Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, has been widely reviewed, getting literary attention at The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere. The author is a veteran of the Iraq War, and all his stories or set in or around that conflict (I say “around” because some of the stories have Iraq-based soldiers back home in America, on leave).
The stories are well-crafted and uniformly affecting. They are violent and profane, as befits the subject matter. (The Times reviewer was unable to quote from the book as liberally as he would have liked because the language was not fitting for a “family newspaper.”) Klay’s stories capture the confusion of the Marines at fighting a war that sometimes makes little sense. They are aware that Iraq is not simply getting better because of their efforts. And they find themselves often at (murderous) odds with the very people they are supposed to be helping. Besides the fraught nature of the Iraq War in particular, the young soliders have to deal with all the “normal” stresses of war—potential and actual death, the maiming of themselves or their buddies, rogue commanders who increase the cruelty and danger of their situation.
One of the standout stories for me is “Prayer in the Furnace ,” which revolves around a Marine chaplain. He’s thoughtful and well-read, quoting Augustine among others. The story is punctuated with his thoughts and struggles to help young people deal with death—in the context of this story, not only death by combat, but by suicide, as a couple of Marines succumb to the crushing pressure of life in a war zone by ending their own lives.
Pondering death, the chaplain considers:
. . . [People needed death to be sensible. A reason for each casualty. I’d seen the same feeble theodicy at funerals in the civilian world. If lung disease, the deceased should be a smoker. If heart disease, a lover of red meat. Some sort of causality, no matter how tenuous, to sanitize it. As if mortality is a game with rules where the universe is rational and the God watching over maneuvers us like chess pieces, His fingers deep into the sides of the world.
As the chaplain wrestles with what to say (and what not to say) to his military charges, one theme emerges. It is that they—that we—recognize that we do not suffer alone. He says in a sermon:
We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. . . . Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will became a little more tolerable.
And at the end of the story comes this exchange,with the chaplain talking to a soldier who blames himself for a buddy’s death:
“You didn’t want forgiveness when we were over there,” [the chaplain] said. “Do you want it now?”
I had to smile at that. “No,” I said. “That I’m worthless is well established. God’s forgiveness might be different.”
He scowled. I think I wanted him to confess as much for my good as for his. It didn’t really matter to me if he didn’t think he believed anymore. Belief can come through process.
I grabbed hold of the small cross on my collar.”You know this was a torture device, right?”
At that he laughed. I din’t mind. I knew Rodriguez hadn’t come here just to laugh at me.
“Twenty centuries of Christianity,” I said. “You’d think we’d learn.” I fingered the small cross. “In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.”