Author Phil Klay served with the U.S. Marines in Anbar Province, often the most dangerous part of Iraq, in 2007 and 2008 and became a keen observer of how the war changed Americans who served there.
The short stories in his acclaimed first book, “Redeployment,” explore what the war did to those Americans, and the often uneasy space it opened between the veterans and the civilians they were fighting for and returned to.
The collection won the National Book Award this year.
Klay, who was stationed for a while at Camp Lejeune, will be at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh Thursday to talk about “Redeployment.” We spoke by phone about his experiences and his book; excerpts of our conversation follow. Read more at newsobserver.com.
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Q: So you were at Camp Taqaddum in Anbar Province, popularly called TQ, during the peak of the war for Ramadi, the nearby city that was the provincial capital. For a long time, there was a sign when you came into TQ that welcomed you to Iraq’s Wild West. And in one story, involving a chaplain, you convey the Mad Max anarchy of the place then. For a while there, on any given day the Marines in Ramadi had half the war to themselves if you quantify the shooting and the bombs. What was it like then?
A: There was a suicide truck bomb the first month we were there, and they were bringing so many wounded civilians into the camp’s surgical unit that the docs were doing surgery on the floor. That was Anbar Province. And when we left, it was a radically changed place. I remember driving down Route Fran, and there was a bridal shop that had opened up. I was like, a bridal shop? And now of course everything has unraveled.
Q: You went somewhere extraordinary and brought back ways of looking at it to help the rest of us make sense of it. That extraordinary place wasn’t just wartime Iraq, though. Partly it was the U.S. Marine Corps at war, which is a pretty intense culture. What did being a Marine do for the way you see the world?
A: Well, it gave me a lot of things. In the Marine Corps you meet this really broad segment of the country, you’re working with people from all kinds of backgrounds. And it exposes you to the American military, particularly the American military at war.
A thing I find myself thinking about a lot these days is what, as citizens of a country that uses military forces a lot, our relationship is to that. As citizens, as people, what our responsibilities are.
It’s not just related to going to war. My war experiences were certainly not as intense as a lot of people’s. I was a staff officer, right? But I was surrounded by a group of people who were putting their lives on the line in a much more direct way than I was.
And the civilian population … there was that suicide truck bomb in Habbaniyah right outside TQ.
And thinking through what all that means and what it means to come home, and what it means now that I’m out, to be someone who has a responsibility and obligations about what they’re doing to the country. That is something that’s deeply felt for me. And I think that’s a product of being in the Marine Corps. Responsibility and accountability is a big part of being in the military.
And I wanted people not to be looking at this from a distance, but to imagine themselves in the heads of these people and think through the choices they have, and decisions that they’re making. Not just in Iraq, but at home.
Q: In one of the stories, two women have an appointment to meet a pair of veterans in a bar, and one of them wants to tape the guy who was badly burned in an IED explosion. It’s for a writer’s workshop. And a lot of the interplay is about what it means when you tell war stories, whether to tell them, how much to tell. Should people tell their war stories, and if so under what circumstances?
A: I think we need to be pretty conscious of how they can be used, how we ourselves might be tempted to use them. In a couple of places in the book there are characters who are pretty savvy about the way in which war stories can function in the culture. People should be able to tell stories that are important to them to try and understand what they mean. I don’t think you figure anything out on your own. Certainly not war stories. And I don’t think you figure them out just by talking to other vets.
When I was working on these stories, I had veterans read them and give me feedback, and they gave me a lot of great feedback, about where I was BS-ing and where I wasn’t. But here’s the thing: I had civilians read the stories as I was working on them and give me feedback and they told me the same things, where I was BS-ing and where I wasn’t, but they were often different from the sorts of things veterans would tell me.
It’s often difficult to get perspective on your own stories, on your own experiences, without talking them through with someone who is genuinely interested in thinking about them. And that’s the key. Not someone who is looking for a story that will fulfill their political perspectives or who is looking for a vicarious thrill. Someone who is engaged with you, but in a critical sense, and not just accepting every line you tell them, because we lie to ourselves all the time.
If something is important to someone and they’re trying to figure it out, or if it’s something they think someone should know, if it reveals something that’s true and important about the world, then why would you not share that story?
In a country where a fraction of us go to war, but all of us are responsible for the political decisions that send people to war, if we make the determination that only those who have been to war can talk about it, then that cuts off the bulk of the American people.
And cuts off veterans when they come home. I don’t want people to feel like they can’t be known by their wives, their children, their parents and best friends. That’s a false idea, that this one experience forever severs you from your civilian identify, and from your civilian friends and family.
Q: What would the right way, a sincere way, of thanking a veteran for their service look like?
A: Some veterans have a bad reaction when people say “Thank you for your service.” I’ve always appreciated it. It’s certainly better than what some guys talk about when they came back from Vietnam. But it’s easy to talk about someone as a hero or a victim. In neither of those cases are you really talking about them as a human who did a job for you, the American citizen. And that we have a responsibility to that, that’s not just about exalting them, but taking them seriously, taking what they do seriously, and taking a role in that seriously.
What’s the right thing to say to a veteran? It’s to be receptive to them as a human being. The way we think about veterans is often so abstract.
Our generation, we didn’t come back to being vilified really, we didn’t come back to being held up as the greatest generation, we came back to a society that has often felt indifferent to the fact that we were a country at war. And I think that is the issue.
Q: Military acronyms. They’re plentiful, and more so every day. And one of your stories in particular is just built of them. It’s a pretty daunting thing to begin reading, and I was sure it would just be too distracting. But the story builds this powerful rhythm. Can you talk a little about what you were trying to do with those acronyms? Some of them have been used so often they actually become the word, more meaningful than the words they stand for.
A: Oh, yeah. IED is one of those. An IED is an IED, even though you know it’s an improvised explosive device. And I really like the acronyms embedded within another acronym, like the IDD, which is an “IED Detection Dog.” A Russian doll of acronyms, nested inside each other.
Some people like it in the stories and some don’t, but it was important for me that it be in the book for a couple of reasons. Writing from each voice, it was very important for me to say how is this guy going to talk. It says a lot about who they are and their relationship to the audience. There are two stories with a lot of acronyms. And the first story you’re talking about is FRAGO, which is the second story in the book. And it’s probably the most unapologetically Marine narrator. It’s told close to the action, he’s giving it to you very directly. He sees some terrible things, but he’s not going to dwell on them and unpack the morality of them like the priest (in another story) is. He’s well aware of the stakes involved, and he tries to manage the perceptions of his men. But I wanted, after someone reads the first story, which I think is much more acceptable probably to a typical reader, is for them to hit that second story, and see all those acronyms on the page and say, “OK, this is a different culture, a different language even.” And that alienation from the language is important, but I wanted people to be able to understand the story and read it and get it, even if they don’t know what the acronyms are.
And then in the other story, “OIF,” the way that narrator uses acronyms is a little different. And by the end of the story, they have picked up a kind of personal emotional force for him. I wanted to drill down and look at the way that language worked, how that language is used to obscure things, ways it can be emotive, because that’s how it’s used. It’s an important part of the culture.
Q: Provincial Reconstruction Teams, those hybrid State Department-military teams that in theory, at least, were created to help the Iraqis with reconstruction. And they did it with roads and town halls, but also just farcical things like that bizarrely designed water treatment plant, and pushing the idea of baseball for Iraqi kids that you wrote about. Do readers tend to think you were creating wild exaggerations to amplify a point, or do they understand that this was actually painfully close to the truth?
A: I think a lot of people read that story and think it’s like “Catch-22,” a larger-than-life thing. There really was a water plant we built where they set the pressure in the pipes wrong so that if they had actually turned it on, it would explode all the toilets. The Iraqi widows beekeeping project, that was real. A lot of those were just things we did. The baseball thing was my invention, but “sports diplomacy” was a buzzword for a time.
Q: So you win the National Book Award with your first book. What do you do for a second act after that?
A: I’m working on a novel. All I can do is write the stuff that feels vital to me, and that interests me. I’m not going to write about Iraq the rest of my life. So, yeah, I’m working on something completely different. But in the day-to-day process of writing I don’t think about this story’s relation to what I’ve written before because it’s a different act. You just do it every day and you hope you come up with something useful in a couple of years.
Q: But will it involve the military?
A: Right now, I’m just at the beginning stages of it, and I don’t know. It may.
Q: You know Jacksonville pretty well. Were you stationed at Lejeune?
A: Oh yes, Lovely Lejeune (laughs).
Q: What did you do out on the town when you were off-duty?
A: Oh, sometimes we’d go down to Wilmington; there’s actually a good music scene in Wilmington. And I’d travel around in the South a bit. I had a brother, he and his wife had a band, and they were based in Charleston. Or I’d go up to Richmond, or take a couple of Marines up to Raleigh. And there’s always the beach. I was never one for the strip clubs and tattoo parlors, though.
Q: What’s the real difference between Marines and soldiers?
A: (Laughs) I think the only differences are that Marines are better looking, more attractive and more intelligent.
Jay Price traveled to Iraq four times in 2003, 2006 and 2007 for The News & Observer and its parent company, McClatchy Newspapers, and spent nine months there, much of it embedded with U.S. Army and Marine units in Anbar Province. He also has worked as an embedded reporter several times from Afghanistan, and was McClatchy’s bureau chief in Kabul in 2013.