The Military Masculine: Storytelling and Role-playing in Phil Klay's Stories of War
This paper explores the conflict between hegemonic and new masculinity in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, illustrating the changing conception of gender roles and masculinity in storytelling about war. This paper juxtaposes traditional conceptions of masculinity by examining failures in role-playing in Klay’s short stories. Conflicts arise out of social expectations of the “hero,” the relationship between masculinity and femininity, and trauma caused by war. An additional important relationship is that of the storyteller and his tale. Importantly, some of Klay’s characters struggle with their roles as narrators of heroic war stories, deconstructing the myth of the “trauma hero” while at the same time operating within the heroic frame. Masculinity and war rely on and frame one another, while the alteration of either can result in dislocation and trauma for the soldier. Klay enlarges the frame to include the reader and the reader’s responsibility for analysis and judgement.
Particularly since the 1950s, masculine identity has undergone (and continues to undergo) a process of deconstruction; the definition of masculinity, its societal and political function, and its role in relation to femininity have been subject to flux through changing social values and analysis. Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, was a United States Marine Officer between 2005 to 2009. He based his collection of short stories on his thirteen months of service as a Public Affairs Officer in Anbar Province in Iraq, and published Redeployment in 2014. In Redeployment, twelve narrators are in search of meaning, sharing a frame but constantly reframing and redeploying in order to understand and communicate their war experiences. The narrators seek to perform their own masculinity against a conception of war that no longer affirms traditional masculine roles.The renegotiation of masculine values indicates that masculinity is learned and performed – and Phil Klay’s narrators are actors without a script. The altering of the masculine formula, learned and ingrained through institutions, media, and peer and parental feedback, leaves many modern men in conflict between traditional patriarchal hegemonic masculinity (machismo) and the not yet defined (but increasingly culturally promoted) new masculinity. In a literary and sociological context in which hegemonic masculinity, and thus the male protagonist, is under deconstruction, the narrators of Phil Klay’s Redeployment falter in their role-playing. They do so in relation to the feminine, in terms of self-expression, and with respect to their political sense of coherence. This paper examines these three aspects by itself using frames of gender, storytelling, trauma, and the politics of reading.
Kimberly Hutchings, a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, denotes the hegemonic masculine man as “independent, risk-taking, aggressive, heterosexual and rational” (392). When this man is placed in the theatre of war, these traits are both more pronounced and more scrutinized. Judith Butler, a noted American philosopher and gender theorist at Berkeley University, writes that “frames through which we apprehend or, indeed, fail to apprehend the lives of others as lost or injured . . . are politically saturated”; we explicitly or implicitly select those lives we consider “lose-able” (1). Butler uses the term “frame” to detail an understanding of how shifting the time and place of a framing can reverse or subvert the frame and might “provide the conditions for breaking out of the quotidian acceptance of war” (Butler 11).
The largely male characters in Phil Klay’s stories are constricted by a war-themed frame that confines them in “an assertion of masculine impermeability” (Butler 24). If a soldier lapses in his combative role and compares an Iraqi girl to his sister, his perspective is realigned by his superior; “She’s not your sister. She’s just not. She’s seen it before” (Klay 51). Nevertheless, the narrators of Klay’s stories repeatedly find their experience exceeding the frame, which “troubles” (Butler 9) their sense of reality and meaning.
To begin to understand masculinity and its representation in war literature, consideration of what the masculine identity is, and its cultural context, is required. Itulua Abumere, a social activist and freelance journalist, defines masculinity as a “cultural space” (43) that includes all the traits associated with masculinity, and excludes those that are not. The traits excluded are denoted as “Other” (Abumere 42. Hutchings 389), or feminine. Masculinity cannot exist independently of femininity as the concept refers to what, within a culture, is considered not feminine.
Males who exhibit traits of the “Other” by being emotional, expressive, gentle, or displaying other culturally denoted “feminine” qualities, are often excluded from male groups. Abumere writes that cultures that do not assign males and females to a character type do not have a concept of masculinity in the Western sense (42). Further, Hutchings states that “the practice and legitimization of war (for both men and women) has depended on and reinforced a clear and hierarchical distinction between masculinity and femininity” (391).
One of Klay’s narrators in Redeployment is a priest, a role commonly associated with ‘feminine’ qualities such as pacifism and gentleness. He is told by the caricature of hegemonic masculinity, Rodriguez, that “You know nobody respects chaplains, right?” (127). In other words, no one respects men with feminine qualities, at least in a frame of war. To accept another’s feminine qualities would be to undermine Rodriguez’s own hegemonic masculinity, for the mere contemplation of feminine traits in a male offers a conception of the male that is outside the rigid “cultural space” of hegemonic masculinity, and thus threatens its integrity.
Another of Klay’s narrators, an engineer who never saw direct combat, describes his “war dick” as being smaller than that of a female soldier (Jessie) who did see combat (212). Jessie, as a female, can have a larger “war dick” because if what defines masculinity (and femininity) are culturally applied categories (spaces) of traits, then the concepts are sociological, not biological. In modern society, with gender roles becoming more fluid, Jessie can “inhabit masculinity as a ‘cultural space’” (Abumere 43). Masculinity and femininity are cultural methods of categorizing traits and defining an identity role, supplying criteria for how individuals should behave socially. At the same time, Klay’s narrators also assert individual voices, which deepens the complexity of their struggles.
In Klay’s stories, the tension between social role and the individual is often evident. Masculinity is a cultural characterization of traits which supplies a role for males to inhabit, to perform, but as it is under deconstruction the loss of masculine credibility, as in the case of the soldier with the smaller “war dick,” often leaves the male feeling emasculated, struggling with historical and sociological expectations. Generally, the military dictates what a soldier must do in order to meet masculine requirements. Soldiers do as they are trained, thus circumventing second thoughts. “You did your job,” says the narrator of “After Action Report” (Klay 32). Joining the military, writes the narrator of “Bodies,” “made me feel like a tough guy from a movie” (55). Movies, media for cultural expression, often valorize the hegemonic masculinity of the soldiers they portray. The valorization allows the narrator of “Bodies” to feel “tough” by association; he is stepping into the culturally promoted role on screen, becoming an actor. Becoming a soldier is like a ticket to masculinity: “I was going somewhere that would definitely make me a man” (59). The status of soldier and of masculinity are so historically intertwined that they become synonymous with each other. The chaplain, who is accused of not being a real man, perceives differently: “But I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror . . . by their masculine posturing (144).
For the soldier, however, reflection, whether in terms of self, other, or role-playing, is beyond his mandate and too difficult or destructive to attempt. “Whoa, Chaps,” replies Rodriguez in response to a sermon invoking Wilfred Owen, “That got a bit real” (152). Again, the integrity of Rodriguez’s masculinity is threatened by an alternate view of masculinity and, therefore soldiery. In the arena of war, where soldiers must contend with immediate and lingering trauma, confusion around identity and purpose is not permissible. Reflection devalues the discipline and effectiveness required by the role. In Klay’s short stories, the soldiers are trained into hegemonic masculinity. They may be “pawns” (152), but they are valorized in Klay’s stories by the exclusivity of their battle experience. This valorization seems to be a necessary condition of the individual soldier’s narrative.
The soldier’s narrative becomes a difficult thing to relay, especially to the feminine “other,” furthering the isolation of Klay’s narrators. In the past half century with the hierarchy of male dominance being questioned as society increasingly promotes compassion, nurture, and emotional expression, hegemonic (“military”) males struggle even with expressing their own sexuality. One of Klay’s narrators refers to the love he felt “so strongly” (59) for his girlfriend as being “childish” (59); the child shares many of the qualities associated with femininity: emotional, non-aggressive, weak. In response to the masculine code, women become the “other,” and the war stories men tell are a means to get “laid” (205). “Girls like it sad,” remarks the narrator of “Bodies” (54). A woman becomes identified by her age and her name becomes “Thirty-eight” (62), the “other” so thoroughly that she is dehumanized.
Klay’s narrators find listeners for their stories, but do not know how to be heard. “Why are you here, listening to this story?” the PsyOps narrator demands of his female listener (178). Klay’s narrators, males trying to fill the requirements of hegemonic masculinity, become, as the Chaplain observes, “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, than their circumstance” (144). At the same time, to communicate is to risk overstatement or understatement of war experiences: “Now that I’d told the story, I didn’t feel I’d actually told her anything at all” (181). With a script that requires soldiers to be contemptuous of the feminine while in the theatre of war, they inevitably struggle with reconciling the role of the hegemonic male with civilian expectations returning home. When the narrator of the first story of the collection, Redeployment, comes home, he kisses his wife: “I figured that was what I was supposed to do” (12). The word “supposed” indicates that hegemonic masculinity can become so engrained that its script continues to dominate even beyond the theatre of war. Reintegration can seem like another battle, one where the role of the soldier and his duty is even more in flux. In the end, many of Klay’s narrators redeploy, returning to the stage where their training retains significance.
War heroes experience the need to uphold the masculine code, not least in order to survive, but in Klay’s stories the edges of their self-delineation are always rather sharp and worrying. As Kimberly Hutchings writes, “masculinity is crucial to the ways in which war gains its meaning and legitimacy in social life” (390-1). It can be argued, then, that war and masculinity depend on one another, and when one changes the other loses its traditional meaning. As hegemonic masculinity legitimizes war, war legitimizes hegemonic masculinity. As hegemonic masculinity is deconstructed, Phil Klay’s narrators often seem to find themselves without a role or cause in a foreign war. The soldiers themselves are left with only their own stories and language to try to express what it is to be lost in translation.
Without the identity hegemonic masculinity supplies, Phil Klay’s narrators seek to find, understand, or relocate (redeploy) a role for themselves, through storytelling. One of Klay’s characters says that his story is “deeper than a picture. Your story is you” (215). In his case, it is best to leave the story protected, unspoken. Michelle Balaev, author of Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory and The Nature of Trauma in American Novels, defines trauma as “a person’s emotional response to an overwhelming event that disrupts previous ideas of an individual's sense of self and the standards by which one evaluates society.” As Hutchings states, war is legitimized by hegemonic masculinity. If the frame for observing is defined by the hegemonic masculine, then the alteration of the frame, the loss of masculinity, can itself be said to be a “trauma,” as trauma is “an overwhelming event that disrupts previous ideas of an individual’s sense of self” (Balaev 150).
Klay’s narrators struggle with telling their stories because their stories revolve around trauma. Balaev posits Tali Kal’s idea that “trauma is always an approximate account of the past, since traumatic experience precludes knowledge, and, hence, representation” (150). As one of Klay’s characters says, “You can’t describe it to someone who wasn’t there, you can hardly remember how it was yourself because it makes so little sense” (157). Identity, for the modern war hero, is subject to shattering. Confusingly but aptly, a narrator notes that “PsyOps works best when you mean it” (173). For these heroes, it is as if war exploits or prostitutes masculinity, and sells it so cheaply that the self is necessarily damaged. Narrators in the stories often stray into self-consciousness, but this seems perilous. In the story “Psychological Operations,” in which the narrator comes closer to encompassing the complications of the modern war hero’s experience than elsewhere in Klay’s collection, the narrator knows that he is “playing the game” (169). The narrator is distanced from his own story-telling but at the same time he knows that he must try to speak; “You can perform and not say anything,” he writes, aware that both understanding and incomprehension from his listener are distressing (188). “But if you’re going to be understood, you have to keep talking” (188).
The narrators keep talking, creating a collection of voices that have shared a frame of reference, and they are in search of self-definition in a context where they are required to conform to an exterior definition of role. For the military man, it is not who you are that is valued. It is what you do. “You get treated as you’re seen,” says the narrator of Psychological Operations, “Perception is reality” (185). For the soldier, bravado is better, and safer, than reflection: inviting a terrorist attack “feels better than lying down and showing your belly” (168). The dislocation within the self is profound. “Look at my hands,” says Rodriguez. “It’s like I’m calm” (146). Storytelling becomes a complex, necessary and seemingly self-defeating act. One narrator describes his own story as “bullshit” (207), another tells his story then says defiantly, “I’m not confessing shit. I ain’t sorry for shit” (133), and another identifies “Fighting the fight of good versus evil. Democracy versus Islam” as “Sunday school shit” (76). Klay’s narrators struggle to express themselves, yet are angry when civilians, the other, try to empathize or pity them. As one narrator says, after a woman believes his story, “I wanted to choke her” (207). Another of Klay’s narrator’s remarks that vets are on a “weird pedestal” (249), where “Suffering . . . [has] its own mystique” (129). This pedestal is where vets are placed to carry the civilian “bloodguilt,” a term of military author Roy Scranton. This pedestal promotes hegemonic masculinity while simultaneously undermining it, leaving Klay’s narrators effectively isolated on their stage.
Tyrell Mayfield, an Air Force officer and a founder of the Military Writers Guild, argues that Phil Klay is simplistic in suggesting that all soldiers return from war traumatized (3). Mayfield, clearly a “U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist” (4), argues that many willingly redeploy to war zones and that “just as many of us return stronger” (3) However, Mayfield overlooks the distinction between trauma and “moral injury.” This paper takes Jonathan Shay’s definition of moral injury. Shay, a clinical psychiatrist and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, defines moral injury as ‘“a betrayal of what’s right’ . . . by a person in legitimate authority” (1). Klay’s narrators certainly experience trauma, from both their experiences and from a crisis in masculinity, but they face another problem in terms of self-expression: a dilemma concerning the moral sanctity of their actions and the politics of war. This dilemma, caused by a reframing of the war context, hampers their understanding and expression of self as soldier, for without the frame of hegemonic masculinity, they might not be considered heroes in their own stories.
Roy Scranton, in a strongly worded piece in the LA Review of Books, argues that “by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for.” Scranton writes that the myth of the trauma hero turns killers into victims. An important question arises around the degree to which war stories can be held accountable for the political dimension implied by the fictional setting. As one of Klay’s narrators says after seeing a documentary film, “I especially appreciated how they avoided taking political positions that would have interfered with telling the men’s stories” (247). To what degree is the author responsible for the “frame” through which his characters – or his readers – view the fraught arena of war? Klay’s narrators do often conform to Scranton’s characterization of the “trauma hero.” Scranton claims that the trauma hero is granted “a special kind of experience that offers a special kind of truth” and thus “a special kind of authority” (Scranton). Klay’s narrators are aware, however, of this valorizing.
More importantly, they struggle with the truth of their “special” experience and do not comfortably demonstrate a claim to a “special kind of authority.” If simply to present a “trauma hero” seems too little for the modern consciousness of masculinity in relation to war, to require an overt political act from fiction seems too much. Klay’s narrators experience language as “a technology” (190); they have been subject to its distortion in the military culture and struggle to manipulate the same language to describe or reflect on their experience with a sense of authenticity. “I knew I’d failed to communicate. Of course I had,” writes the narrator of “Psychological Operations” (185). The personal is buried not only in trauma, but in the struggle to overcome “moral injury,” to create a frame in which to view themselves when they know the war stories are a poor substitute for both the detail and the moral dubiousness of their experiences. “I’m tired of telling war stories,” says the narrator of “War Stories” (204). Herein lies the crux of the difficulty, for if the stories are not told, the war goes unwitnessed, and the lives of individuals, which fiction honors, go unknown, unperformed for the reading audience. The narrators of Klay’s stories are largely aware that “Nothing is an anti-war film [story]. There’s no such thing” (224). To attempt to understand the experience of a reasonable man in wartime is to humanize war, but not to tell the story is to bury the trauma and the moral injury in obscurity.
In the war stories of Phil Klay, the author exposes the “cultural tributaries of military power” that produce “arbitrary modes of maximizing precariousness for some and minimizing precariousness for others” (Butler 22). As ostensible representatives of the hegemonic masculine, they explore, somewhat reluctantly, the ways in which they have experienced the failure of this “ideal.” The stories are not anti-war in themselves, but as they are received they shift the frame of hegemonic masculinity. A story of war cannot in itself free the reader from vulnerability to war promotion via the trauma hero. Butler writes that while the war image (or story) cannot necessarily reverse the course of a war, stories can nevertheless “provide an opportunity to “apprehend the precarious character of lives lost in war” (13).
In this regard the responsibility lies not so much with the author but with the reader. Klay’s narrators themselves deconstruct the myth of the trauma hero, perhaps having some claim to the mystique of the trauma hero but never believing themselves entitled to the status. Both narrator and reader are implicated in determining truths when “perception is reality,” a phrase repeated in Klay’s collection (168, 185). Story-telling for the soldier is seen as a kind of therapy, but also an invitation to contain what cannot be encapsulated. “There were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind,” writes one narrator, “the stories becoming stronger every time I told them, feeling more and more true” (37). In a series of shifting frames and in a context of shifting ideas about masculinity, no one truth will be apparent, even on a case by case basis. The narrators of Redeployment, however, do share a common truth, that the military fantasy that a life is not precarious (Butler, 25) is untrue.
All of Klay’s narrators struggle through the precariousness of their masculine identity and their relationships in the theatre of war and after deployment. They struggle with encounters with the feminine “other,” with self-expression when conceptions of self are dislocated, and with making political and moral sense of their war experiences. Because Klay chose to present war stories through many voices, the reader experiences a constant shift of perspective, and the frame is adjusted each time. Butler notes: “As the frame constantly breaks from its context, this self-breaking becomes part of the very definition. This leads us to a different way of understanding both the frame's efficacy and its vulnerability to reversal, to subversion, even to critical instrumentalization” (11). As masculinity is deconstructed, the reader is drawn into the fractured narration to reflect upon the role of soldier as well as civilian.
As a consequence of the multiple narrators, Klay’s work demands the attention and vigilance of the reader. Although Scranton writes that the “trauma hero myth also serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy” the reader becomes aware of responsibility as a citizen-reader, particularly as Klay’s narrators make explicit their struggle to communicate. If, as Scranton charges, Klay in Redeployment plays on the "sad fact" that Americans will care more about a dead dog than a dead Iraqi, the responsibility is shared. If victims disappear "under a load of shit" (Scranton), then we are all digging. If “perception is reality,” the reader of Klay’s collection has a responsibility to listen and to engage in the social and political questions of masculinity and war. As Butler asks, “what would it take for the apprehension of precariousness, shared by all, to “coincide with an ethical and political opposition to the losses war entails” (13). The narrators of Redeployment have their own deconstructive efforts to offer, and invite the reader to participate.
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