What Makes a War Story: An Interview with Phil Klay

Phil Klay is the New York Times bestselling author of Redeployment, which among other accolades won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. A Marine Corps veteran, Klay writes extensively on issues ranging from religion to combat to national and foreign policy. His work has been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Men’s Journal, and more.

As a civilian war writer, I’ve been familiar with Phil Klay’s work for years, but have not had the opportunity to speak to him until this interview. Our conversation covers considerable ground, touching on everything from writing craft to national security to reading lists of contemporary war literature.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Kambury: When I was a bookseller, I hand-sold Redeployment more times than I can remember. It was usually one of those situations of, what’s the book this person is most likely to have heard of and would be the most receptive to? That and Girl at War by Sara Nović, I would usually take people to. But whenever I’d recommend [these books] or any books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially a novel, I would be met with this tone of surprise—less so that they didn’t want to read the book (although sometimes that was the response), but more so it was this reaction of, why are you, a civilian, recommending this book to me?

And I would always quote this part of an interview you did with Eliot Ackerman for The Rumpus when his book, Green on Blue, was published, where you ask: What is it that separates war literature from the rest of literature? And Eliot says: Nothing.

I’m curious what your response to your question would be?

Phil Klay: It’s absolutely true. We almost think of it as this hermetically sealed thing, but it’s not like Anna Karenina and War and Peace are two totally separate categories of literature—they’re both great novels by Tolstoy. I had somebody recently who was working on something say [to me], “It’s hard, I feel like I can only have my stuff critiqued by veterans because civilians don’t understand.”

What don’t they understand? Do they not understand grief? Do they not understand fear? Do they not understand love? Do they not understand camaraderie? Do they not understand guilt? What is the thing that they can’t understand? And if they can’t understand it, why are you writing it in the first place? Because if it’s incommunicable, you might as well not even pick up the pen.

It’s not like when you go to war, the Gods of War reach down into you, pull out your old soul and deliver you a new soul capable of an absolutely different register of emotional and psychological and moral and spiritual responses to reality—it’s the same old people, in a particular and often alienating and very different type of experience, but it’s the writer’s job to figure that out. You have to figure that out whether you’re talking about a war experience or any other type of life experience that is unique.

RK: It makes me think of that story in Redeployment, “OIF,” which I would like to say is 95 percent written in “mil-speak.” It was such a great moment when I got to it, because by that point—I read Redeployment after I had read maybe fifteen other novels and nonfiction books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so by that point I’m thinking, okay, I’ve got a pretty good grasp of mil-speak and all of these different acronyms. So I saw this story and immediately thought, Oh, I got this. And then as soon as I started reading I realized, No I don’t!

PK: [Laughs]

RK: Like, “Oh, I very much do not have this.” And I think I circled most of the acronyms, and at one point I think I wrote in the margins something to the effect of, Goddamn it, Klay! This is not fair!

PK: Well, it was designed that way! It’s designed that veterans won’t be able to get it.

RK: I kind of loved it for that exact reason. It sounds like what you’re talking about, where if you can’t communicate it, why are you trying to write it down? Unless you’re deliberately trying to say [to the reader], You can’t understand this, and I’m not going to let you.

PK: So that story is about a Marine comptroller, and of course every Marine specialty has their own unique set of acronyms. And he is out with a National Guard unit, and the National Guard unit is using their own specific set of acronyms. One of the acronyms in that story is specific to an acronym that if a guard unit used it to label one particular town, you wouldn’t know it unless you were in that particular unit.

So [OIF] was designed to be alienating, but also to be, at the end of the day, intelligible, because it starts out with a bunch of acronyms that the reader’s not going to know, and the narrator is describing things that are external to him. And by the end of the story, he’s talking about things—using acronyms to describe things—that are very personal to him, and very much about the decisions that he’s making in regards to this institutional ethic within the military about casualties and [his] relationship to them, and the determination he’s coming to in his own mind: the reasons why he joined the military versus the decisions that he’s making now after the death of his Marine. The acronyms become much more expressive by the end of the story.

RK: It’s an ingenious way of saying I’m actually being quite clear, you just have to trust me.

PK: I’ve seen that story read aloud, and everybody got it. But it’s also the story people complain about. They’ll say, I had no idea what was going on in that story, and I think what happens is, if you’re just hearing it, it washes over you, and people get at that—that [sense of] Trust me. You’re not going to get everything, but you’re going to get what matters.

RK: Right—it’s a trust exercise.

PK: Because no matter the strange and alienating language, at the end of the day, it’s a human story, and it’s very understandable to most people. But if you’re looking at it in this lens of I need to understand every sentence and every syllable, it screws people up, and then they convince themselves that it’s an unintelligible story when it’s not. It was funny to me—when the story’s read aloud, theoretically it should be harder to understand, because you’re picking it up on the fly, but [when hearing the story read aloud], people didn’t get caught up in their own heads about the fact that it was told in this strange way, and they accept that, I just have to let it wash over me.

RK: [On the subject of communication and war writing], your career since Redeployment has been a series of fantastic long-form nonfiction pieces, which I’m curious about. Obviously, novels take a long time to write—anyone who says otherwise has never tried or is working with a cadre of ghostwriters who do all the work for them—so these nonfiction pieces seem be filling in the gap between Redeployment and the next book.

What do you find nonfiction communicates differently than fiction? Do you find that you’ve developed a preference, or is it simply that you have certain things you want to say that can’t be [communicated] in fiction, or that you can’t wait to talk about it in a novel, so you use nonfiction to get the ideas out in the meantime?

PK: An essay tends to be the development of an argument, whereas fiction tends to be the immersion in the experience. What makes it a little wonky is that the way I write nonfiction, I’m always trying to write it through story, as well. That’s the primary difference—me trying to express an intellectual argument as richly as possible, using a lot of the tools of fiction.

The process for writing [nonfiction] is not so distinctly different from the process of writing nonfiction. I’ll have a set of ideas I’m stuck on, and it’ll all sit in my brain for a long time before I put anything to page. So I’ll steadily accrue a set of ideas, or images, or experiences that I want to take the reader into; I’ll do, not real journalism, but something that rhymes with journalism—I’ll interview people, I’ll read up on the subject, I’ll do historical research. When I’m writing fiction, it’s very similar: I have these things that’ll stay in my head—they might be ideas, they might be images, it might be a story I’ve either heard about or I’ve invented, or something that I am going to invent around and change in some kind of significant way. It’s not as different as you might think.

RK: Was writing nonfiction a way for you to get away from, or rather out of the echo chamber of only talking/thinking about Redeployment?

PK: I started doing the nonfiction before Redeployment came out—I’d written a “memoir-ish” piece for the New York Times in 2010 called “Death and Memory,” and then the first op-ed I wrote for the Times was “After War, a Failure of the Imagination,” and that came out before the book. It came out because there were things I wanted to say in a nonfiction form. Redeployment allowed me to say one set of things, and working in op-eds and longer form essays allowed me to [say] another.

The Brookings [Institute] piece, (“Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military”)—they came to me to write that, and I was kind of surprised!

RK: Really?

PK: Yeah—I hadn’t written anything of that length, so I was surprised that they thought I could do it. I was rather daunted and challenged by it in a positive way. But, you know, there were a lot of things about the nature of the military experience, and some of the debates that were going on about the role that the American soldier plays within a democracy and an all-volunteer military, and how that relates to American history and the birth of the modern American military, and American conceptions of citizen-soldiers—all of those things were deeply important to me.

So when [the Brookings Institute] reached out to me, they left it open-ended and asked what I might like to talk about, and I pitched them the opening of what would become the essay. And then I did a bunch of research, read a lot of stuff, you know, talked to some people…

RK: Did the work.

PK: I had a new baby at the time, so parts of that [piece] were written with little Adrian in one of those kangaroo pouches and me, typing away.

RK: You really can have it all.

PK: That’s how you have it all—and the circles under my eyes from lack of sleep.

That was a really great experience in many ways, because the process of doing a long essay which is trying to develop an argument that talks about the contemporary attitudes and historical attitudes towards veterans and the moral nature of the work and all the things that that deals with—to write about that at length is a process. And [the Brookings Institute] was very helpful during the editorial process, pushing me, and I had friends that I sent things to along the way.

After that piece, I was definitely interested in doing longer essays that would allow me to develop a longer argument. I ended up writing a piece for the American Scholar about my chaplain (“Tales of War and Redemption”) and a piece for The Atlantic with a military policy focus (“Left Behind: Two Decades of War Have Eroded the Morale of America’s Troops”), which emerged from, you know, you’re in this community where you’re trying to fake your way through this weird moment that we find ourselves in; it’s always changing. And there’s this deep frustration that can develop because we’re still at war and we still don’t have anything approaching a coherent military strategy or anything that seems to resemble the type of political will to develop it.

I think that continually trying to reengage with the political moment that we’re in is just the basic responsibility of [American] citizens. For me, writing about this subject is my way of doing it.

RK: Right. It feels imperative. When I write reviews of books that are either written by veterans or by people writing about war to some degree, it’s clear that these [issues] are applicable in so many ways to our current moment, whether it’s the #MeToo movement or foreign policy; it brings it back to that idea of there is no difference between war literature and the rest of literature. The only struggle that people seem to have is that as soon as you put a uniform on a story, it becomes un-relatable—it belongs to somebody else.

PK: And it’s not just that. If you have a war story that doesn’t have people dressed in uniforms, [readers] assume it’s not a war story. Is there any reason to think Andrea Barrett’s “The Ether of Space” is not a war story? It’s a beautiful short story by a science writer in the early 20th century whose possibilities are limited by her gender, who is watching this speech by this great physicist who can’t reconcile himself to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and it becomes apparent that the reason he can’t is because he’s still attracted to the “Ether Theory.” And it’s not just about his scientific commitments, but also about the fact that he got into mysticism and communing with spirits after the death of his son in World War I.

Or, for example, Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, where these Egyptian hipsters after the Suez Crisis go to London and meet up with this British soldier and end up in this weird, really bizarre, painful encounter with him—is that a war story? Is it not? I think it is a war story.

Like Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition

RK: One of my favorites.

PK: Yeah, or Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi—all of these are war stories. My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron, [about the] long aftermath of the Dirty War [in Argentina] and how it affected a community and how it affected this individual character’s relationship with his father and the places he came from—those are war stories.

RK: I wrote something recently for the World War I Centennial Commission (“War Without Allegory: World War I, Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings”) about the fact that The Lord of the Rings is a World War I novel, almost quintessentially so, but because it has fantasy elements in it, it is only considered a fantasy novel. When in reality, [that story] grew out of Tolkien’s experiences during World War I; the foundations of Middle-earth were built through his time in the trenches and watching his friends die in combat. How is that not a World War I novel?

War stories are never so removed from our understanding of the world that a civilian can’t grasp it. That’s what I always explain to people when I hand-sell them a book written by a veteran or any war novel written by a veteran or a civilian: you will understand more of this than you give yourself credit for, and that always gives them a confidence boost.

But there’s a fear there that because it’s not their lived experience, and I think writers have this, as well—I know I do, frequently—that because they’ve never worn a uniform, they’ve never been in combat, they’ve never even been out of the country in some cases, that they will not be able to grasp what is being told. And it’s like you said earlier: Have you never felt fear? Have you never felt love? Have you never felt kinship with a group of people? And the response is always, “Of course I have!” Well, there you go.

But that brings me to this question of how media—whether it’s books or television or film—influences the way we are made to think and feel about war. And not just how we feel, but what we want to feel. There’s always talk in publishing about what books “keep the lights on,” and in this space, it’s “Kill Memoirs” like Seal Team Six and 13 Hours. Because those books are such big sellers, what does that do, positively or negatively, to our broader understanding of not only war and combat and service members, but what does that do to the kind of war stories that are being told?

PK: “Kill Memoir” is a term Brian Van Reet came up with—he wrote a great novel, Spoils, that tracks two American characters but also an old guard Jihadi who is a Jihadi but who is kind of disturbed by the increasing radicalism of the Jihadi ecosystem within Iraq; a really interesting book, beautifully written. And his piece (“A Problematic Genre, the ‘Kill Memoir’”) is really superb.

One of the things he talked about and which almost every veteran has dealt with is that question, “Did you kill anybody over there?” That sort of odd voyeurism that you sometimes encounter. And for Van Reet, the “Kill Memoir” is all that kind of response of, “Hell yeah I did! His name was Bin Laden—maybe you heard of him.” It’s not about bridging the distance between the reader [and the author], and it’s not about creating some sort of understanding; it’s about creating a spectacle of violence that the reader can enjoy.

And I think one of the things that’s troubling—or at least one of the reasons such things are so popular—is that Americans have always thought Special Forces are kind of cool, Special Operations are kind of cool, right? And you don’t need anything other than the nature of what they do for people to come to it. It’s that idea of super soldiers—the idea [alone] is cool. And in the current day and age, where we’ve got these deeply unsatisfying wars where, we’re not losin’, but we’re not winnin’, and we don’t even really know what to make of them. That doesn’t offer a great story. Most of the Special Forces missions we’re doing around the world right now are supervised “train and assist,” but the stuff that makes it to the screen tends to be “kill/capture,” or things like American Sniper.

That offers you this very neat morality play with a beginning, middle, and end. So a team of super-cool, super-buff “warriors” with super-cool, sexy, high speed gear get ready to kill a bad guy. They go out, they get into a firefight; by the end of the firefight, the bad guy is dead, and you feel good about what happened. Or, if there’s a twist to it, things go awry but one guy survives, and his determination and courage are admirable in the face of long odds.

It offers a very neat, clear, cleanly delineated story that has a cathartic end. And if there’s one thing that honest narratives about these wars shouldn’t have is a neat ending. But you understand why people want that—it’s why people were chanting “USA!” at the death of Osama Bin Laden outside the White House. And it’s a useful political narrative, too—Obama in his last State of the Union address said something along the lines of “If you think I haven’t been serious about fighting terror, just ask Osama Bin Laden.”

It was very frustrating to me. I understand politically why that’s useful, but it’s like, “Hey, did you think we don’t have a strategy in these interminable wars? Don’t worry, we’ve killed and captured a couple dudes.” Yeah, that’s not a strategy.

RK: That’s a side effect.

PK: I’ve written about the limitations of that, but it offers us the kind of narrative catharsis that our management of these wars certainly hasn’t earned us. And so I think that is one of several reasons why these things are probably so popular: if you tell a story of the war that actually fits with the nature of the wars that we’re fighting, it’s a hard sell.

RK: I think we see that with most wars. My understanding of World War II, for instance, has gone from this very jingoistic “America won the war” mentality—like my favorite joke, “USA: Back-to-Back World War Champs,” which is, uh, no—to the prevailing idea being that these wars don’t really ever end. The fighting might end, but the things that gave rise to [these wars] and caused them just get folded back into the societies that fought and lived through them. And then [those issues] reemerge later.

In terms of World War II narratives, using Band of Brothers as an example: Pearl Harbor happens; they train, they deploy, they fight, and then at the very end they go home and everything is done and pat and comfortable. Like you said, there’s a narrative catharsis there. But what really happens is, they go home and they become the “Greatest Generation,” but that Greatest Generation doesn’t get to acknowledge their suffering, they don’t get to talk about the fact that what they experienced was deeply troubling and traumatizing, therefore raising a generation of children who bear the effects of that generational trauma and that they don’t get to talk about.

And then, oh look! There’s Nazis again. People saying, “I thought all that was over,” like the belief itself went away. No one signed a piece of paper and all the Nazis died Phantom Menace-style. These are deeply rooted ideas that are very much human, so how can we not expect them to emerge time and time again? There’s never a perfect ending to any of these real-life stories, and the fact that we’ve been given so many comfortable, narratively cathartic endings—I think we see the impact of that in the [stories about] Iraq and Afghanistan we get, and the popularity of “Kill Memoirs” versus the “supervise and assist” narratives you’re talking about.

PK: And it’s not that the stories of operators have no value. That is one tool that we are using, and I think that it is very much worth our while to think about those experiences. I do think the degree of sophistication of reflectiveness and flat-out truthfulness of those memoirs can be called into question, but it’s not that that experience is not worth engaging with. But it’s not sufficient, and I think we should be aware of some of the problems with that.

I thought that Will Mackin’s book, Bring out the Dog—I thought that was superb. Mackin served with a Seal Team, and it’s a very interesting look into the weird, almost surreal reality that those guys exist in. Because if you’re on a team that’s done a bunch of deployments where you’re constantly doing these types of missions, that’s a very odd psychological space to occupy, and I think Mackin does a really good job of letting you into that and getting you to think about it.

RK: In that vein, I’m curious: if you had a class of undergrads who were all born after 9/11, and you want to give them a reading list that starts to give them an understanding of what it’s like for America to have been in a constant state of semi-forgotten war(s) all these years—fiction and/or nonfiction, what would be on list?

PK: I already mentioned Brian Van Reet’s book, Spoils…I think Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood is a fantastic book that dramatizes counterinsurgency in really interesting ways; it’s the perfect book to read if you’re interested in the opposite of the “Kill Memoir” and that neat narrative. War of the Encyclopaedists is a crazy, really interesting book by Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson about two hipsters, one who goes to grad school and one who goes to Iraq, who communicate with each other via a Wikipedia page about themselves that they’re editing, which really gets at that [military-civilian divide]. Preparations for the Next Life (Atticus Lish) is really good; Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is superb—a guy creates a Frankenstein’s monster out of the bodies of suicide bombers, then the monster comes alive and begins to seek vengeance only to realize he’s full of those complicit in violence as well as victims; Eliot Ackerman has written three novels all of which are superb which come at war in very different ways; Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days I thought was really good, and I thought that her new book, Red White Blue, was great too.

RK: I like that there are so many books from previous wars that still manage to speak to our current political situation and our current wars. I think of books set during the Vietnam-American War, especially books written by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American authors like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer…

PK: I love his academic book, Nothing Ever Dies—I thought it was just superb; a really interesting look at the relationship between war and memory, and how those things get thought out is fascinating.

Another perfect example is Catch-22. [Joseph] Heller later said that he wrote Catch-22 thinking less about World War II than about Korea. The book came out in 1961, and then it got picked up during the Vietnam War, right? So yes—these [books] are useful across wars.

Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die is something else. Eric Fair’s Consequence is a really powerful memoir about torture; I’m sure they’d love Kayla Williams’ Love My Rifle More than You; The Road Ahead is a really important anthology of short stories, and I was part of another anthology of veteran-written fiction called Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. And Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, of course; David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is absolutely superb; C.J. Chivers’ new book, The Fighters is as great as you can imagine…

There’s a whole host of really great stuff that comes at it from all these different angles. I could give recommendations all day long.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the author

About the author

Rachel Kambury is a writer and editor specializing in war literature and history. Her work has appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence Magazine, The Quivering Pen, and others, with an essay forthcoming in the Military Writers Guild anthology Why We Write. She lives and works in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @rkambury.

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