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Redeployment by Phil Kay

January 1, 2016


This collection of twelve short stories about the Iraq War won the 2014 National Book Award and was included on numerous “Best of” lists. It’s a fragmented view of the Iraq War and related moments, seen through the eyes of different soldiers. A grunt on patrol. A priest. A counselor. A soldier trying to find a job after the war. A contractor whose job is to engineer a photo op of Iraqi children playing baseball. A soldier trying to get used to walking around in broad daylight, exposed. If there is a common theme, it’s how war changes a person.

The characters are often young, inexperienced, in over their heads. They make impossible decisions in critical moments, some that will make them heroes, some that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

They feel like real soldiers. They talk like real soldiers. Nothing feels fictionalized. It is not the inflated, testosterone-infused Iraq of The Hurt Locker. Nor is it the hyper-patriotic portrait of American Sniper. It’s a mix of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (one of my favorites from 2013) and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam classic, The Things They Carried. It captures the terror, the uncertainty, the bravado, the boredom, the moral ambiguity.

Dexter Filkins wrote in his review of Redeployment, “Armed conflict so fundamentally alters the environment it takes hold of that no aspect of life escapes undistorted: not love, not friendship, not sleep, not trust, not conversation. In war, even boredom is strange.”

Like the gaudy materialism laid bare in Billy Lynn, the American Dream is called into question by one soldier. Amidst the rubble of a country that had very little even before everything got blown up, he contemplates the U.S. as the “gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults.”

But it is not all bitterness. It is a range of emotion. There are soldiers who do see higher purpose. Some who are there because of their bond to their fellow soldiers. Some there to make money. Some there to help. Some not sure exactly why they’re there. But mostly, it’s young men trying to figure out what it all means. A hard thing to do with an experience that, at its core, doesn’t make much sense.

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