Every Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, they are there—outside the movie theater and grocery store, giving away silk poppies or forget-me-nots, and collecting donations for their fellow veterans.
It has been a source of pride that my boys will go out of their way to offer these aging vets, along with a donation, a firm handshake, while looking them in the eyes to say, “Thank you.”
But, is that “thank you” enough? Are the trite and oft-repeated words sufficient to convey our gratitude? Or, do we owe them, in addition to that gratitude, the effort of trying to truly understand their reality?
Every war time veteran can agree that there are countless sacrifices made in the course of serving their country. There are those they expect: time away from loved ones, risking one’s physical safety, the possibility of taking another’s life.
But, also, I am sure, so many sacrifices they could have never predicted, and it is these sacrifices that become an indelible part of their soul.
In author and former Marine Phil Klay’s short story collection, “Redeployment,” winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, he examines the experience of all different types of soldiers, from the young man forced to shoot dogs to keep them from eating the as yet uncollected corpses, to the Mortuary Affairs officer, charged with collecting the bodies of both American and enemy alike.
He looks at what it is like to not only have to cope with the barbarity of war, but also what it means to try to re-enter a so-called normal life after living in such extreme and often inhumane conditions. He reminds us that each soldier has a unique story, and that the experience of one does not necessarily speak to the experience of another.
It is for this reason that Klay chose to pen a collection of first-person narratives, rather than a novel, following only a finite set of characters.
In discussing his choice of characters, Klay says, “The narrators of my stories interpret what they’ve been through in different ways. They go through radically different experiences and make very different choices. I wanted them to argue against each other and so open a place for the reader to enter in and engage.”
He continues, “I wanted to try to drill down into these heads and try to figure out how they’d been shaped by what they’d done. Besides, I found it fascinating. There are all these jobs and all these things people did that are incredible and strange. What is it like to be a Chaplain in a dysfunctional unit? What is it like to be an artilleryman who never comes into contact with his targets? Exploring that raised all these questions for me. Questions about war and patriotism and masculinity and the relationship between the soldier and the citizen and the nation at war.”
And, in reading these accounts, we civilians are able to better understand exactly why it is that our military men and women deserve our gratitude — on a scale we can only imagine.
The Newport Beach Public Library will welcome Klay as the latest guest in the Library Live series, when he offers his lecture, “From the Front Lines of War: Exploring Themes of Violence, Survival, Grief, and Fear.”
Klay is set to appear on Thursday, November 5, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 each, or $20 for Foundation members, students, or teachers.
The lecture, followed by a Q&A, will allow attendees to gain a greater understanding of not only the lengthy Middle East conflict, but the human toll it has taken on an entire generation of soldiers as well.
Michiko Kakutani, of the New York Times said Klay’s writing is, “Gritty, unsparing and fiercely observed, these stories leave us with a harrowing sense of the war in Iraq as it was experienced, day by day, by individual soldiers.”
To me, understanding this is the ultimate way to show our gratitude.
For more information, or to reserve tickets, please visit nbplfoundation.org or call (949) 717-3890.