Transcending the Archetypes of War: An Interview with Phil Klay


At Work

Phil Klay

Photo: Hannah Dunphy

In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.

Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.

First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?

It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.

It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?

A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.

I wanted to write from the point of view of a chaplain because I was interested in what that role meant. I knew some very good chaplains during my time in the Marines and some not so good ones—the story seemed an opportunity to ask a variety of moral questions, not just about war. When I was developing the story, I read Bernanos’s The Diary of a Young Country Priest, which, though it has very little to do with war, muses upon the same set of issues.

The collection strikes an even balance between stories of war and stories of aftermath. Why was exploring the postwar experience significant?

One of the things that really stands out about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the degree of disconnect between the military and civilian America. That seems to play out most during the homecoming experience. On my own mid-tour leave, I flew home to New York. I lived near a trauma facility in Anbar and had grown used to seeing people come in with really horrible injuries. Then, a couple days later, I found myself walking down Madison Avenue, realizing there was zero sense that we were a nation at war. I felt like a stranger in my own country. And this was in 2007. Things are worse now.

Most vets of these wars have stories like that. For me, that walk down Madison raised a lot of questions about citizenship, the relationship of the soldier to the citizen, the relationship of the citizen to the nation at war. Those things interest me, so it made sense to write about them. My purpose with this book is not to say, This is how it is. Sure, I want to explore the combat experiences and evoke them accurately, but I also sought to place them within a larger context.

Regarding that larger context—the war in Iraq lasted nine years, while the war in Afghanistan has persisted for well over a decade now. Both are, of course, incredibly politicized. Certainly you’re aware it’ll be the rare reader who enters your collection with a completely open mind.

There’s so much cultural garbage floating around about war and veterans, and these wars and our generation of veterans, particularly. These are topics that are very complicated. They need to be approached in a delicate way, but they frequently aren’t. A lot of this has to do with politics. There’s a wide spectrum between a Navy SEAL hero-killer and a traumatized victim, but those are the archetypes—hashed and rehashed in the media, in popular culture, in the minds of people with a lot of preconceived notions but not much else.

For example, there’s a bit in one of the stories—“Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound”—when a law student tells the narrator all this stuff that happened to her and says, I feel like I can tell you this because you have PTSD too. He responds, Well, I don’t have PTSD. But it doesn’t matter—she doesn’t believe him, because he fits her preconceived notion of what a vet is and should be. Then he finds himself going along with it, and not for any noble reason.

Like you said, we’re well past the decade marker of the “War on Terror,” but there’s still so little understanding—or interest—in these wars’ lessons and legacies. If we as a society and culture are going to talk about war seriously, we need a more nuanced discussion. We need to think about how poor foreign policy plays out—how it’s experienced by those who exact it and those who are affected by it.