A Soldier's Stories: Iraq Tour Yields Fictional Homecomings
Author Phil Klay on the inner lives of vets and the incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld.
"There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of a war they can't quite see."
That's the beginning of "Bodies," the most darkly humorous short story in Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment. Klay served as a public affairs officer in the Marines during the 2007 Iraq surge, before returning to school to get his MFA at Hunter College in New York City. Among other outlets, his work has appeared in the literary magazine Granta, the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Redeployment goes on sale this week.
"Bodies" follows a young Marine who returns home after a serving in Iraq as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist, and then resorts to lies and embellishment in tackling what might be the great challenge of homecoming: how to talk to civilians about what you've been through.
Mortuary Affairs is a particularly grim assignment, which involves finding and handling soldiers' remains. When he tells his "funny" version, Klay's narrator describes an "arrogant bear" of a lieutenant colonel swaggering over to help him with a body bag: "'He was strong, I'll give him that,' I'd say. 'But the bag rips on the edge of the truck's back gate, and the skin of the hajji tears with it, a big jagged tear through the stomach. Rotting blood and fluid and organs slide out like groceries through the bottom of a wet paper bag. Human soup hits him right in the face, running down his mustache.'
"Even if it had happened, more or less, it was still total bullshit. After our deployment there wasn't anybody, not even Corporal G, who talked about the remains that way."
The difficulty Klay's characters face while trying to express their Iraq experiences sits like a lump in the reader's throat throughout the collection. But the variety of those experiences is wide, and Klay takes us to disparate corners of the armed services: from Psychological Operations to the Chaplain Corps, from the bloodthirsty and reckless to the tragicomic and absurd. I tracked Klay down recently to ask about his book and about his own experiences over there.
Mother Jones: How has the literary world received you, a military man?
Phil Klay: It's a different culture. I went straight from the Marine Corps to the MFA. The way that you would express things among Marines is somewhat different than the way you're supposed to express things in a creative-writing workshop. So there was certainly an adjustment period.
MJ: What led you to join the Corps?
PK: A ton of reasons. I was in college. I was a physical guy, a boxer and rugby player. There's a tradition of public service in my family. I'm one of three boys that joined the military. My father was in the Peace Corps. I felt that whether or not the war was a good idea, you would still need good people executing US policy to try and make things turn out as well as they possibly could. There's a tendency to look at anybody who joined the military as if they underwrote everything that happened policywise. That's not really the case. I have a friend who both protested the Iraq War and joined the military, and ended up serving two deployments in Afghanistan.
MJ: Your characters have very diverse experiences and military assignments. How did you research what things were like in these various departments?
PK: As a public affairs officer, I spent a lot of time with a lot of different types of units. The variety of experience is broad, so I did as much research as I could. I wanted to get the details right, and be true to the experience, but at the end of the day I didn't want the reader to just accept everybody's story at face value.