I’ve read a number of war stories — from soldiers’ accounts to war reporters’, both fiction and non-fiction — and, so far, only two short stories have truly disturbed me. They caught me off-guard.
I’ve already mentioned one in an earlier post. Unfortunately, I can’t share it until it’s published. The other is the first and title story to Phil Klay’s Redeployment.
To explicate the meaning of that title could take a few different paths and we’d still be unsure of the truth (sounds like war, huh?).
Soldiers redeploy when they leave a combat zone to head, hopefully, home. What do they take home with them? Tim O’Brien never answered that after telling us what they carried in-country.
The soldier in this story brings back home the ability to kill dogs — others and his own.
It’s not what you think.
It isn’t “murder,” if you will. Cold and calculated it is — but not malicious. A humane killing (a dog lapping up human blood, a dying dog), if you will. And he brought it home.
You can’t send a person off to war to kill other people and expect him to return unchanged. Maybe a little more in touch with the important things — flesh and blood and family and tribe. Maybe he returns with a view beyond our superficial and centimeter-deep civilization.
Klay’s soldier is nothing if not the jumpy, post-traumatic stress-sufferer we hear about in the news. He’s also an individual whose judgments and principles have broken through the surface and sit raw and exposed. Hundreds of kinds of cereal is ridiculous; taking responsibility for your friends, for your dying pet is strength — this is what he carried back in his rucksack.
Why pay someone to kill your dog when you can do it yourself? If you can kill humans and other animals for seemingly no reason or larger purpose (except, of course, personal survival), why not the mercy to end the pain of one you love? And why outsource that job? You can’t outsource the pain and guilt — no matter who kills your pet or how they do it, a shot to the head or a shot in the thigh.
I’m not being cruel here. I’m trying to understand without judgement.
I want to admire something about those principles, embrace a strength like that — but it’s a dead strength. Stale principles, too. Only the word “responsibility” has power and possible use.
It wasn’t all that long ago that regular people killed our own pets when they got old. No vet needed. Others suffered until they crawled off to die alone.
Having an animal put down — killed — because of illness or age is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Even knowing it was the best decision I could make. I’ll always carry a bit of guilt for that, too.
The antagonist, at this point — after redeploying, understands this. Feels it. He didn’t come back the same.
“It’s on me,” he says when it comes time to put his dog down. And he recognizes the heartbreak to come — he isn’t immune. In fact, in the end, he doesn’t look at his pet when he kills it. The dog is merely a blur. He detaches, once again, from our reality into the reality of survival.
Read the story and read the book.