlying flavor: this makes no sense. (The collection won the National Book Award for good reason.)
“Prayer in the Furnace” grabbed me almost as powerfully as the title piece. It’s narrated by a Catholic priest and Marine Corps chaplain who is looking for answers himself and who believes some soldiers are not being as careful as they should about distinguishing between civilian and military targets.
A major tells him it’s a “morally bruising battlefield.” The higher-ups don’t listen. Essentially, “this is war.” The priest tries to confront the issues head-on in sermons but the soldiers don’t want to hear it; they aren’t impressed. When the company returns, 16 soldiers have lost their lives. The ones who live kiss their wives or girlfriends on arrival and hold their children. “I wondered what they would tell them. How much would be told and how much could never be told,” the narrator thinks.
In planning the memorial service for all sixteen soldiers, the priest finds himself struggling to write “something satisfactory” but can’t find the words. “I wrote an inoffensive little nothing, full of platitudes. The perfect speech for the occasion, actually. The ceremony wasn’t about me. Better to serve my function and pass unnoticed.”
“Prayer in the Furnace” is devastating and, like the title stories and all the others in this collection, sharply contrasts the world of war with the world of non-war, where platitudes are enough. Over there, brutality can’t go unexplained or unexplored. Phil Klay’s stories make a convincing case that we need to sit up and pay attention to what we are asking people to do and what we are asking them to endure.