If you ask any number of veterans what their experience was during combat, you’ll get a variety of answers. You might even get no response at all. War, after all, means different things to different people. Occasionally, its meaning also surprises, such as when British World War I-era poet, author, and veteran Ford Madox Ford wrote that “boredom is the true face of war.”
Iraq veteran and former Marine Phil Klay quoted Ford when he spoke at the One Community/One Book event at the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio. Klay’s collection of short stories, “Redeployment,” has been nominated for the National Book Award. It’s been compared to Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam war classic, “The Things They Carried,” among others. War correspondent Dexter Filkins, writing for the New York Times, called it “hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”
“You don’t just go to war, experience whatever it is you experience, and then you come back,” Klay said. “You go to war with all the stories of war you’ve got rattling around in your head. You try to interpret what’s happening to you at the time by using the stories you have that are available to you. And then you come back to all the stories about war that our culture is telling itself. And those matter.
“Storytelling is one of the most vital responsibilities we have,” he added. “And I use that word ‘responsibility’ very deliberately.”
Fiction provides Klay with the perfect medium for telling the communal story of war. It’s a way to represent a number of viewpoints, not just your own.
“War is too strange to process well – and whether you like it or not, we’re all involved. These are your wars,” he said. “No work of literature can give you all the answers … but it can prepare you to start asking better questions.”
Klay’s path to storytelling began at Dartmouth College, where he started writing fiction before he joined the Marines in 2003. He was commissioned as an officer in 2005, and went to Iraq two years later, doing a tour in civil affairs in the Anbar province in 2007. When he came back to Brooklyn in 2008, he decompressed for about a month, and then started an MFA program at Hunter College in New York. In some ways this is not surprising for a guy who staved off boredom in the Marines by memorizing poems off laminated index cards he carried around with him, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” (No small feat.)
Current figures indicate that 1.7 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that number represents less than one percent of all Americans. Keeping the lines of communication open between those who served and those who didn’t is crucial, says Klay and others. He reads a short story from his book about an argument among Marines in a chow hall after a unit’s first direct engagement in Iraq. While they’re eating, the guys dispute how many insurgents they might have killed that day, and their estimates vary wildly, but the sense is that however many they killed – since they were operating crew-served weapons –they all had a hand in it. Many hands, even figuratively, on the same weapon can be a metaphor for communal participation. Klay joins writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger (“Restrepo,” “Korengal”) and playwright Jonathan Wei (“The Telling Project”) when they point to the same cathartic nature of experiencing combat or its aftermath as a tribe.
In “Redeployment,” Klay tells a story about a formerly gung-ho Marine he met at an event, who has been watching Iraq unravel. The Marine used to define himself first and foremost as a man who was proud of his service: “Marine sergeant; combat vet; led Marines in Iraq.” Now it’s become less clear-cut. Klay describes the man reflecting that, “I’m starting to wonder what I was a part of, and whether I can still be proud of it. Was I part of an evil thing? Because if I was, then I don’t know who I am anymore; or what my identity is.”
“When it comes to war, there are the stories we should be telling ourselves, and the stories we like to tell ourselves and the difference is often measured in human lives. The body count passed 100,000 a long time ago, after all, most of them Iraqi civilians,” Klay said. “Here’s a story for you: ‘We’ll be greeted as liberators, and rapidly transition over to the Iraqis.’ Here’s another story: ‘Iraq was Bush’s fault, and everything will be better once we rapidly exit and forget about the whole mess.’
“What those two stories have in common is they promise easy answers,” he continues. “When we as a nation embark in industrial-scale killing – which is what war is – there are no easy answers, only more and more questions. I think we need better stories. We need to have smart, critical conversations. We need stories of war, and we desperately need stories of homecoming. Because the stories we tell ourselves about war decide what we as a society will accept from our leaders, and what we push them to do. They also decide how we think about and how we treat the young veterans in our communities who are trying to make sense of what they’ve been through.”
One audience member, an Army medic in Vietnam, said he was so moved by reading “Redeployment” that he drove all the way from Dallas to see Klay in person.
“The book is thoughtful pieces one after another: all of them different, all of them so important, all of them so well-crafted,” said Peter Anderson, 69.
Anderson isn’t a writer or a literary critic; but he is a veteran, familiar with the struggles of reintegration.
“I’m still finding my way back,” Adnerson said, hoping that today’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans “in their twenties and thirties are better prepared than we were for their fifties and sixties.”
Americans might feel “tremendous gratitude for the sacrifices made by service members and veterans, but it’s difficult for those who have never seen combat to truly understand the experience of our nation’s military,” said Alan L. Peterson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Peterson is the director of the San Antonio-based STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary Research Consortium, which studies combat-based post-traumatic stress disorder. STRONG STAR, along with the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, and the Health Science Center Libraries, worked in partnership to bring Klay to San Antonio for the event, helped in part by a grant from a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The winner of the National Book Award for fiction will be announced on Nov. 19.