Phil Klay is a US Marine Corps veteran and a writer. He served in the Anbar Province in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, and his first collection of short stories, Redeployment, won the National Book Award in 2014. The book contains 12 stories from the perspectives of soldiers, military chaplains, and other Americans in Iraq during the war. He is a Hodder Fellow at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, where he is working on his first novel. I talked to Mr. Klay on Princeton’s campus about his experience as a veteran, his thoughts on military fiction, and his own writing.
Ben Perelmuter: What do you read?
Phil Klay: A whole range of things. I read Patrick Phillips’s Elegy for a Broken Machine recently. It’s a really tremendous book of poetry. I’m reading a Colombian journalist’s book called País de Plomo, which is about the war between the FARC and the Colombians from the early part of the millennium. It’s just outstanding. It reminds me of Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War. I started reading the essays of Jean Améry. Just a really interesting mind. A Holocaust survivor with a very exact sense of moral vision. My readng runs the gamut.
BP: The books you just mentioned all seem to be related to war. Do you find yourself mostly reading books about the military?
PK: Well, Elegy for a Broken Machine is a poet writing about the death of his father. I think I read a wide range of things. It’s always weird getting that question when I’m deep into research for something, because my whole world becomes about one thing. I’m drilling down to write an essay right now so I’m researching particular battles in the Revolutionary War and I’m reading the accounts of Hessian soldiers about the Battle of Long Island and I’m also reading some stuff on war theory. The last thing I read unrelated to work was Broken Machine.
BP: Could you talk about your decision process to join the military? Had it always been your intention to do that?
PK: No, I never thought I was going to be a Marine. I didn’t grow up obsessed with the military. As an American, military action is a part of your upbringing. I think the first world event that registered in my consciousness in any real way was the Persian Gulf War though that felt mostly like—I was 7—like a triumph of technology. It didn’t feel like war the way it was presented on TV, because it was mostly just these grainy videos of smart bombs hitting their targets one after the other.
I always thought I was going to be a diplomat. My maternal grandfather was a career diplomat. He served all over the world and was the ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Norway in the 70’s and 80’s. He served under Democratic and Republican presidents and was someone I tremendously admired. My father was in the Peace Corps and my mother worked in development, so I had always had a respect for service, but the military was not the way I thought I’d go.
BP: How did you end up joining the marines?
PK: America was at war in multiple countries. So suddenly it seemed that was the way to go. I joined in the summer of 2004 and I raised my hand and swore my oath of office May 11, 2005. It felt like there was a generational call of arms, sort of. A generational call to arms that only a few people heard. I was talking to my friend, who was an Arabic linguist in the army. He thought the offices would be swamped, but that was not the case. A lot of people of my generation did sign up out of a sense of idealism, sometimes with complicated feelings about the war. I have a friend who protested the war in Iraq, but he joined because he felt we had a duty to the Iraqi people.
Along those lines, one thing that struck me about the book was that many of the characters have a strong sense that there is a dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys.
BP: Was it your or others’ experience that there was a clear bad guy and impetus to fight them?
PK: No. And it was important to me in the book that there were narrators like the first narrator, who’s in the second battle of Fallujah, which was straight up urban warfare, of the sort that the United States military hadn’t fought since the battle of Hanoi City in Vietnam. The experience of warfare that he has is very, very different than the type of unit that is doing counterinsurgency in Ramadi in 2006, where ethical and moral boundaries have started to slip. These guys are in this incredibly violent place and they have poor leadership that encourages them to be overly aggressive. And some of them make the wrong decisions. It was important to me that the reader gets to experience both those ways of thinking because they are both a part of it. There’s this very black and white way of thinking that people, particularly in the moment, in the theater, tend to have. You find that over time as people try to contextualize the experience it becomes much murkier. And certainly counterinsurgency, which is what we were doing in 2007 — Marines refer to it as a morally bruising battlefield. The whole strategy of an insurgent is to hide among a civilian population, and platoon commanders and captains are continually trying to negotiate deals and determine who’s the enemy and how aggressive or pulled-back a posture they should have. Oftentimes these are decisions that have huge moral consequences. There are literally lives at stake but it’s very hard to see clearly what the right or wrong decision is going to be.
BP: How do you cultivate those different experiences in your writing, and how do you draw from your own experience?
PK: I never really know how to respond to this. I did a lot of research for this book. I didn’t do any of the jobs that the guys do in the collection. I spent time in Iraq and I spent with a lot of different types of Marines and soldiers and sailors. I’d go out on patrol with infantry guys or spend time with engineers on a mission or hang out with Navy medical personnel. I did a lot of interviews while I was writing the book and I read a lot. I drew a lot not just from journalism and non-fiction accounts but also from fiction. Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, which is this Czech WWI novel that was written by a Czech anarchist, was something I very much had in my mind. During the writing of the story told from the perspective of a chaplain [“Prayer in the Furnace”] I was reading Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, which is a beautiful novel that is not about war at all, but is about a lot of the moral and spiritual issues that come up in war.
BP: That’s interesting, because I was struck by your New York Times article in which your friend equates experiencing war to experiencing child abuse.
PK: A friend had told me this story that said that a piece that I had written about watching a Marine die had resonated with her because of what she had gone through. I talked about a sense of numbing and she said, “I don’t mean to compare what I’ve been through to you. I could never imagine what you’ve been through.” I was a staff officer. I didn’t come back traumatized, but there’s a particular way that we like to think about war experience. It’s very much in the literature, in the trench poets or Hemingway. There’s this sense of war as this rarified category of experience that is somehow incommunicable. I think that’s a difficult moment. I think that it’s important that we be able to communicate about war experience or about trauma that people can feel understood. I was doing an event with Elliot Ackerman, another Marine/writer, and someone asked “do you think non-veterans can ever understand what you went through?”, and he said “well I hope so, because if they can’t that means I can never come home. It means there will always be this gulf between me and my wife and children. And I don’t want to believe that.” And I think the act of writing fiction means that you have faith and hope in the ability of a reader to think and really deeply and empathetically engage with an experience radically unlike theirs.
BP: When you’re writing, is having a civilian reader being able to empathize with the military experience a conscious goal of yours?
PK: Yeah, absolutely. When I was writing the book I had civilian readers. You need to be as true to the experience as possible and that can operate even at the level of language. Some of the stories in the book are maybe less civilian-friendly than others, but it was very important to me as I was writing that, even if you don’t understand all of the acronyms in the story, you can intuit the sentence, you can understand the emotional core of the story, you can follow the emotional arch. In many ways that’s the balancing act that I was constantly getting feedback from civilians that often showed me things I didn’t quite understand about what I was writing about military life.
BP: Moving back a little, is writing military fiction different than writing fiction about abuse or some other traumatic experience?
PK: Or about puppies! No, I don’t think so. Is Anna Karenina somehow inherently different than War and Peace? It’s like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and his Odessa Tales. It’s the same animating intelligence and brilliant writer behind it. It’s another type of experience. Stories about war are as varied as stories about love or stories about any form of human experience. When I was writing the book there were 12 narrators, all first person, all told from different perspectives. Different guys with different views of the war and all with very radically different experiences.
BP: I’d like to shift the convo back to your own experience. As a public figure, do you see yourself as a writer first, a veteran first, or is that an unfair question?
PK: I don’t know. My wife and I had our first son two months ago so I’m a father now. That’s probably become the most central part of my identity. Changing diapers and waking up in the middle of the night and burping a tiny baby is… pretty great! And very consuming.
I don’t think in terms of any one thing being the dominant part of who I am, and my general assumption is that as time moves I’ll shift and change, though hopefully stay true to some core things about me. I am certainly deeply invested in thinking about American military policy. That’s very important to me. Veterans’ issues are important to me. I don’t know what’s primary.
In terms of being interested in veteran’s issues and military policy, your book doesn’t on the whole doesn’t seem to be political, except for a couple instances like the story about the Foreign Service officer [“Money as a Weapons System”]. Do you feel it’s an apolitical book?
I don’t. It’s funny though. What do we consider politics or political thinking in a book? “Money as a Weapons System” certainly is about the aftermath of failed policy. But it doesn’t include a screed against the Bush administration.
BP: But it mentions Rumsfeld.
PK: Well sure. You can’t not. And I think I’m more concerned with looking at the aftermath of these policies and how they’re experienced. I don’t think you read the book and come out thinking everything went right in Iraq. I suppose my aim is not to provide people with a map of who to vote for, but if you try to very seriously think through military policy and its consequences, there are unavoidable political conclusions that you come to. But there’s a place for op-ed writing, and I don’t think it’s in fiction, because I think fiction is an ideal form that allows you to dwell in questions that are a lot harder than, “did the Bush administration plan a thoughtful invasion of Iraq and really carry that thing through in the early phase?” I don’t think anyone is going to go to my book to find the answer to that. There are better resources.
BP: When did you decide to write fiction and take that on more fully?
PK: I always wrote. To me it’s the best way to make sense of the world. And this probably goes back to your political questions. It’s a way to take all your nice, clean assumptions and put them into a story. The process of making the characters in the story real, living, breathing people who feel authentic and true and vibrant inevitably destroys whatever clean notions you thought you had.
BP: When you were in Iraq were you writing about your experience?
PK: No, I tried to write stories while I was in Iraq, but I wasn’t writing about the war. They were just different things. They weren’t good. I remember that. I hope that they’re all destroyed. There’s some computer disk out there and if I ever find it I’ll probably smash it with a hammer.
I always wrote. I always kept notes on what struck me or that I found interesting. I still do.
BP: Do those notes turn into projects?
PK: Nothing is ever lost in fiction. Everything kind of gives you a little more knowledge about the world to turn into a story.
BP: What was the process of coming back from deployment?
PK: I was in Iraq for 13 months from 2007 to 2008. I had a staff job, but I did travel around the province and I spent time with a lot of different types of folk. I had two weeks’ leave in the middle of it. The Marines will send you anywhere you want in the world. I knew a Marine who for his two weeks’ leave from Iraq he had his mother mail his base-jumping rig to Iraq, so that he could then have the military fly him to Switzerland, so he could go base jumping off the Eiger, which is exactly what he did.
I just wanted to go home to New York. It was very strange going home, in particular after you’ve been in a combat zone, because you’ve been in a place where people are dying, and it’s not as though New York is disconnected from that. The political decisions we make here are incredibly important for what happens overseas, and yet it felt like there was no public sense that we were at war. It was strange and alienating. But also it was nice to see friends and, you know, drink a lot of gin. And then I went back to Iraq and finished out the deployment. The violence level really plummeted in the latter half of 2007. This was during the Anbar Awakening and the surge. So I came back [to the United States] in early January and didn’t come back to NY. I came back to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Where of course there did seem to be a public sense that we were at war, because it’s a military base surrounded by Jacksonville, which is a military town. So that was a little different.
BP: Since then has the process of talking about your experience to civilians changed?
PK: It’s funny, you asked about my identity as a veteran. My identity as a veteran was super important to me after getting out of the Marine Corps, and then you kind of mellow out. The experience of writing this book, traveling around the country, talking to people, and talking to veterans has reinforced my sense of not just myself as a veteran but my appreciation for the veteran community, and also for the things they’re doing. Veterans on average are more engaged in community organizations, they donate more to charity, they give more of their time, they vote more. I think that’s related to the notion of service and also it might be related to the experience of being in these wars. Certainly for me coming home from Iraq and also watching what has happened in Iraq since we left has highlighted the obligations one has as an American citizen.
BP: Is it hard to see what’s happening in Iraq now?
PK: It’s utterly horrific. I’ve spent time in Iraq; I’ve met plenty of Iraqi people. This represents a nightmare for them. So yes, I watch what’s happening with grief and horror and rage.
BP: Can you talk a little about the novel you’re working on as a Hodder Fellow?
PK: I’m working on a novel about the US involvement in Colombia. Colombia has been the largest recipient of US aid in the Western hemisphere since the end of the Clinton administration. It’s a very interesting story for a whole lot of reasons. Also, I think the story of how we’ve interacted with Colombia says a lot about how the United States uses its power around the world. Also, my wife is Colombian-American. It’s a country that I love. It’s where we were married. I’m heading there next month to do some interviews and research, so right now it’s at a stage where I’m just trying to soak up as much information as I can. I’ve been interviewing American military personnel that spent time there as well as other American government folk and I’m just trying to get a richer and thicker sense of the country and what the US has been up to, and some of the odder, more interesting corners of experience within that that might lead to something more interesting. It’s difficult to talk about exactly what might happen because there are things that I’m sketching out or writing right now that are very much in flux.
BP: Do you go into the research process with some sort of narrative structure in mind?
PK: Yeah, but the process of research destroyed all that. [That said], the more that I know, the more I have concrete things that I know are going to happen in the novel. Certainly the novel’s nothing that I thought it would look like when I started writing it. It’s a lot to take in, a lot of things to read, but it’s been great.