Rating: 4 Stars
Having some time ago finished The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which was an absolutely brilliant set of short stories about the Vietnam War, I began to wonder if there was an equivalent for the Iraq War. Redeployment appeared to be the closest candidate, so I gave it a shot. The bad news is that I didn’t find it as strong as The Things They Carried. The good news is that it was still pretty damn good.
Unlike O’Brien’s collection, which really seemed to be tinged with a sense of the nearly autobiographical, Klay’s stories are clearly fiction. Each of the dozen or so stories are told from a different point of view. You view the war as a private on patrol in an MRAP. You view it as a soldier that collected the remains of dead soldiers. You view it as a chaplain. You view it as a soldier in an artillery crew. You view it as a psych ops officer. You view it as a civilian in Iraq to help the reconstruction. There are a couple of stories of soldiers coming home and trying to adjust. Each of these stories open a different viewport into the war.
O’Brien’s collections was that rarity where every story was strong. Here, the stories are more of a mixed bag.
Money as a Weapons System is the story of a civilian sent in to help re-build Iraq. Here you get the Catch-22 nature of the Iraq War. He wants to do the right thing, but the government, the army, and the Iraqis themselves pretty much prevent that from happening. He wants to rebuild their water supply but just ends up having to pretend to have formed an Iraqi baseball team to please some congressman’s benefactor. This is the dark humor of unwieldy bureaucracies colliding in a place where solutions are impossible.
Frago is a raid of a suspected Al Qaeda house that goes wrong. As the house is getting cleared, a favorite Corporal is severely wounded. Also, as they go deeper into the house, they come upon a torture scene of two men bound to chairs, horrible beaten and crippled. The fresh Lieutenant has trouble coping. Members of the injured Corporal’s team are barely functional. In this story, the narrator is the Sargent. He has to be alert to everything and be responsive to the needs of the team. He has to know when to tell the dirty joke to lighten the mood and when to gently help a distraught private eat his ice cream. This is a deeply affecting story of the horrors that a team on patrol regularly must face during their deployment.
Sometimes I forget how young soldiers really are. These are men and women that face extreme hardship and need strong emotional resilience, but so many of them are only nineteen or twenty years old. In the story After Action Report, one of the soldiers who has just killed his first man (actually a boy), tries to escape his pain through endless hours of playing Pokemon. It just seems so unfair to them to ask to sacrifice so much. There’s simply no way that you can come back from some of those experiences unscarred, be it emotionally or physically
Especially in the early stories, there is a heavy reliance upon acronyms and jargon. It’s used to highlight the foreignness of the Iraq War. They are Americans fighting this war, but they are Americans that nearly have a language of their own. While I understood that, it did make for rough reading.
The stories also seemed to have a bit of an emotional distance. Perhaps Klay is still working on his craft and trying to draw so many characters was just a little too much for him. In too many of the stories, instead of feeling drawn to the character, I felt as if the character was just a straw man built to bring out another dimension of the Iraq War.
I found this to be an effective, affective collection, but it does not seem that this will be the definitive final literary word on the Iraq War.