Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: Redeployment by Phil Klay

Redeployment by Phil Klay (Twitter) (Penguin Books, Paperback, 9780143126829, 304pp.)

Author Phil Klay is scheduled to come to my city, Augusta, GA, on April 17, 2015. I intended to go and confront him, not because I knew anything about him or his book, but mostly because of my anger over the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the worldwide assassination program by drone and other global war on terror calamities. 'Murica's embrace of the movie American Sniper also increased my bitterness, which I expressed on Twitter. This one best sums up what I thought I'd feel about Phil Klay and his book:

And yes, I've neither read American Sniper nor seen the movie.

What I'm doing for this blog entry is dictating a note to myself on my Android phone after each story in the collection. Sometimes the note deals with the story, and sometimes the note is just a thought which the story inspired occasioned. I read the stories over a number of days. Sometimes it's a rant.

A major theme is the contempt the veterans hold for nearly everybody at home, but particularly socio-economically privileged war critics. Two interactions, however, seem to go better than most.

In the first, a stranger civilian listens to the drunk narrator narrate a lengthy story about his time in Iraq. When the stranger expresses respect and sympathy, the narrator berates him. The stranger then became silent. (pp. 69-71) (Lest you consider this to be a negative interaction, you need to read the whole book.)

The second is the veteran's interaction with Zara in "Psychological Operations." Zara entered with preconceived ideas. She listened, asking questions, challenging assertions and accepting the veteran's view of his experiences. Most importantly, she indicated the possibility of another encounter.

As you can already see, I see a lot of myself in Zara. I hope that I can do as well as she did listening to Phil Klay and any other veteran I meet.

[Updated 2015-04-14] An entirely unrelated aspect of "Psychological Operations" intrigues me. Waguih relates to Zara that, in Fallujah, the psychological operations personnel would broadcast vulgar insults which would cause the less experienced insurgents to attack and be killed. The Marines learned about a particular insurgent and began broadcasting that they had captured female members of his family and were raping them. This insurgent eventually led his group to attack the Marines, and the Marines killed them all. I have no idea how true any of this is. But, if the US Marines did such actions, didn't anybody consider that thousands of people would have heard them broadcasting their boasts about kidnapping and raping? How many more insurgents did this create? [End Update]

[Updated 2015-04-16] I wonder what Phil Klay would think of Chris Hedges's distinction between friendship and comradeship among soldiers? [End Update]

Here are my impressions of each story. A lot of summary, not much deep analysis. There's also some more general comments at the end.


Narrator describes trip from Iraq to home in North Carolina. Narrator describes going to the mall and not being able to separate that he is not in a hostile environment anymore and his wife has to drive on the way back because he is driving as if he is in a combat zone. His training takes over when he has to euthanize his dog. The story had begun with Operation Snoopy. Operation Snoopy was what the soldiers called their shooting of dogs in Iraq.
The narrator makes me think of high functioning substance abusers. Or high functioning illiterate. These individuals overcome their disabilities by a rigorous methodology. Likewise the veterans returning from the horrors of war have to use a rigorous methodology to function in society postwar.


PFC Dyer is bothered by the death of the al-Qaida insurgent who was torturing the two Iraqis. He doesn't have it together enough to eat the cherry cobbler. The narrator helps him by placing the spoon in his hand. Others in the units are haunted by the state of the two Iraqi torture victims.

The profanity and vulgar bravado shield the soldier from vulnerability that war has created in him. War has reduced the defenses of sanity and exposed the soldier's soul to ruin.

After Action Report

Why are the Marines on convoy all the time?

After killing a 16 year old insurgent in a firefights, the narrator and the soldier who killed him discuss what the effect of that psychologically is on the killer. The narrator shoots .50 caliber machine guns in the direction of two suspected insurgents but no kill is confirmed. This does not seem to affect him. The soldier who killed the 16 year old insurgent had more concern over the fact that the dead boy's family witnessed the killing.


The story describes the work of Marines who are charged with collecting the remains, primarily of US soldiers but sometimes Iraqis, including insurgents. The soldiers recognize their work is very grim, and they don't pretend to think that it's other than that. The narrator returns to his hometown, a small town that is left unidentified. 

He notes with disdain that people thank him for what he did even though they don't know what he did. His relationship with his high school girlfriend ended when he deployed. One incident which he recounts is that she sent to him during basic training nude pictures of herself. The squad leader inspect all packages the recruits receive. When people receive naked pictures of their spouses or girlfriends, the squad leader would typically distribute these pictures among all people of the unit.

The people of the world don't care about your crappy little town which didn't provide you with enough education or job opportunities. The people of the world see you as a mercenary and part of a imperialist force coming to kill them. People of the world don't care that when you return home you can't have relationships with other people in your society who persevered through the society's problems and didn't use killing other people as an escape valve.

One also has to question the whole concept of the army as a value building institution. Certainly the aspects of training that the author describes are meant to dehumanize the person, to basically undo the effort that we in society have done to make a person functioning piece of our society.


This narrator is nominally about an officer who distributes Commander's Emergency Response Program money to Iraqis whose convoy, en route to such a distribution, is attacked, resulting in two killed and three wounded. The narrator decides to reenlist and ship out in Afghanistan's Operation Enduring Freedom.

The text is filled with acronyms. These acronyms are just another barrier in communication between veterans and civilians.

The full text is available online.

Money as a Weapons System

This story satirizes the so-called Iraq reconstruction efforts. Equal parts blame to both Iraqis and civilian USA authorities. It is set in 2008 near Tikrit.

The only successful project is managed by two Iraqi women, Najdah, a social worker, and her sister, a lawyer, who run a health clinic for women, which is what the Iraqi women in the area actually wanted.
In Iraq, it's hard for women to see a doctor. They need a man's permission, and even then a lot of hospitals and small clinics won't serve them. You'll see signs reading, "Services for Men Only," sort of like the old "Irish Need Not Apply" signs that my great-great-grandfather had to deal with. Health services were the hook to draw people in, but key to the broader functioning of the clinic were Najdah, a dogged social worker, and her sister, the on-staff lawyer. Every women who came in was interviewed first, ostensibly for the clinic to find out what health services they needed but actually to allow us to find out what broader services we could provide. The problems of women in our are went far beyond untreated urinatry tract infections, though those were often quite severe --- women's problems were usually not sufficient pretext for a man to allow his wife or daughter or sister to go see the doctor ... One girl, a fourteen-year-old victim of gang rape, came in because her family planned to sell her to a local brothel. This wasn't uncommon for girls whose rapes destroyed their marriage prospects. It was actually a kinder option than the honor killings that still sometimes happened. (pp 83-4)
I've asked several Iraqi activists if they recognized the discrimination against women described in this passage. One has responded that he did not. I'm hoping the Phil Klay would reveal the basis for this passage.

The narrator is not virtuous either. He joined the "reconstruction" effort to pad his resume for the United States Department of State.

In Vietnam They Had Whores

Before departing for Iraq, a soldier's father talks to him about whores in Vietnam while getting drunk. Upon returning to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the soldier visits a whorehouse and has a depressing experience.

Prayer in the Furnace

This story is perhaps one of the most dramatic because it has a lot of carnage. Its protagonist/narrator is a chaplain in regiment with dysfunctional leadership in a violent period of the occupation of Ramadi. The commanding officer has a competition among the units for frequency of firefights. This leads one unit to seek such firefights with risky behavior, and one of its marines is killed. A marine come to the chaplain hinting at the problems in the unit but did not want to reveal them completely for fear of becoming a whistleblower and for his own uncertainty. The chaplain tries to present these concerns in the chain of command but the chain of command is unresponsive, telling the chaplain that this is in fact rather typical of the war in Iraq.

The chaplain does some soul searching which includes reading St. Thomas and writing to a teacher in the United States. The teacher write writes back telling the chaplain to continue to advocate for the values of Christianity, meaning that despite the bitterness the soldiers endure their situation is not unique and they must, if they believe as Christians, follow the path of Christian love.

This leads him to deliver a sermon in which he condemned the Marines' self pity and told them that many other people were suffering including some of the enemy and that all should be treated with love.

When the unit return to the United States, the chaplain delivered a platitude-filled eulogy to its dead. Over the next several years, several of the veterans of the unit were killed or injured in suicides or accidents or committed crimes and were imprisoned. One of the veterans of the unit participated in the Winter Soldier event organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The chaplain runs into another veteran who criticizes this participants in the peace group. Later the chaplain runs into the original erstwhile whistleblower. He had received a suicide note via email from the commanding officer. After reading the suicide note, the chaplain asks soldier if he wanted to confess. He realizes he wanted the soldier to confess for himself as much as for the soldier.

Psychological Operations

In this story a veteran who worked in psychological operations in Fallujah interacts with a student at Amherst College. The veteran is a Christian of Egyptian descent named Waguih. Zara, the student, is an African American woman from Baltimore. Her beauty and excitement attracted Waguih to her when they took a class. Later, after Zara had converted to Islam she, comes to question him about the time he spent in Iraq.

That first conversation ended when he let his guard down and slipped into Army talk, saying that his religion encouraged him to kill Muslims.

After an encounter with the school dean in which Waguih feigns war trauma & the dean and Zara accept that excuse for his statement & decline to charge Waguih with a violation of the college's code of conduct, Waguih feels guilty at his deception & asks Zara to come to his house to hear a story which would answer her question.

In their conversation, Waguih mixes psychological operations with personal sharing. He is happy when the pre-conversion Zara personality reappears, interrogating & clarifying.

Zara unsettles Waguih by not reacting the way he had intended. Instead, she leaves, positive about the conversation and leaving the door open for more dialogue.

War Stories

The narrator, a veteran, and his severely wounded comrade agree to meet with a civilian friend of a veteran who is writing a play about IEDs in association with Iraq Veterans Against the War. The narrator is extremely hostile in his thoughts toward the civilian, perhaps because he thinks he doesn't have a hope of having sex with her. The narrator never confronts her openly, but expresses to her friend his belief that his wounded friend is being exploited.

Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound

The narrator is an adjutant going to law school or just graduating from law school. his experience in the Arak was non combat he wrote documents to facilitate matters for people in his battalion. His most exciting work was writing the letter of recommendation for a Medal of Honor for an officer killed in battle. Two soldiers involved in the incident are mentioned in the story. One reenlists and is killed in Afghanistan. The other visits him in New York City during leave from a non-combat mission in Afghanistan.

Ten Clicks South

The narrator is an artilleryman who finds the office at his base which processes the bodies of dead USA soldiers. He considers a scene he had witnessed earlier of corpses removed from the clinic. Marines stood in silence, as they would in the corpses' waypoints until they arrived at their surviving relatives' homes, where the silence would end.

Even with corpses, civilians and soldiers communicated differently.

I also recommend people read Falcons on the Floor by Justin Sirois.

I've recommended David Swanson's War is a Lie. In it, he half-facetiously suggests that "war crime" is an oxymoron redundant, since war itself is the crime. So whether you obeyed the amazingly bloodlust-justifying rules of engagement, as the military ruled in the case of the Collateral Murder massacre, or, due to the frequency of similar incidents, you decided that the killing of 24 civilians in their homes by USA marines in Haditha didn't warrant investigation, or, you were the most conscientious soldier occupying Iraq and never fired a shot or beat a prisoner or entered a home, you were participating in the crime.

But then I read this bloodlust-article praising Federal government destruction of civilian property in rebel-held areas during the US civil war, and because I disliked the rebels, I was much more sympathetic. Does that contradict my so-called principled opposition to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?
Other resources:
Updated 2015-04-18: I attended the event yesterday. Phil Klay read excerpts, and the audience asked questions focusing on the USA soldiers' experiences and Phil Klay's journey as a writer. I did not ask a question, mainly because I had decided, the more I thought about this book, that the antidote to USA literature cum propaganda is promotion of Iraqi authors. Marcia Lynx Qualey's blog is the best resource I know for Arabic literature in translation. She's even written on the absence of Iraqi voices in USA war literature. Here's all her entries tagged "Iraq." And maybe one of you readers will write the novel that somehow conveys the crime of the Iraq war to the USA public.
Updated 2015-Jul-5: I read this essay in 2015, but a post reminded me of it today.