by Daniel Brown
Two recently published books, one fiction, and one non-fiction, have recently come out, and both of them are utterly outstanding in trying to explain what is happening to our soldiers when they come back from either Iraq or Afghanistan. Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a work of unmitigated brilliance, and presents a powerful new talent in Klay. A Dartmouth graduate who joined the Marines and serves tours in Iraq, Klay presents his fellow Marines as human beings, very young ones at that, who almost never lose their basic humanity in spite of the horrors they face in Iraq. By describing his fellow soldiers as human beings first and soldiers second, in spite of the integration of both sides when one become a Marine, Klay is able to have us understand the nature of the extreme bonding that we know that soldiers create when at war. Most books about the Vietnam War, of which there have been many, also describe this bonding as a key element in the dynamics of war, but without the specifics that Klay presents, and which makes his book that much more transcendent. Klay also represents a younger generation of writer as well as soldier, and he is a product of a different education, one which emphasizes diversity, sensitivity to others’ feelings, gender changes, and a differing definition of masculinity. Klay himself is clearly a product of these different, and one might add better ideas of what it is to be human, and that hubris that often pervades the Marines in particular, is rarely in evidence in his splendid Redeployment. Klay is even able to make the chaplain in Iraq an important minor character, a man to whom some soldiers will try to open up to about recent traumas, particularly when it involves their first killings of enemy soldiers or civilians. The chaplain is not made out to be an impotent fool.
So whether soldiers have been blown up in Humvees by roadside bombs, or whether they are breaking down doors of houses looking for insurgents, or whether they have wives who have stayed true or left them, back home, Klay’s men tend to discuss these things with one another, rather than grunt their way through the book, so that we understand how and why the men bond with each other. I have read about twenty novels about the Vietnam War written by former soldiers who fought there, and though Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn comes close to letting us into these friendships, it is probably Kevin Powers’ recent Yellow Birds, the first Iraq War book which Klay’s most resembles in presenting the nature of male friendship in war zones. Somehow, those who survive maintain an intimacy with each other, upon return to America, that is greater than what they will have with their wives and/or girlfriends. When Klay gets into the horror of PTSD, which virtually every soldier has, we actually have the best understanding of it and its impact on the human brain, than we have ever read in any other book, whether fiction or non-fiction, except for Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp. Klay does not spare us the suicides and other horrors that our soldiers are experiencing at the rate of, I believe, six a day. But his book is still redemptive, and a character which I take to be a version of himself is presented in all its complexities, whether he is in Iraq, or back home, and he allows us into his head with a gentle sensitivity that is extraordinary. Klay is an enormous new talent, I recommend Redeployment without qualification.
I first mistook Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp as fiction, and only realized about halfway through that it’s non-fiction, and one of the finest pieces of reporting in years. Percy also is trying to find out what happens to American soldiers in those same two wars when they come back. She is a new journalist, willing to put herself in the middle of possible harm’s way to try to find out what demons reside in these soldiers’ heads. So she finds a man, a soldier named Caleb, a classic kid from nowhere Missouri, a high school dropout with no future who not only joins the Marines but ends up in one of their special forces. The training to be a special forces Marine, although imperative for survival and possible torture in Afghanistan, also seems to be the beginning of what will become PTSD. Caleb looks for relief to a group of evangelical Christians in Portal, Georgia, where he finds a minister and his family who have been exorcising what they believe are literal demons from Satan’s ancient war against our better sides, from these men. Percy even undergoes an exorcism herself to see what is going on, and she neither confirms or denies the power of this ritual on herself, but her courage in trying to unravel PTSD from an ancient Christian perspective is not only fascinating, but she proposes that this ritual may hold answers for some.
Caleb is obsessed with being the one survivor of a helicopter crash/ambush in Afghanistan, which kills his best friend, Kip Jacoby, who stays with him upon his return, as a shadowy ghost with whom Caleb regularly speaks. We are not prepared for the amount of inner strength that Caleb has, although he has already survived so much. He becomes Percy’s inroad to the evangelicals, and is very persuasive with her doubts. I note that the book is dedicated to Kip Jacoby, and wonder whether he was the author’s dear friend or some such, but his death seems to be the reason for her journey into the occult, and into the world of PTSD, and I suspect that Percy knows more about this disease than anyone else on earth at this particular time. Demon Camp is also a brilliant book, and I recommend it in tandem with Redeployment. The two books together a both a tribute to the men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to a new generation of writers whose work proves to us that writing books is a very living thing, and that new talent continues to generate the best of literature.