31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 15: “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System” by Phil Klay

May 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Redeployment

Redeployment_Phil_Klay“Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be.” So begins Phil Klay’s story “Money as a Weapons System,” an acidic satire about the various ways the American government and its agents mishandled reconstruction following the abbreviated Iraq war.

On May 1, 2003, a mere forty-three days after the U.S. and its so-called “coalition of the willing” invaded a country that had nothing to do with the events of 9/11, then President George W. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. “In the battle of Iraq,” Bush asserted, “the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” These statements were made while the president stood at a podium that was placed in front of a large sign declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

Of course, history has shown that the triumphalism of Bush’s speech was severely misplaced. An unforeseen insurgency, sectarian violence, the rise of ISIS – all these and more made “securing and reconstructing” Iraq a dicey proposition. In his speech, Bush invoked the military victories at Normandy and Iwo Jima as precursors to the Iraq adventure, but Klay’s story goes on to point out that such resemblances are inapplicable. In Iraq, Klay writes, “[t]here was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat. The closest we’d come were those toppled Saddam statues, but that was years ago.” Instead, U.S. forces that remained in country confronted suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, to say nothing of the bureaucratic ineptitude and corporate greed that forestalled any real progress in putting a broken country back together again.

Klay is a U.S. Marine who participated in the so-called “surge” of 2007; he is also a skilled fiction writer whose military background and experience in Iraq lends the stories in Redeployment (which won the 2014 National Book Award) an authenticity that other stories coming out of the Iraq war don’t possess. His book has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War collection The Things We Carried; it also recalls Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The stories in the collection run the gamut, from tales of front-line combat to pieces about veterans struggling to reintegrate themselves into normal life upon returning home. “After Action Report” and “Money as a Weapons System,” two of the volume’s best pieces, illustrate two sides of the U.S. experience in Iraq in the years following Bush’s aircraft carrier speech. The former is told from the perspective of a grunt named Paul, whose convoy is blown up by an IED and who takes credit for the subsequent killing of an Iraqi teenager at the request of fellow soldier Timhead, the actual shooter. “Money as a Weapons System” is a Helleresque satire about bureaucratic malfeasance and ineptitude in attempts to rebuild what the U.S. has so effectively destroyed, all while satisfying interested parties backed by political or corporate influence.

The two stories are, necessarily, very different in tone. “After Action Report” is sober and violent, and unsparing in its depiction of the psychological toll the soldiers’ deployment takes on them. “Money as a Weapons System,” by contrast, is sardonic and infused with mordant comedy.

What they share in common is a tenor of incipient threat, the feeling that violence – either directed or accidental – could erupt at any moment. “Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent pure terror,” Paul muses at one point. “They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time.” The sentiment is echoed in “Money as a Weapons System,” about a Foreign Service Officer who is dropped into an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) tasked with restoring infrastructure in the rural area of Taji. “Nobody’s been that way in a long time,” one soldier tells him in advance of a road trip. “There’s probably IEDs there from ’04. We have no idea what we might hit.”

The convoy is headed for an outpost the Americans have named “Istalquaal.” The narrator asks his translator, a former professor, what the word means. “‘Istiqlal means independence,’ he said. ‘Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.'” This is typical of the level of understanding the ranking ePRT members display about the country they are charged with rebuilding. A Jordanian company has been contracted to build a water pipeline across a highway, but they used the wrong equipment, so that if the water is turned on, pressure in the pipes will cause all the toilets in the area to explode. Meanwhile, government agents stymie attempts to bolster a women’s clinic in favour of implementing job initiatives such as turning widows into beekeepers, and a U.S. businessman advocates “sports diplomacy” by sending useless baseball uniforms to be distributed to Iraqi children.

The clumsiness and incompetence of the various groups charged with reconstruction, Klay implies, is a betrayal of the very people the U.S. forces were supposed to be liberating. What “After Action Report” makes clear is that it is also a betrayal of the U.S. forces themselves, who are putting their lives on the line for ideals that have proven to be chimerical at best. Soldiers thrown into combat in a country their leaders don’t understand, and for reasons that are not at all clear or defensible, nevertheless face constant peril in the course of trying to serve their country to the best of their abilities, while receiving little in the way of support or assistance.

Following the incident on the road and the subsequent debriefing, and against his better judgment, Paul consults his platoon’s chaplain for spiritual counsel. The chaplain advises him to pray, but Paul balks at this notion: “Every time I hear an explosion, I’m like, That could be one of my friends. And when I’m on a convoy, every time I see a pile of trash or rocks or dirt, I’m like, That could be me. I don’t want to go out anymore. But it’s all there is. And I’m supposed to pray?”

Still, the soldiers remain more clear-eyed and grounded about their mission than the speechifiers and propagandists back home. Paul relates a joke told among the Marines about a “liberal pussy journalist” who is “trying to get the touchy-feely side of war” by asking a sniper what it is like to kill someone. “What do you feel when you pull the trigger?” The Marine’s reply: “Recoil.” Elsewhere, Paul’s staff sergeant puts into perspective the soldier’s reaction to a little girl who witnessed the killing of what is assumed to be a family member:

“This kid’s Iraqi, right?”

“Sure.”

“Then this might not even be the most fucked-up thing she’s seen.”

“Okay.”

“How long we been here?”

“Two and a half months.”

“Right. And how much fucked-up shit have we seen? And she’s bee here for years.”

Klay’s unsentimental portraits of the damage exacted in the fallout from the 2003 invasion are infuriating, but also undeniably valuable for the light they shed on the American experience, both overseas and back home. Paul and Timhead’s final consensus is that their efforts putting their lives on the line are ultimately inconsequential: they don’t matter to the Iraqis or, indeed, to their superiors or the government that sent them into harm’s way in the first place. This recognition lends the finale of “Money as a Weapons System,” several dozen pages later in the collection, an added sting. Circling back to the story’s opening, the ending is contingent and infused with dripping irony. After finally outfitting a clutch of Iraqi kids in the businessman’s baseball uniforms, the narrator manages to snap a photo to send back to the mandarins stateside. The Iraqi translator’s sarcastic assessment is summed up in the story’s corrosive final word: “Success.”

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