On the Front Lines: Phil Klay and the New Veteran Fiction

© Bjorn Iooss

Novelist and Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay discusses his work and upcoming books.

War changes landscapes both geographic and literary. World War I bloodily redrew the world’s borders, but its veterans also birthed Modernism. World War II brought us Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and absurdist humor. Vietnam made Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr, and the nonfiction novel. All have entered the literary lexicon, inscribed in the way we write now. But for more than a decade, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq produced only a stream of reportage—plus a wave of thinkpieces asking, where is A Farewell to Arms 3.0? Why weren’t these veterans, like their forebears, interpreting their experiences in fiction and rewriting the rules of expression? 

In the last few years, the void has been filled first with a trickle (former FOB public affairs spinner David Abrams’s satyrical Fobbit, Iraq vet Kevin Powers’s lyrical The Yellow Birds) and, lately, by a surge. The momentum was turbo-charged by Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay’s brilliant, brutal short-story collection Redeployment, which won last year’s National Book Award and turned its author into a posterboy for modern war fiction. The year since that book’s publication has seen the release of Marine Michael Pitre’s absurdist Fives and Twenty-Fives, Marine Elliott Ackerman’s empathetic Green on Blue, Army ranger Ross Ritchell’s meditative thriller The Knife, and artillery officer John Renehan’s Conradian The Valley. These novels illustrate a widening range of perspectives, but they’ve all tried to translate the struggles of an alienated, all-volunteer military to an audience back home that, absent a draft and its shared sacrifice, barely registered that there was a war going on at all.

“The civilian-military divide has been much talked about,” Klay says. “[But that’s because] there is a great disconnect.” Unlike in Vietnam, “this generation was thanked for its service and called heroes. But they also came back to a society that didn’t feel it was at war at all.” It makes sense, then, that so many veterans turned to fiction: Even more than reportage, it forces readers to make an imaginative leap that belies what Klay calls the “longstanding cop-out” of pretending war can’t be described in words, or understood by those who didn’t live it. “With fiction, uniquely, you imagine yourself inside the heads of these characters, empathetically engaging with them in a really close, but also critical, way,” Klay says. The exercise is vital for veterans as well: “We don’t get a grasp of our own experiences until we communicate them,” he notes.

The War of the Encyclopaedists, out in May, attempts the ultimate military-civilian reconciliation. Co-written by former Baghdad infantry leader Gavin Kovite and his longtime friend, civilian poet Christopher Robinson (and unofficially edited by Klay), it attempts not only to translate the invasion for civilians but, in form and function, to reconcile the two worlds. (Even Green on Blue, written in the voice of an Afghan boy turned militiaman, an unprecedented empathetic leap, dealt only with the perspectives of those who’d lived the war.) Weaving the experiences of a Baghdad-based National Guardsman with those of his best friend, a Boston grad student, its fragmented narrative mimics the occupation’s herky-jerky cadence. But through the trope of a joint Wikipedia entry, which the protagonists update across the continental divide, the novel also finally closes the communication gap. Says Klay: “To assume that any type of experience can’t be communicated is to cut off our ability to understand it.”