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56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Conflict and Its Consequences in Two Wars, December 23, 2013
This review is from: Redeployment (Hardcover)
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Phil Klay's Redeployment is a collection of stories prompted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Redeployment is also the title of the lead story, which was also the lead in an earlier collection rooted in the same conflicts and titled Fire and Forget. Redeployment the story is simply brilliant. The experience of coming home after seven months in combat is described in a way that enables the reader to almost accomplish the impossible: experience this awkwardly joyful process as the Marines actually experience it.

The story deftly avoids the maudlin tears-of-joy theme that would have been convenient and easy to exploit as Marines are reunited with their families and loved ones. Instead, Klay gives us a realistic mix of humor, jubilation, sadness, humiliation, desperation, and the vague but soon-to-pass discomfort that comes from being reunited with those closest to us who have become, for the short term, a bit unfamiliar. Things like kissing your wife or hugging your child are not quite as automatically easy and taken for granted as they were seven months before. In most instances, things will return quickly to normal, but for now even the once intimately familiar takes a little getting accustomed to.

When I reviewed Fire and Forget, I noted that the story Redeployment is one of very few works of fiction that, at special places, made me turn away, wince, and feel like crying. The way Klay melds military training with love for an old friend that has suffered long enough is mesmerizing. Cold steel, hot lead, a serene wooded area, and the instantaneous termination of pain perfectly define the end of a relationship characterized by real love. It's something you can't imagine until you've read it.

The other stories in Redeployment range in quality from very good to worth reading but not moving or inspirational. To a greater or lesser degree, however, the one thing they all have in common is an instructive nature that helps readers understand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that otherwise would never have occurred to us. The same informative detail applies to the individual soldiers and Marines who served in combat and sometimes worked in excruciatingly mundane support roles. After all, someone has to clean up the body parts and see that they are properly identified and sorted.

In some stories there seems to be a gratuitous over-use of acronyms that state-side civilians don't recognize and can't figure out. However, anyone who has been in the service knows that that's the way it is. I was in the army for nearly two years before I realized that "I Corps" (pronounced "eye corps") was a large unit designated the First Corps, then stationed in Korea. Soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen often go through an entire enlistment responding correctly to an acronym, something like USASESS, without knowing what it means. (United States Army Southeastern Signal School, though that was 45 years ago, and it probably has a different name and acronym now.) The military is, indeed, a world apart with its own language and culture, and Klay skillfully makes this clear, especially in the story titled Frago.

In Money as a Weapons System, Klay does a fine job of reporting the almost unbelievable stupidity, greed, and ideological inflexibility that terminally hamper efforts to promote economic and other forms of essential development in Third World nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Money as a Weapons System makes abundantly evident that the idiots are most often not the ones wearing uniforms, but out-of-touch civilians who are frequently not even in-country. Members of the military and the civilians working closest with them do the best they can with the orders they're given, even when the directives are patently senseless. Ironically, however, even the most seasoned veterans of hopelessly misguided nation-building sometimes acknowledge that, in spite of the nonsensical nature of so many developmental efforts, over time things do get a bit better. I was surprised when I read this observation made by an experienced army major, and I believed him, but I'm still trying to make sense of it.

Prayer in the Furnace is a story that sometimes devolves into platitudes, bromides, cliche's, and obvious pastoral blunders. Nevertheless, it does a creditable job of making painfully evident the psychological cost of long-term combat. Yes, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is one debilitating consequence, but so are uncomplicated but deeply felt guilt and shame, sometimes sources of anguish that simply can't be put down and may lead to self-destruction. How do you cope with the death of the closest friend you've ever had? How do you come to terms with the accidental killing of a child, or the intentional killing of a child who has been turned into an unwitting warrior? What do you do when your commanding officer is a reckless butcher who has no interest in his men's welfare and demands that they kill anything that looks even vaguely suspicious?

The weakest stories in Redeployment, especially Psychological Operations, are set entirely state-side. They're not completely without merit, but they don't measure up to the interest generated by the rest of Klay's collection. Nevertheless, a story that forces us to to ask ourselves how we'd function in civilian life if we'd had our face burned off by a battlefield explosion is almost certain to hit home. A horrifying question posed by the short piece titled War Stories.

Redeployment is an uneven collection, but from stories that are brilliant to those that are so-so, every page warrants reading. It doesn't matter if the reader is pro-war, anti-war, or indifferent, Redeployment is a good book.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 30, 2013 11:00:45 AM PST
digsblues says:
Thanks for the very detailed review.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2013 2:02:26 PM PST
Thanks for the comment.

Posted on Mar 4, 2014 3:26:22 AM PST
Jim Chorazy says:
In 1962 we just called it Ft Gordon during the AIT 15 week RTT school

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 11, 2014 5:50:52 PM PDT
Sorry I didn't notice your comment sooner. Actually, when I first got there the acronym was even worse: USASESCS. Then I guess someone decided that the C for Corps wasn't needed. I wonder if they're still using the same WW II barracks. Anyhow, thanks for the comment.

Posted on Aug 9, 2014 4:45:48 AM PDT
You write a wonderfully detailed analysis of this collection. I actually welcomed the stateside setting of "Psychological Operations" and the moral explorations (far more than mere bromides) in "Prayer in the Furnace," as offering some variety and nuance that the collection could have done with more of. But both, I think, required tighter editing.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 9, 2014 7:23:22 AM PDT
Thanks for the generous comment, and for giving me a different take on Psychological Operations and Prayer in the Furnace. I'm going to look at those two again.
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