Redeployment, by Phil Klay, Canongate Books RRP£15/Penguin Press RRP$26.95, 304 pages

The Marine Corps taught me how to kill but it didn’t teach me how to deal with killing,” wrote Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes in What it is Like to Go to War, his 2011 book on the psychological trauma he experienced post combat. Almost 40 years after Vietnam, the soldiers in Redeployment, Phil Klay’s relentless and compelling debut collection of short stories based on his experiences as a soldier in Iraq during the “surge” of 2007-08, face similar conflicting emotions in the aftermath of killing, particularly when their tour is over.

Homecoming “feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good,” says Sgt Price, a soldier returning from Iraq in the opening story, “Redeployment”. Awaiting Price at home is his wife, who seems scared of him, and a sick family dog who brings back harrowing memories of killing dogs for sport in Iraq. Without his rifle, Price doesn’t know what to do with his hands. On visits to the local high street, he struggles not to flip out as he is reminded of being on patrol in Iraq’s Anbar province (where Klay himself served as a marine captain).

When it’s happening, you don’t think about the violence, says Price. “You’re thinking about who’s in that house, what’s he armed with, how’s he gonna kill you, your buddies. You’re going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you’re killing people at five [meters] in a concrete box,” he continues. “The thinking comes later, when they give you time.”

While some of the stories are set on the battlefields of Iraq, the collection is unified by the combatants’ attempts to cope with what comes after the violence – the need to rationalise the things they saw and did, and to understand the reasons they were even there. Unlike the conscripted soldiers in the novels of Marlantes and others who wrote about the Vietnam war, today’s American warriors are volunteers, which complicates their own understanding of their actions.

Waguih, the protagonist of “Psychological Operations”, is an American veteran of Egyptian Coptic descent, attending college on a grant from the military. (Klay took a Master of Fine Arts degree after serving.) At college, Waguih “tended to play the world-weary vet who’d seen something of life and could look at . . . fellow students’ idealism with only the wistful sadness of a parent whose child is getting too old to believe in Santa Claus.”

Klay has a finely tuned ear for a certain type of barracks’ candour. When Waguih tells a Muslim student that it’s his birthright to kill Muslims, a complaint is lodged and the dean’s office intervenes. “The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself . . . You chose to serve,” Waguih says, attempting to explain himself. “At the same time, though,” he continues, “you feel somehow less.”

Though proud of serving as marines, Klay’s characters often feel diminished by their actions: the shooting of a child soldier; working in the gruesome Mortuary Affairs division; killing from a distance – an increasingly common feature of modern warfare. Many are suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Frequently, they use alcohol and sex to cope.

Despite the dark subject matter, the stories are often funny. In “Money as a Weapons System”, one of the collection’s high notes, an American politician decides that teaching children baseball is “a spot on idea for Iraqi democracy”, and an exasperated junior diplomat is given the task of staging the photo-op while trying to ensure the bats don’t turn up in Islamist torture videos. He would rather be concentrating on a plan for a water treatment plant but is stymied by a hostile translator, rampant corruption and a cynical civilian contractor who tells him, “If you want to succeed, don’t do big ambitious things. This is Iraq. Teach widows to raise bees.”

Klay’s stories shine a light on the plight of veterans of a war that large swaths of the American populace have already moved on from. Literary fiction from the global war on terror has only recently begun to give these soldiers a voice, and Redeployment is an important addition to the genre. Frequently, however, the best reason to read these taut, sharply observed stories is simply to see how they end.

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