The Stories Civilians Need to Hear

In the short story “War Stories” in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, there is this moment of internal thought that pauses the narrative. In the middle of two battle buddies trying to get laid by their stories, there is this moment of reflection.

The day before, when he’d asked me to come, I’d told him that if he gave this girl his story, it wouldn’t be his anymore. Like, if you take a photograph of someone, you’re stealing their soul, except this would be deeper than a picture. Your story is you.

There are so many things that I don’t want to hear about the war. There is so much of me that wants to believe that the things in Fallujah didn’t really happen. But, they did. Terrible things happened there and in Guantanamo and a whole bunch of other places that I don’t know by name. Terrible things are still happening. We are still at war — and somehow in the midst of this war, we’ve created what Klay calls this “weird pedestal that vets are on now.”

It’s a strange place for our vets and for those still serving. Because most of the time, they are not sure what to do with their stories. Even though their stories are who they are. They go that deep. Each of those stories defines who they are and what they are — but there is something about these stories that is incomplete. It doesn’t all come together in a neat little bow as another as it is described in the short story “Psychological Operations.” The narrator has just told that story that is him and then thinks:

…now that I’d told the story, I didn’t feel like I’d actually told her anything at all. I think she knew it, too, that the story hadn’t been enough, that something was missing and neither of us knew how to find it.

It’s a theme that repeats again and again throughout this collection of short stories as each narrator (and perhaps even Klay himself) tries to understand how these stories work. You can hear it again in the short story “Bodies”:

There are two ways to tell the story – funny or sad. Guys like it funny with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze on the horrors of war they can’t quite see. Either way, it’s the same story.

I have wanted to read this book since I first saw it appear on the new releases table at my local bookstore. My boyfriend was deployed. He was “safe” which was good — but I didn’t really know what he was doing all day. He couldn’t talk about it while he was there and even now that he’s home, I can see him hesitate. It’s partly because he wants to protect me and partly because we’re having this awesome meal and this lovely wine so why would I want to talk about such things. But, I do. I want to talk about these things. I want to understand this story because Hollywood has totally screwed up how I think about war.

I wanted to read this book because I want to understand why my beloved winces every time someone mentions PTSD and veterans in the same sentence. And I don’t understand it. Not yet. I’m still on the other side of the civilian-military divide but this book gave me stories that I needed to hear. As Klay shared with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, these aren’t war stories like people imagine them to be. These are stories about the guy who works in mortuary affairs and guy who serves as the chaplain — but more than their job while they are deployed — they are people.

And maybe we’ve forgotten that about our service members.

We’ve been so quick to put them on pedestals that we haven’t really allowed them to be people — people that have all kinds of thoughts and feelings and ideas. People who have stories that civilians need to hear so that we can remember that these are just ordinary people trying to make the world a better place in their own way. I loved Redeployment for this simple reminder.

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