One of the best known Vietnam War novels is Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers (1979), if only because Stanley Kubrick directed the film adaptation, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Hasford devotes a lot of attention detailing his Marine's transition from civilians to hardened combat troops. However, the Iraq War Marines in Phil Klay's Redeployment only transition back to civilian life. They are already fully formed Marines by the time we meet them. They speak a distinct language of acronyms and epithets that have almost no referents outside of the Marine Corps. Even popular culture, which entered into the discourse of the Vietnam War as both longing for home and commentary on the futility of the war itself, is virtually non-existent in Redeployment.
"This is fucking pointless," a Marine tells the narrator of the story "Prayer in the Furnace." This phrase could be applied to just about any action in any of the stories. Or just about any action in any war since World War I. That's part of the problem of Redeployment: while it's clearly authentic, it's situated squarely within a genre of writing. As A.O. Scott observes, the Redeployment stories "could only have been written by someone who was there, even if 'there,' with some adjustments of technology, idiom and climate, might just as well be Ypres as Ramadi."
That there's nothing really new here doesn't mean the stories aren't gripping, because they are. What's distinctive about Klay's writing is the purity of the language of warfare. There's really nothing else. The acronyms in particular are intense, and while they add verisimilitude, they can create blurry spots in the narrative. Take this passage from a story entitled "OIF":
PV2 swerved and the HMMWV rolled. It wasn't like the HEAT trainer at Lejeune. JP-8 leaked and caught fire, burning through my MARPATs. Me and SGT Green got out, and then we pulled PV2 out by the straps of his PPE. But PV2 was unconscious, and I ran back for PFC, but he was on the side where the IED hit, and it was too late.
This is the common language of the modern American military, but one also gets the sense that the soldiers use acronyms as a means of keeping the bullets out.
The collection opens with two stories of combat. They're first person shooter narratives, told by enlisted men trying to make sense of what they've experienced. "Frago" and "After Action Report" are classic combat tales and they're absolutely riveting. Not suprisingly, Klay can't keep up the intensity, and skipping over "OIF," the weakest story in the collection, he pulls back from the combat zone in "Money as a Weapons System," followed by "Prayer in the Furnace." In the former story Iraq appears, in the eyes of the American soldiers, as a totalized desert where people are the only organic substances. It is a nation without a past or a future, just a perpetual present of noxious tribalism. In the later story, narrated by a Marine chaplain, Iraq has been abandoned by reason and faith alike.
It's disappointing that Klay doesn't offer any new literary structures that reflect how the Iraq War is different than the wars Americans have fought previously. However, there is something significant about the way he introduces his characters. His characters are nothing before they're Marines, which is pretty much how Americans have viewed the actual Marines who fought in Iraq--excluding the very small minority of Americans who had a loved one serve there. In sharp contrast to Vietnam War soldiers, contemporary American service men and women have been treated with sympathy bordering on sentimentalism, yet there's never been a serious national discussion about the origins and motivations of Iraq War veterans or why they come disproportionately from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds. Klay offers a bracingly clear view of the Americans who served in Iraq, freed of all sentimentality.