The Long Road Home

Dexter Filkins:

BookWar is too weird a thing to make sense of when it’s actually happening. It’s not just the combat, which by its nature is unintelligible. Armed conflict so fundamentally alters the environment it takes hold of that no aspect of life escapes undistorted: not love, not friendship, not sleep, not trust, not conversation. In war, even boredom is strange. The war in Iraq is finally over, at least for Americans, which means, in a way, that we may finally begin to comprehend it. I don’t mean in a historical sense: A multitude of books have already dissected the war’s origins, costs and wider implications. I mean in a human sense: what the war felt like, what it did to people’s brains, how it changed the lives it did not consume. This is not, strictly speaking, the realm of journalism or history, but of fiction and memoir. The best literature of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” captured the ways the conflict splintered the psyches of the men who fought it and how it rattled around in their minds, and in the minds of the people who loved them, long after the fighting ended. All wars do that, but O’Brien, drawing on his experience as a foot soldier, connected those dislocations to the very particular milieu that formed the American experience in Vietnam: the moral ambiguity, the invisible enemy, the jungle, the waste.

In “Redeployment,” Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, grapples with a different war but aims for a similar effect: showing us the myriad human manifestations that result from the collision of young, heavily armed Americans with a fractured and deeply foreign country that very few of them even remotely understand. Klay succeeds brilliantly, capturing on an intimate scale the ways in which the war in Iraq evoked a unique array of emotion, predicament and heartbreak. In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. “Redeployment” is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.

More here.