Sitting down with Phil Klay

Yale Herald: Were there certain habits you developed in Iraq that were helpful when you sat down to write these stories?

Phil Klay: I always took notes of things that interested me. I think generally the kind of discipline that you need as a Marine is certainly useful for anything, writing or not. It’s also very much about making choices. The mythic situation that they tell you about in training for lieutenant is that something goes awry and they ask you, “What now lieutenant?” That never happened for me. But the notion of having to make choices in the moment, in an environment that you don’t know everything, that’s a key leadership trait that they try and impress upon everybody. And certainly writing is very much about making a series of, in my opinion, moral choices and carrying those through. Though I guess you do it a lot more with a lot more ability for deliberation and thought than is afforded somebody in a wartime environment.

YH: I don’t think Redeployment would work as a novel.

PK: So it was very clear to me early on that I was writing a series of short stories meant to be read together. I was writing a novel at the same time, and I threw it away. Not because I didn’t think there wasn’t good writing in it, but because for what I was trying to get at, the kind of questions I wanted to ask myself and draw readers into asking themselves, short stories seemed absolutely the way to go. It allowed me to go in different places than you could go if you had to hang everything together on one narrative structure.

YH: You’ve spoken a lot about the topic of disconnect between military and civilian life and how that’s something you experience overseas and also when you return. I think one of the first things you notice as a reader in that vein are the military acronyms.

PK: They are my number one source of one-star Amazon reviews. [Laughs]. I didn’t want people looking them up. It’s fine if you did. But, I was well aware that your average reader would not know all the acronyms. There are two stories where I was using a ton of acronyms. The first one’s “FRAGO”—the title is an acronym—and the second one’s “OIF,” which is a very short story, basically every sentence, with the exception of a couple deliberate omissions, has an acronym, and that was the constraint that I set for myself. I was deliberately mixing acronyms because I didn’t want even a veteran reader to know all of them. I’m pretty sure there’s one acronym in there that’s un-googlable. Acronyms can be used in a lot of different ways, and they can be used to create distance. Certainly at the beginning of [“FRAGO”] all the acronyms he’s using are very external to him. But they can also be very emotive. There can be a rhythm and even a beauty to that language. The example I always give is, to a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan, the acronym IED has a lot more emotive force than improvised explosive device, which is what it stands for.

YH: I think the story that touches on disconnect that is most related to a college experience is “Psychological Operations,” which takes place at Amherst. At institutions of high learning such as Yale, Amherst, or your alma matter, Dartmouth, it seems that there’s almost a heightened disconnect. Do you agree?

PK: There’s always going to be a sort of awkwardness in terms of having someone who’s a little older and who’s been to war compared to 18- or 19-year-olds who have not been to war. Not a lot of young people have had the experience of having their friends killed or seriously maimed, and the relationship to that as piece of your identity is going to be in a different stage of development. When I was making the decision to join the military, I had a professor who told me I needed to come to her office about this terrible decision I was making. I had a professor tell me that joining the Marine Corps would be “the death of the mind.” What’s weird about it is that I actually kind of loved it because it felt like I was playing out this stereotypical experience of disconnect. But I think I probably would have felt very differently about that coming back because one of the things that was central for me coming back was I wanted there to be a greater sense of implication in the wars.

YH: What do you mean by that?

PK: It was Stanley McCrystal who said that the American people don’t have skin in the game. The political decisions that we make here have huge effects overseas. Yet, there seemed to be, certainly when I got out of the military, very little sense that we were at war, and the discussions we had about war were very abstract. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. And this is more of a general problem than something about college campuses.

YH: Do you have any advice for college-aged kids and the new generation of people that are making the same decision you made to join the military?

PK: I think it is a good and honorable thing to serve your country, whether it is in the military or the state department or in other forms of public service. I firmly believe in public service of many different forms. I’m very proud to have been a marine. I think it’s something that someone should think through pretty deeply; it’s a serious choice. In some ways joining the military is an act of faith. It’s an act of faith that your country will use your life well. We don’t always do that. So then it becomes a matter for the Marines in that situation of doing the best they can in bad circumstance, which can be a complicated thing for 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds people to reconcile, particularly when the stakes are life and death—and not just for Americans.

YH: Have you heard from or talked to those professors who attempted to dissuade you when you were making your decision?

PK: You know, I was never super close with those professors. [Laughs]. But there was one professor who thought I was an idiot for joining, but he was tremendously supportive in many ways, and we’re still very good friends. One of the best things for me, in terms of a professor when I was joining the military, was I had a mentor at Dartmouth named Tom Sleigh. He’s a wonderful poet. When he found out I was joining the military, he had me read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, and David Jones’ In Parenthesis, and a bunch of other books. His basic thought was, “Look, if you’re joining the military, you should learn about war from some of the greatest minds to ever approach the subject.” That was very valuable.

YH: You were featured in Vanity Fair as a voice in a new generation of American war literature. Matt Gallagher, another writer featured in VF with you, wrote an essay called “Me & Ernie” in which he spoke about one of your predecessors’—Hemingway’s—take on war. Gallagher says that Hemingway makes war seem like a “crucible of manhood,” but says he rejected that idea after he served. How do you feel?

PK: I like Hemingway as a writer. I also think there’s this disconnect between Hemingway and the public persona and [Hemingway] the far more subtle stories. Let me say this, Hemingway was not someone I went to when I was writing this book. I thought about David Jones; I thought about Kenneth Koch’s war poetry; I thought about J. Glenn Gray; I thought about [Joseph] Conrad a lot; I thought about George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest not a war book but brilliant about a lot of the moral and spiritual questions that he places in a frank countryside but are very much prevalent in war. I think those narratives are so important in terms of the tools they give people to think about war, and then what happens, those tools, those tools that they think they have don’t fit the experience at all, or actually impede their ability to work through the questions that they have that are deeply important to answer that they don’t yet know how to articulate.

Leave a Reply