Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bookends: The War at Home

Citing a new book about the Iraq War by a harshly critical war veteran, President Obama says Americans need to think more clearly about the costs of sending troops into our Middle Eastern wars.

“Over vacation, I read a book of short stories by Phil Klay called Redeployment," Obama said Sunday on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS program. “And it's a quick but powerful and for me painful set of stories about the experience of ordinary soldiers in Iraq. And I think it's a reminder, particularly important for a commander in chief, that the antiseptic plans and decisions and strategies and the opining of pundits that take place in Washington, you know, is very different from war and conflict as it's experienced by people on the ground.

“And part of the reason that I am deliberate about decision making when it comes to foreign policy, and part of the reason that I do think it's important to aim before you shoot is because I've met enough young men in Walter Reed [Military Medical Center] and talked to enough families who have lost loved ones to remember that there are costs to the decisions we make,” Obama continued. “Sometimes we have to make them, but they are real and they are serious. ... If we're going to deploy folks to war, it better be for a darn good reason. We better have a very clear objective that is worthy of the sacrifices that these folks make.”

As noted in a Politico commentary on Obama’s comments: “The president’s praise for the book comes months after he ordered several hundred American ‘advisers’ back to Iraq, although not in a combat role — and months into a public debate over how to best fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Phil Klay’s book was previously lauded by jaundiced war correspondents and literary critics. “’Redeployment’ is military for ‘return,’ and Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought,” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker.

A few days before Obama’s shout out, the author drew a standing-room-only crowd for a discussion about his book, which won a 2014 National Book Award, with students and faculty at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Klay said he wrote this work to explore dilemmas that 12 characters in the short stories faced during deployment in the war and after coming home. “The beauty of fiction,” he said, “is that you can bring someone into the head of someone else as they try to choose what to do.” 

He credited readers of his early drafts—at NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop and at Hunter College’s MFA program—for prodding him to clearly state what he felt should be drawn from various experiences he was part of or learned from others.

In response to questions from the audience, Klay said he didn’t come home from Iraq traumatized but rather uncertain what he felt. “One of the problems coming back is you were part of this massive global thing that you didn’t yet know what you felt about it,” he said. “Writing the book helped me get a better perspective on it.” 

To illustrate his point about the complexity of the war for many veterans, he told a story about another vet speaking at an event, who said “he used to be proud of being a Marine in Iraq. Now he felt the war was an evil thing. So what did that make him?” Klay said. “That guy felt he had to bear the weight of an enormous thing.”

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Big Game

"Throwing the Bomb"   Watercolor by Jan Barry

Super Bowl Sunday. 
A classic clash of football titans. 
The ultimate razzmatazz of pigskin pummeling. 
My wobbly right knee often sharply recalls playing this game 
decades ago in great delight despite incredible pain. 
A high school classmate at a reunion years ago 
enthusiastically remembered seemingly every move in every game. 
I’ve forgotten most of the details, but my body still feels the pads, 
the cleats, the helmet, the uniform, the hard smack of blocks and tackles, 
the exhilaration of running and maneuvering until smacked to the ground. 
And so it went on the crowd-roaring road to war. 
Choose sides. Cheer, cheer, jeer: 
Throw the bomb. Destroy the other team.