Books about war–and particularly short story collections about war–always suffer in my mind because they inevitably get compared to what I believe is the greatest war collection of all time: The Things They Carried. It is to Phil Klay’s enormous credit that much of Redeployment stands ground with that classic.
In fact, at times the first half of Redeployment was like a hybrid of The Things They Carried and the other greatest war novel of all time, Catch 22. This is particularly true in the story “Money as a Weapons System,” which fuses the visceral punch of TTTC with Joseph Heller’s absurdist take-down of military bureaucracy. Klay, who won the National Book Award for this (his debut publication), proves remarkably adept at balancing gallows humor and sucker-punch dramatic moments.
What I really liked about Redeployment was the way Klay explores many different avenues of the Iraq war to give a full view of its implications. Not all of his characters are on the front lines. We also have vets returning home and struggling to adapt to civilian life, men on the front lines, men who made decisions, and men who worked behind the scenes. The only perspective missing–and this is not insignificant–is a female one. Far too often story collections essentially tell the same story over and over again; Klay’s broader scope is far more effective in engaging with his subject matter.
If the collection loses some of its visceral momentum in the second half, ultimately it feels like a modest complaint. The stories are still towering and powerful. My one real complaint (again, a modest one) is that two stories, “Psychological Operations” and “War Stories,” feel a touch more forced than the rest. In “Psychological Operations” Klay has an Egyptian-American veteran engaging in a conversation with a recently converted Muslim girl, in which he desperately wants to share his story with her. The problem is that in order to make this happen, Klay has to work harder than he does in the other, more natural stories. It takes some contrivance to get them together, and I’m not sure the story’s ending feels natural, either. “War Stories” has the same problem: the set-up feels forced in order to put its main character in a specific situation that will make him feel a certain way and reflect on the war.
Still, even with these minor complaints, Redeployment is a staggering achievement, reflecting all the complexities of war and the soldiers who engage in it without once pandering or becoming preachy. It is also remarkably unbiased in terms of politics.