Most of the guys I went to high school with in Manhattan are lawyers now. Some work in finance. A few have even carved out careers in Hollywood.
Phil Klay is different. After graduating from Dartmouth, Phil enlisted in the Marines, served in Iraq during the surge and returned to pursue a career in writing. His first book, Redeployment, is a collection of 12 short stories about the war in Iraq and its effect on the soldiers who fought it.
Redeployment grabs you from the first line of the first story: “We shot dogs.” The narrator goes on to describe how he and his fellow Marines killed dogs who were lapping up human blood. Later, he returns to Camp Lejeune and has a hard time readjusting to life in America, from the awkward interactions with his wife to the realization that his own dog needs to be put down.
Each subsequent story has its own first-person narrator. These soldiers, mostly Marines, document the challenges, horrors and occasional bright spots of war. Several detail the difficulties of returning to a supposedly normal life back home — one struggles with the memory of firing on an armed Iraqi child, another visits a cheap brothel.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate why Redeployment has generated so many favorable reviews and was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. The stories are fascinating, disturbing, sad and, at times, even funny. And while I have no real frame of reference, the dialogue, scenarios and emotions seem authentic.
Phil was two years ahead of me in high school. We were never particularly close. We both competed on the speech and debate team, and spent a decent amount of time hanging out in groups at the tournaments. I probably haven’t seen or spoken to him in 10 years.
But moving from one chapter to the next, I can’t stop thinking of him. These stories, even some of the more gruesome and harrowing ones, must be rooted in his time in Iraq. He must have seen, heard and lived through similar experiences. It’s difficult and sobering to think of someone you know — or at least knew — going through that.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time reading, writing and thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years. When I was a political reporter, I peppered political hopefuls with questions about their views on the wars, read countless stories on the deliberations of the president’s national security team and wrote blog posts on how the administration’s war policies would affect upcoming elections.
But, over the last decade of wars waged by volunteer soldiers, how much time have I spent thinking of the men and women actually doing the fighting? How much attention have I paid to the short and long-term challenges these veterans face upon their return to the United States?
Phil’s book has caused me to spend time reflecting on their courage, sacrifices and troubles. And that, even beyond the powerful prose and compelling stories, makes Redeployment a worthwhile read.
Kevin Brennan is the alumni editor of this magazine.