Summertime generally finds me with a large stack of books on my living room floor waiting to be read. This summer is no different. Now that classes are done for the semester I’ve been digging into that pile and pulled out two devastating gems that read like a hand grenade dropped into the soul. The first is Kevin Power’s novel The Yellow Birds (2012) and Phil Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment (2014).
Power’s narrative is written in the first person and follows the experiences of 21 year old Private John Bartle and 18 year old Private Daniel Murphy as they join the U.S. Army and are sent to fight in Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq.The story is not chronological but jumps back in forth through time and space. We begin with scenes of battle from Al Tafar in September of 2004 and then jump back to Fort Dix, New Jersey in December of 2003 and see Bartle’s experience following enlistment but prior to deployment. This discontinuous method of narration makes the story hard to follow at times but clearly reflects the first person narrator’s state of mind. Private Bartle is caught between Iraq and the United States, between 2009 (the most recent date in the novel) and 2004 (his deployment to Iraq). The only consistent element in the story is the older-brother-like relationship Bartle forms with Daniel Murphy, mostly at the insistence of Private Murphy’s mother and Bartle’s Sergeant who’s not convinced that Murphy will survive the war. As you might imagine, things don’t end well for Murphy. I won’t tell you how, you’ll need to read the book. Bartle, however, manages to survive and can’t help but think as he stares out a window that “beyond the tree line the dull world that ignored our little pest of a war rolled on” (Powers, 216) while he is stuck reliving each day the things he saw and did on the streets of Iraq.
Phil Klay’s collection of short stories is even more fractured in narration than Power’s novel as he shifts to radically different characters and settings for each piece. Essentially Redeployment is 12 distinct narratives that are only loosely connected by the war and its effect on the characters represented. Readers meet enlisted men and non-commissioned officers as well as company level officers, the key players in most war fiction, but they also meet a foreign service officer tasked with rebuilding Iraq and an Marine chaplain struggling to hold on to his faith as the battles unfold. We see this vast range of characters experience everything from the death of friends in battle to the death of a family pet at home and the sympathy of friends and family as well as their inability to figure out what to say to soldiers coming home beyond “thank you for your service.” One of the few elements that ties these stories together is a recurring emphasis on storytelling as a key part of war and the public perception of veterans. Returning to base after a mission, the Marine grunt who narrates the story “After Action Report” remarks that
“every time I told the story [i.e. about the attack], it felt better. Like I owned it a little more. when I told the story, everything was clear. I made diagrams. Explained the angles of bullet trajectories. Even saying it was dark and dusty and fucking scary made it less dark and dusty and fucking scary. So when I though back on it, there were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind, the stories becoming stronger every time I retold them, feeling more and more true” (Klay, 35).
Learning how to tell stories is part of the task of becoming a veteran that Klay describes but also views with a caustic eye worthy of Ambrose Bierce. In the story “Psychological Operations,” a former psychological warfare specialist struggles to fit in while attending classes at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He admits to readers that “I tended to play the world-weary vet who’d seen something of life and could look at my fellow student’s idealism with only the wistful sadness of a parent whose child is getting too old to believe in Santa Claus. It’s amazing how well the veteran mystique plays, even at a school like Amherst, where I’d have thought the kids would be smart enough to know better” (Klay, 170).When a student asks him “should I thank vets for their service…or spit on them, like Vietnam,” he tells her “I reserve the right to be angry at whatever you do. It’s all phony. When the war started, almost three hundred congressmen voted for it. And seventy-seven senators. But now, everybody’s washed their hands of it” (206).Because he is a former psychological warfare soldier, it is hard to know how much of the narrator’s words we can trust. At the moments quoted above, however, he seems to be genuine with the reader and (moreover) to hint at the author’s own perspective towards how U.S. citizens view those sent off to fight in this “Pest of a War.” Why are we thanking veterans for their service while at the same time making no effort to understand the war in which they fought?
This problem is not unique to the Iraq War and carries on throughout most of U.S. history. It is easy to forget that World War Two and Vietnam are not the norm for the American soldier. More often than great praise or public scorn, soldiers returning home from U.S. wars are met with indifference. Greeted by a public who has long forgotten that a war is even going on. Powers and Klay are among the vanguard of what promises to be a large collection of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One supposedly ended (for the second time) and the other still going on. At this point it is too early to tell how these wars will be remembered but I have a suspicion that future generations will remember these wars in a way much closer to the “small wars” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and the Philippines. Trained to find and destroy the enemy soldiers of an opposing state, our army is just as ill-prepared today as it was over a hundred years ago to serve as politicians, policemen, engineers, and teachers. What we have in our time, I’m afraid, is another “savage war of peace” started by men who have no interest in learning from history and chose to let other men relive it for them. A sad and sobering thought like this I carry with me as I enter this Memorial Day weekend and prepare to honor the dead of all the U.S. wars.