With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
I am fascinated with military culture. Since I have no living frame of reference and will never serve in the military myself I rely on other artists’ impressions. One such impression is the excellent collection of short stories by Phil Klay in his 2014 debut titled Redeployment.
Klay served as a captain in the United States Marine Corps in Iraq during the first surge in Iraq. He also consulted no less than twenty books and in-person interviews in conducting his research. Whether he’s telling the story about the soldier who lies in order to protect his buddy, the army chaplain with a crisis of confidence as he watches a young battalion get decimated, a Muslim and an Arab at college debating the rationality of war, or the emotional toll of a Mortuary Affairs soldier who is around the remains of dead bodies all the time, his efforts show on every page.
I tried to tell the story to the mechanic. I was very drunk, and the guy tried very hard to listen.
“Yeah,” he said softly, “yeah. It’s crazy.” I could tell he was searching for the right thing to say. “Look, “I’m gonna tell you something.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I respect what you’ve been through,” he said.
I took a sip of my beer. “I don’t want you to respect what I’ve been through,” I said.
That confused him. “What do you want?” he said.
I didn’t know. We sat and drank beer for a bit.
“I want you to be disgusted,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“And,” I said, “you didn’t know that kid. So don’t pretend like you care. Everybody wants to feel like they’re some caring person.”
He didn’t say anything else, which was smart.
These stories are some of the best I’ve read in years. Though focused in the military, Klay has a sharp ear for dialogue and empathy to be envied by any short story writer.
From “Money as a Weapons System”
“Cindy’s a true believer,” Bob said as he drove us to the ePRT office. “Fighting the fight of good versus evil. Democracy versus Islam. All that Sunday school shit. Careful with her.”
“What is she working on?”
“She’s our women’s initiative advisor,” said Bob. “She used be on a local school board in wherever the fuck she’s from. Kansas or Idaho or something. She handles our women’s business association, and she’s starting an agricultural project for widows.”
“She knows about farming?” I said hopefully.
“Nope, but I taught her how to Google.”
From “War Stories”
“You shouldn’t worry about Jenks so much,” Jessie says. “This’ll be good. He’ll get out and do something. Be engaged with other humans, not just you and me sitting around going, ‘Hey remember the time?”
“So send him to hang with a bunch of IVAW pussies?”
“One of those pussies was a scout sniper. What’d you do in Iraq again?”
“IVAW and artists, great. To pick over his bones for a fucking play, feeding off him like a bunch of maggots.”
“They used maggots on me,” she says. “Maggots clean out dead skin.”
That’s new information for me. Not an image I needed. I look through the window of the bar where Jenks and Sarah are talking. If that IED had hit my vehicle, maybe I’d be in there, talking to Sarah about how all the support I’d got in my recovery had given me a newfound respect for life and love and friendship. And Sarah’d be bored and drilling me to find out how long it was before I could take a shit on my own.
“Artists,” I say, putting all the contempt I can into the word. “I bet they’ll find what happened to him interesting. Oh, so interesting. What fun.”
Klay captures the environment of his diverse characters, making the rigors of war a living, breathing thing on his pages.
From “After Action Report”
That night I got Timhead to open up a bit. I started talking to him about how maybe I killed somebody.
“I’m bugging a little,” I said. “Is this what it’s like?”
He was quiet for a bit, and I let him think.
“For me,” he said, “it’s not that I killed a guy.”
“It’s like, his family was there. Right there.”
“I know, man.”
“Brothers and sisters in the window.”
I didn’t remember them. I’d seen all sorts of people around, eyes out of windows. But I hadn’t focused in.
“They saw me,” he said. “There was a little girl, like nine years old. I got a kid sister.”
I definitely didn’t remember that. I thought maybe Timhead had imagined it. I said, “It’s a fucked-up country, man.”
“Yeah,” he said.
These are people’s lives and each one has a voice that deserves to be heard. We may not agree with or like all of his characters but we certainly know they exist.
From “Psychological Operations”
“There was one guy, Travis. He had an uncle who worked construction, and after Travis joined the Army his uncle started refusing to work with this family of Muslim electricians. It was in Travis’ honor.”
“I’ve heard stories like that,” said Zara. “Actually, I’ve heard a lot worse.”
“Travis told it to me and then was like, ‘What are you gonna do about it, faggot?’”
“What’d you do?”
“I told him I wasn’t Muslim. Or gay. It’s a nice card to have in your back pocket when you run into that stuff.”
“I don’t know if I could fight for an organization that treated me like that.”
“You’re thinking about it the wrong way,” I said. “That shit is just people. It was alienating. This”- I waved my hand toward the college- “this is alienating. All these special children and their bright futures. Look, if Travis was the type to die for his buddies, and he might have been, I think he’d do it for me just as soon as for anyone else wearing Army cammies. That he hated me, and that I hated the ignorant fuck right back, well, there are circumstances that trump personal feelings.”
“The circumstances,” she said, “being a war. Where the Army was going to go kill those people you’ve been mistaken for. And you get to watch.”
From “Ten Kliks South”
This morning our gun dropped about 270 pounds of ICM on a smuggler’s checkpoint ten kliks south of us. We took out a group of insurgents and then went to the Fallujah chow hall for lunch. I got fish and lima beans. I try to eat healthy.