President Barack Obama is using his latest book recommendation — “Redeployment” by Phil Klay — to criticize those seeking a more aggressive foreign policy.
In an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Obama said the book showed him why it’s important to “aim before you shoot.” The president also warned against “antiseptic plans” that are, in reality, “very different from war and conflict” on the ground.
The comments contrast sharply with those of potential 2016 candidates like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, each of whom in recent days has mused publicly about sending ground troops to fight in Iraq and Syria.
Coming at the end of an interview Sunday that touched on tensions with Russia and Iran, friction with China and America’s ongoing conflict with violent Islamic extremists, the president argued that Klay’s book demonstrates why “we can’t play political games and we can’t engage in bluster,” since “there are costs to the decisions we make.”
The National Book Award-winning short story collection, written by a Marine combat veteran, has been lauded by critics, including prominent war reporters George Packer and Dexter Filkins, who called it the war’s “best literary work” and the “best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls,” respectively.
Filkins added that the book dovetailed with a vision of the war he developed while reporting in Iraq as “a misbegotten venture, begun on bad intelligence and without a vision” — a war that ultimately “we didn’t win.”
Packer claims the book “peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion” played out between veterans and the public back home. He cites the book’s title story, in which the narrator identifies his wife in a crowd upon returning home and immediately feels a distance between her, a civilian, and himself. “I moved in and kissed her. I figured that’s what I was supposed to do.”
The book, writes Packer, highlights “the inversion of normal reality called combat” and “its permanent effect on bodies and souls,” which, in one story, pushes a battalion to commit war crimes. Rodriguez, a soldier in the battalion, prepares to report the infractions, and Klay’s protagonist narrates, “I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror” that become “crueler, than their circumstance.” The narrator adds that “this place is holier than back home” because “at least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about hell.”
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.
Meanwhile, “American Sniper,” a new film that paints the Iraq War in an almost morally unambiguous light, has grossed nearly $250 million in just over a month and garnered six Oscar nominations, including best picture.
First lady Michelle Obama praised the film Friday for avoiding the caricature of the “broken, downtrodden vet who is homeless or on drugs or has such PTSD he can’t function.” The film, the first lady said, creates “moral clarity” in veterans’ “complex journeys.”
“Redeployment” is a much more complicated work.
In one passage, Klay writes about a veteran at NYU Law School who is considering public interest law after graduation. His friend Paul tries to convince him against it.
“America is broken, man,” Paul says, punctuating his remark with a drink of beer. “Trust me, you don’t want to be the guy bailing water out of a sinking ship.”
“Iraq vet,” Klay’s narrator responds, pointing at his own chest. “Been there, done that.”