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Tales of war and humanity: 5 Questions for a PAO turned short story writer

Mar. 18, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Then 1st Lt. Philip Klay, center with camera, travels in a convoy to Haditha Dam during his 2008 deployment to Iraq. Klay's new collection of short stories about the Iraq War includes a variety of voices and perspectives.
Then 1st Lt. Philip Klay, center with camera, travels in a convoy to Haditha Dam during his 2008 deployment to Iraq. Klay's new collection of short stories about the Iraq War includes a variety of voices and perspectives. (Courtesy Philip Klay)
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Phil Klay deployed to Iraq as a Marine public affairs officer in 2008. But his new collection of fictional short stories about the war, “Redeployment,” features a wide array of narrators, including infantry squad leaders, Marine and Army veterans, a foreign service officer and a chaplain.

The idea, said Klay, was to make the story bigger than just one individual’s perspective on the war.

“I wanted to get a group of narrators whose stories would clash a little bit,” he said. “To open up a space for the reader to think about that, instead of just kind of being like, ‘Hey, this is what it was like.’ ”

The book, Klay’s first, has already garnered significant critical praise, with warm reviews in Publishers Weekly, GQ Magazine and Kirkus Reviews, and accolades from writers including “Jarhead” author Anthony Swofford.

Klay, who left the Marines as a captain in 2009, said he is already working on a new project: a novel on a topic he’s keeping secret for the moment.

“Redeployment,” published by Penguin Press, hit shelves March 4.

Q: How did you transition from the perspective of a PAO to the author of these unvarnished war stories?

A: It’s not a public affairs narrative like you would expect, but I’m not trying to brand the military or anything like that. I’m just trying to speak about it as honestly as I can and trying to get people to engage with it, which I think is really helpful to the military. I don’t think there’s a huge distinction between the ideal public affairs mission, which is ultimately providing information back to the American public. ... They’re the ones who deserve to have thoughtful and accurate information, although there is a hugely different tone.

Q: What do you hope the average civilian reader will take away from “Redeployment”?

A: Most military folks are neither passive objects of pity or super-soldiers; the average Marine is a Marine put into an incredibly complex environment where he’s forced to make moral choices and live with the choices that he makes. I wanted people to engage with that and take the modern military seriously.

I also think there’s something very peculiar about the relationship between citizen and soldier and the degree of apathy that exists. It’s got to be pretty disheartening to come back and find the culture that sent you over is only half paying attention.

Q: You write in the story “Money as a Weapons System” about a U.S. public works project in Iraq that will be a disaster if it’s ever finished. Is this based on a real event?

A: Stuff like that did happen. There was, in fact, some place where they built the wrong water pipes, where if the water had flowed everything would have exploded. I read that, and it was like, “Oh my God; That’s too good to not use.”

I had a lot of fun writing it, but it also made me incredibly angry because I had to do a lot of research about policy. Some of that stuff you read and you go, “I can’t believe we did that.” So that was both fun and deeply enraging.

Q: You use military acronyms heavily in several stories. Why?

A: I remember sitting in on a planning meeting ... for the entire [Marine Expeditionary Force]. They would say, “All right, does anyone know what this acronym means?” Nobody would know. Not only does the military have its own private language, but different units in the military have their own private culture and their own language. Being able to get at that and explore the way in which that military language ties in to that very particular military ethos. At the end of the day, you can’t write a story about the modern military without using a bunch of acronyms.

Q: Did writing this book make you more optimistic or pessimistic about Iraq?

A: I’m an optimist generally; I think that cynicism is very easy. But writing the book didn’t make me happy. I think we saw with ... [the fall of] Fallujah recently, I mean, every vet I know was just so saddened to hear that. Because [al-Qaida] is such a nightmare organization, just a horror for the people that it happened. It doesn’t make me pessimistic, but it’s a really bad situation, an absolute tragedy.

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