Booked Up

The Iraqi War Blues

Redeployment offers an ex-Marine’s powerful short stories about life in a war zone.

By - Jul 31st, 2014 01:57 pm


The literature of war is meant to be instructive. Even the vainglorious memoirs of famous generals have an underlying theme: war is hell. Phil Klay’s debut collection of stories, redeployment, is eloquent in its descriptions of the obscenity of war and its aftermath. In twelve haunting snapshots, we are confronted with horrors that few but seasoned soldiers could recount. Klay is a Marine vet who was in Iraq during the surge. His fictional nightmares ring all too true in their shocking details.

Short stories have lost much of their cachet these days, but they are the essential building blocks of a nation’s literature. Short fiction is the training ground for young writers, yet fewer and fewer outlets are available for their publication. I try to buy and read several first story collections each year in an effort to encourage more such publishing. Occasionally, you find gold and realize you have discovered a writer whom you will follow throughout his or her career. Phil Klay is such a revelation.

redeployment is structured in twelve stand-alone episodes. While it is often difficult to tell how they are interconnected, the effect is one of overwhelming repulsion. Moments of horrific violence and action are interspersed among episodes of exhaustion and ennui. Whether you understand the soldiers’ slang or not, you comprehend the dehumanization of war and the struggle to remain alive. Klay recreates these difficult scenes with a sure style that makes the reader feel like an insider.

In the title story, the narrator relates episodes of shooting dogs in Iraq to keep them away from corpses. This grisly business becomes a metaphor for his inability to deal with civilian life after his return to the States. The description of the reasons for this dysfunction is the best thing I’ve read on the problems that face returning veterans.

In “Frago,” Marines save the lives of two men who have been gruesomely tortured. They try to deal with their conflicted feelings over shooting young combatants and end up sublimating them at the unit’s “cobbler night.” In “After Action Report,” two young Marines play video games while processing the fallout from a bloody encounter with the enemy. In “Bodies,” a member of the Mortuary Affairs Marines division explains how he used his war stories to impress women. When he loses his girlfriend, he realizes that he no longer fits in society and re-ups.

Not all the stories are this grim. There is absurd humor here, too. In “OIF,” the whole story is told in military jargon and acronyms, certain to distance you from what’s really happening. In the collection’s longest story, “Money As A Weapons System,” a Foreign Service Officer confronts surreal attempts to reconstruct the Iraqi community. Worthy of Catch-22, the events surrounding the rebuilding of a water treatment plant include bee-keeping widows, a Mad-Max Sheikh, and blue-and-gray baseball uniforms donated by the Kansas Mattress King.

These stories are peppered with profanity, violence, and dark humor. They are definitely not for everyone. Parents should be required to read this before they recommend military service to their kids. This is not your grandfather’s war. And that irrefutable understanding may be the most important fact that we carry away from Klay’s brilliant debut.


Spotlight on Local Writers: Mark Warhus

Local writer Mark Warhus has recently published a new novel, Temporary Saints. He describes it as a comic fantasy about the Catholic Church, saints, gay families, female chastity, and Fundamentalist homophobia. At the center of the novel is a dying child in need of a miracle. Despite this serious subject matter, Mr. Warhus assures us that there is real humor in the funny characters and silly circumstances.

Temporary Saints is available at Barbarian Books. Mr. Warhus’ biography and other books can be found here.


Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, August 1 (7:00 PM): Edan Lepucki, author of California, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Monday, August 4 (7:00 PM): Deborah Harkness, author of The Book of Life, at Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, August 5 (7:00 PM): Mary Kubica, author of The Good Girl, with Heather Gudenkauf, author of Little Mercies, at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, August 6 (7:00 PM): Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House, with Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans, at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, August 8 (7:00 PM): Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist: Essays, at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us