It’s tempting to be dubious about any book that has the brass to trumpet itself as a ”classic of the war-writing tradition” on its own inside front flap. But then you read Phil Klay’s first sentence (”We shot dogs”), his first paragraph, his first page, and his first story, about a Marine struggling to adjust to life back home after Operation Scooby, the slaughter of strays in Iraq because the dogs were scavenging human corpses. And you think, Damn. Okay. You have my attention.
The collection of 12 Iraq-war stories marches across well-traveled battlefield terrain: War is hell, a dizzying world of crap. But it’s precisely because the themes and characters are familiar that the prose stands out. Readers know about post-traumatic stress and the fog of war, but Klay — a Marine who served during the surge — has an eye and an ear for a single searing line of dialogue or a scene of maddening dissonance that can pierce your soul. There’s the artillery unit debating who gets credit for the unconfirmed kills after they strike insurgents six miles away. There’s the Marine unit stuck in a chaste Muslim country that contracts the sorriest case of herpes. And there are the suicidal soldiers rattled by their commander’s zealous tactics for annihilating the enemy. Klay takes you into the minds of ”mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler,” as a chaplain observes in ”Prayer in the Furnace.” Klay brilliantly manages to wring some sense out of the nonsensical — resulting in an extraordinary, if unnerving, literary feat. A