One of the most memorable books I have ever read was 365 Days, published in 1972, written by Ronald Glasser, a doctor who served a one-year stint caring for the soldiers who served in the Vietnam War. Wondering how a person serving in yet another misguided war dealt with it, I wanted to read Redeployment, by Phil Klay. It won the 2014 National Book Award.
Glasser wrote about war from one remove – his hospital was in Japan – and Klay writes about it by creating a series of stories written in the first person about other peoples’ experiences, leaving the author once again at one remove, though Klay did serve in Iraq himself. Maybe all wars are so absurd, random, and vicious that it’s best not to meet them head on; best to come at them from the side. Klay writes as a chaplain, an infantryman, an artilleryman, a returned veteran (both a man and a woman), a wounded veteran, a diplomat, an officer and an enlisted man. He thus can show how battle feels before, during and after it happens, and can comment on the ripple effect it has on all of society.
The men and women who speak through these pages are neither strutting gung-ho Marines nor cynical dropouts. They are all human beings trying to do the right thing. What is more, they are trying to help others do the right thing. He catches the semper fi, the let them eat cake, and the pox on them all.
Smack in the middle of the mayhem is the only piece of literature I have read in years and years that made me laugh out loud. Maybe since Catch 22 which this book resembles; however, this time we are dealing with volunteer soldiers, so they do not feel the urgency or the right to escape that Yossarian felt. In a Catch 22 way, it is ridiculous but also touching that a businessman in Kansas sends over boxes and boxes of baseball equipment so the poor Iraqi children, scratching for food where they can find it, can learn baseball.
Klay quotes a joke on page 170: “How many Vietnam Vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? “You wouldn’t know. You weren’t there.” The veteran is the man (or occasional woman) who joins up because of, at the very least, a tolerance for jingoism and militarism, learns quickly that it is all claptrap, and returns to a “grateful nation” giving him “Thank you for your service handshakes,” as the embodiment of the claptrap which has always and perhaps always will send the young to war.
Many women and children (some men) have lived in abusive households with unpredictable, ferocious violence. They are served by ministers, doctors, social workers, and government programs, as are the veterans. They also end up in the hospital with injuries large and small, often inflicted with firearms. They are often warped for the rest of their lives, or maybe just for a very long time. Their memories interfere with healthy relationships. Nobody who hasn’t been through it can ever know what it was really like. They do not, however, share the duty of the veteran to embody the fantasies of their nation, even after they have learned how devastating these fantasies are. The veterans in this book do little to disabuse their civilian fellow Americans of their faith in God and country.
On page 160 Klay recounts the story of Levin, who is killed by a bullet to the neck. The sergeant major takes this as a teachable moment and says it is Levin’s fault because he was not wearing his PPE when he was hit. The author writes, “I guess the sergeant major, like most people, needed death to be sensible….A reason for each casualty…As if mortality is a game with rules where the universe is rational and the God watching over maneuvers us like chess pieces.”
In war, one man sees God, another can see no reason at all. Who is right?
Klay uses military terms without explanation (see “PPE” above), and it works. He also uses fancy words like “theodicy,” which I had never seen before. There is a felicitous mixture of sophisticated words and grunt words, and it works.
I am waiting for the arrival of a fresh copy of 365 days, yes, it is still in print, in its third edition, 40-some years after it was written. It’s that good.
Put together The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, 365 Days by Karl Glasser, and Redeployment and you have all the reasons you will ever need to be a pacifist, or a reluctant warrior at the very least.
The eternal question is, “When will we ever learn?”