By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Phil Klay
Narration by: Craig Klein
“Redeployment” is a work of fiction. It is written by Phil Klay, a Marine officer who served in Iraq in 2007/2008. (Klay is awarded the 2014 National Book Award for fiction.) “Redeployment” is about joining, deployment, and redeployment in the military. It is also about the ambiguity of combat, and the consequence of killing.
Joining the military, particularly when one is in their teens or early twenties, is often to escape. It is to escape adolescence, poverty, or a rudderless life. For a few, joining is an adventure, a career, an opportunity to get in shape or see the world. For others, joining may be a family tradition, a romantic notion of defending one’s country, or a desire to impress parents, guardians, or friends.
One of Klay’s characters joins because of financial help offered by the service to pay for an education; another character joins because of family tradition, another because it impresses his father. Klay’s stories offer insight by explaining most reasons for joining the military are not cheap and often too simple. There is an unpaid price by a military recruit who goes into combat. The price is high, unseen, and unknown until after it is experienced. Those who first join have no idea what is in store for them when they are placed in a circumstance of killing or being killed.
Klay’s stories show that training for combat is not being in combat. Military training creates a sense of team entitlement; i.e. of being tougher, more unified, more capable and important than others. Training is meant to break-down individualism. Military training masks the humanity of anyone that is not part of the team.
Orders are orders. Hierarchy of command is inviolable. If a commander orders flattening of a town, soldiers are expected to act without thinking and to remember without conscience. Soldiers are able to act by dehumanizing those outside of their team. In Vietnam humans become gooks. In Iraq humans become towel heads. These are tricks of propaganda that allow short-term actions but often fail to leave soldiers’ consciences. Command says we do not shoot children but children are killed. Long range artillery and drones mask the consequence of killing.
Klay tells the story of the soldier who wants to know how many are killed in a bombardment. The soldier asks his commander if they are going to investigate. The commander sees no reason to investigate. The coordinates are precise, the order is given, the town has been bombarded. The questioning soldier visits a behind-the-lines command post that cares for the dead to ask if a team will be sent to the site that has been bombarded. The NCO asks if Americans were killed. The soldier says no. The NCO answers “no, we only concern ourselves with our own”.
Klay tells the story of the American financier that donates baseball equipment to have Marines teach Iraqi children how to play baseball. The request goes up and down military channels despite the ludicrous misapprehension of what is really happening in Iraq. A Marine officer is ordered to comply with the request to mollify the uniformed or ignorant financier’s request. Another story is written about a civilian contractor hired to build a water power station for an Iraqi community. The Marine assigned to oversee the utility installation is told by a local Iraqi that the pumping station being built will create too much pressure and blow-up the plumbing in the town. The Marine explains the problem to the civilian contractor but it does not stop the project. It is an assignment that is being paid for by the federal government whether it works or not. All the contractor is concerned about is completing the job and being paid. Blown up plumbing in town is someone else’s problem. Klay offers more stories; i.e. equally appalling examples of wasted dollars and efforts-to rebuild Iraq.
Klay writes of misunderstandings that compound America’s mistakes in Iraq. There is the story of the Egyptian American recruit that speaks Egyptian Arabic but does not know Iraqi Arabic and must learn the difference on his own because the military believes there is no difference. The character Klay creates to oversee the water plant construction and the Iraqi baseball assignment is also responsible for producing Iraqi jobs. This Marine’s civilian subcontractors are often ill-equipped to do what needs to be done. One of the opportunities is farming but the civilian subcontractor assigned to help knows nothing about farming. Another story is of an Iraqi who starts a women’s clinic to help women in Iraq who need medical assistance. However, because her clinic is not creating enough jobs, there is little financial assistance to expand the service. The patient numbers keep climbing but there are fewer funds being provided. Klay implies Iraq is a “Bizarro World” where no one seems to communicate understandably, and most act without accomplishment.
Klay implies the experience of becoming a Marine saturates the being of some soldiers. Their experience in combat and comradeship of belonging compel re-enlistment and/or redeployment. Being a civilian becomes too unstructured for some trained soldiers. Klay suggests civilian life is sometimes threatening to a soldier with experience of combat. Some redeployed soldiers become command officers that live in a world of only “us and them” with all of them as expendable sub-human beings. (One thinks of Vietnam massacre at Mai Lai.)
In a final story, Klay writes of a Marine veteran horribly disfigured by an IED. A Marine that joined and served in the same place and time as the disfigured veteran is a close friend. The uninjured friend stays in touch with his fellow ex-Marine. They recall old times. They are close friends but the IED has so profoundly changed their relationship that the friendship has devolved into a friendship of un-equals. Intimate civilian relationships, taken for granted by both before disfigurement, are now probabilistically experienced by only one of the friends. Klay’s stories show that combat is a psychological, and sometimes physical, life changing experience.
Klay is a veteran. He seems to be saying that it is important to understand what it means to become a soldier before signing up. “Redeployment” is neither right nor wrong but it can be right and wrong. A listener concludes the best civilians and soldiers can do in a war zone is communicate clearly, choose projects that are right for the circumstance, get it done, educate and train the indigenous, and leave what is done in the hands of the native population.