Souls at War: An interview with the Iraq veteran and writer Phil Klay

Phil Klay won the National Book Award for fiction in 2014 for his collection of short stories, Redeployment. Writing in The New York Times, Dexter Filkins called it “the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.” A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Mr. Klay served in Anbar Province, Iraq, from January 2007 to February 2008 as a public affairs officer. He is a graduate of Regis High School in New York and Dartmouth College. Kevin Spinale, S.J., interviewed Mr. Klay by e-mail.

Why did you choose the title Redeployment? Many of your stories take place after combat, either in the United States or in Iraq, with soldiers recalling bursts of violence in which they were involved. Is there a sense of re-sentiment or re-feeling in the term “redeployment”? It seems that soldiers, even those only marginally involved in combat, cannot but live in a state of redeployment—a state in which they continuously recall trauma or the consequences of trauma.

“Redeployment” is a military term. It means to transfer a unit from one area to another. So the main character of the title story is literally redeploying. He’s leaving a combat zone with his unit and heading back to Camp Lejeune. But of course, I wanted all those additional connotations as well—the sense of deploying multiple times (as the main character anticipates he will), of entering a new challenge, of returning in your mind to the past deployment. And the return is not simply about trauma, I think.

Oftentimes discussion of war gets flattened to a discussion of trauma. But most of the narrators are not traumatized. They’re grappling with various issues related to their service, but it’s not simply a psychological battle, and it’s not one that could be cured with a more robust response to issues of mental health. There are the moral choices they make, the communal and personal allegiances they have, the ways in which their sense of themselves is wrapped up in their service in a morally complex war and in morally complex decisions whose ultimate costs will naturally be murky. There is the way their service changes their relationship to their own citizenship and the choices they make as Americans. And yes, tracing the emotional contours of their experience, or searching for what the emotional reaction ought to have been (which is essentially what the narrator of [my story] “Ten Kliks South” tries to do), is a part of that process.

Many of the characters you portray are marginally involved in combat: These men were in Iraq, but they were not infantrymen. They work in the State Department, PsyOps, Mortuary Affairs, as engineers, chaplains. One is an adjutant. They did not experience firefights, but they were transformed by an experience of mortality or futility in Iraq. When they return home, they experience all the effusive praise and gratitude that is extended to the grunt and the officer. But they remain marginal; they cannot quite fit into civilian life. Why do you take on the perspective of these figures?

For many reasons. Because war is a much broader subject than the individual experience of an infantryman alone. Because exploring different roles offered me new angles to explore issues central to war (death, heroism, masculinity, etc.). Because I wanted a group of narrators who might complicate each other’s stories. The experience of killing is radically different for the infantryman who sees his enemy, for the psychological operations specialist who tries to manipulate his enemy into Marine machine-gun fire and for the artilleryman who isn’t sure whether he fired the fatal bullet at someone who has just been killed.

One of your stories is called “Prayer in the Furnace.” In the Old Testament Book of Daniel, three Jews resist Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king, and remain faithful to the God of Israel. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to worship the Babylonian gods, and they are thrown into a furnace. They pray amid the flames and survive their attempted execution with the help of angels. Fidelity toward the God of Israel protected them.

I have been thinking of this notion of prayer in the furnace quite a bit, and two passages come to mind. The first is from the story “After Action Report.” A chaplain encounters a soldier distraught about a combat action. The chaplain counsels the soldier to pray. The soldier rejects such advice as being as trite and superstitious as keeping a rabbit’s foot. The chaplain responds:

“That’s not what prayer is for.”
“What?”
“It will not protect you.”
I did not know what to say about that. “Oh,” I said.
“It’s about your relationship with God.”
I looked at the dirt. “Oh,” I said again.
“It will not protect you. It will help your soul. It’s for while you are alive.” He paused. “It’s for while you’re dead, too, I guess.”

You also depict another chaplain’s own thoughts about prayer in that same story. The thoughts come just after he reads a canticle from Daniel in his breviary: “I stopped reading and tried to pray with my own words. I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew he would not. I asked Him to bring abuses to light. I knew he would not. I asked him finally for grace.” Could you talk about these passages? How does one pray in the middle of combat? What grace does a combat chaplain or a soldier need aside from protection from harm? Does prayer help at all in healing—perhaps in surviving the furnace of redeployment and the memories of deployment?

I think it really depends on what you think you’re doing when you pray. Augustine writes: “For in prayer there occurs a turning of the heart to him who is always ready to give if we will but take what he gives, and in that turning is the purification of the inner eye when the things we crave in the temporal world are shut out.”

I think that shutting out of “the things we crave in the temporal world” is very important. The situation the men are in makes almost anything seem permissible. The staff sergeant Haupert, in “Prayer in the Furnace,” angrily denies that anybody has a right to judge his unit, given how crazy things were. I remember reading about a Vietnam veteran who noted that for some of the men in his unit, the fact that they could die at any moment made them feel like it didn’t matter what they did, no matter how terrible. But the longer he was in country the more he got to feeling that it was the other way around—because they could die at any moment, what they did mattered even more.

So prayer in a combat zone serves exactly the same purpose as it does in peacetime. In war the stakes are life and death, true; but if you believe in God and in the notion of a human soul, then we are always making decisions of tremendous significance. The intensity and violence of war can obscure this just as much as complacency and distance from suffering.

Courage seems to be the greatest Marine Corps virtue—especially courage manifested in aid of one’s fellow marines. But there is something related to and almost as compelling as courage: toughness. Toughness clearly aids in the exercise of leadership. It arises from combat time and wounds and kills. Yet toughness is indiscriminate and can become brutal or cruel. Toughness almost seems like an untreated illness—perhaps treated by booze or Ambien or further violence. How much does toughness wear down marines? How difficult is it to survive as a marine without demonstrable toughness?

Well, what do we mean when we say “toughness”? Because there’s resilience and there’s a lack of empathy, and I think they’re two very different things that often get confused. In Phil Zabriskie’s “The Kill Switch,” Col. Patrick Malay claims, “The warrior ethos is not to kill. The true warrior ethos is to protect.” In popular culture, military hero worship often focuses on body counts, but the quintessential military hero is the guy who saves his comrades by jumping on a grenade. It’s about what you’re willing to endure for a cause, not what you’re willing to inflict.

So resilience is, of course, necessary for a warrior. But a lack of empathy isn’t. In fact, it’s harmful (and probably particularly harmful in a counter-insurgency). In “Prayer in the Furnace” the “tough guy” talk of some of the leaders in the battalion is often a mask for incompetence. I thought of this when I saw the accusation of one faction within the C.I.A. that the other was “running a ‘sissified’ interrogation program” because they were unwilling to use waterboarding. The torture program may have been a moral and legal disaster; it may have seriously undermined our credibility as a nation and provided propaganda for our enemies; but at least we weren’t sissies, right?

Tough-guy posturing is the opposite of what Marines need in a leader. They need moral courage, they need empathy, and at the very least they need competence.

Why is it so important for a marine to articulate his or her experience? In many of your stories, this is exactly what the characters hope to do. They ache to share their experience, but in most cases they are unable to. They are even unable to share the experience with their spouses or parents or those with whom they are most intimate. Does this need to communicate the experience of violence and fear that was service in Iraq relate to your beautiful passage in “Prayer in the Furnace”?

Sin is a lonely thing, a worm wrapped around the soul, shielding it from love, from joy, from communion with fellow men and with God. The sense that I am alone, that none can hear me, none can understand, that no one answers my cries—it is a sickness over which, to borrow from Bernanos, “the vast tide of divine love, that sea of living, roaring flame which gave birth to all things, passes vainly.”

Your job, it seems, would be to find a crack through which some sort of communication can be made, one soul to another.

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s deeply important for soldiers to feel as though they can share their experiences and be understood, but it’s complicated by a variety of factors. There’s a kind of mysticism about war experience that both soldiers and civilians often buy into. There is a lot of political weight put on how the experience ought be interpreted and expectations about what that experience is supposed to mean. Sometimes it’s painful to discuss. And oftentimes there’s an unwillingness among veteransto expose oneself to judgment, which goes hand in hand with a civilian unwillingness to accept complicity in war. In order for real communication to happen there needs to be openness on both sides, a willingness to empathetically engage and to forgive the other for any misunderstandings that arise because both sides are more interested in the conversation continuing than in withdrawing due to real or imagined slights. So some of the characters in Redeployment feel it’s easier to withdraw into silence, or to only use their war stories in a way in which they know exactly what type of effect they will achieve. But that’s never sufficient. I think of Psalm 139:

LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.

You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
LORD, you know it all.

Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?

There is something both beautiful and terrifying in the idea of being truly known. Beautiful because it draws us out of our isolation, makes us feel understood and connected to the rest of the world. Terrifying because none of us are ever fully justified.

Robert Lewis
2 years 2 months ago
I wanted to know what this fellow felt about killing another human being. It seems as though the interviewer scrupulously avoided asking that obvious question.

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