Saturday, February 7, 2015

'Redeployment' on Obama's Shelf

by Bill Doughty

The Commander In Chief appeared on Fareed Zakaria's GPS show last Sunday and revealed that while on vacation he read "Redeployment" by Phil Klay, a book of stories inspired by Klay's personal experience as a formerly forward deployed Marine.

Klay's short stories about individuals serving in diverse roles in Iraq and Afghanistan offers an opportunity "to step into very different heads," as Klay describes it in an interview for the National Book Foundation. "What was the war like for a mortuary affairs specialist? For a chaplain? For an artilleryman, who never sees the bodies of the enemy he has killed?"

Obama called Klay's work, "a quick but powerful and, for me, painful set of stories about the experience of ordinary soldiers in Iraq." He called it a reminder that "the antiseptic plans and decisions and strategies and the opining of pundits that take place in Washington, you know, is very different from war and conflict as it’s experienced by people on the ground."

A somewhat similar message is conveyed in Clint Eastwood's blockbuster "American Sniper."

In the interview by Rebecca Rubenstein about his book, Klay said, "I think this is a general problem for all wars—the gap between public mythology and lived experience," noting that's particularly true with an all-volunteer military often far-removed from civilians' everyday experience.

"Only a small percentage of the population serves, and so those mythologies, whether about idealized heroes, or passively-suffering and possibly dangerous victims who probably signed up because they had no other options, don't get checked by reality as often." Klay said the challenge is to confront the mythology and try to have an honest conversation about the experience of war.

President Barack Obama on CNN with Fareed Zakaria GPS in New Delhi.
On CNN, Zakaria asked President Obama a number of foreign policy questions including about China, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and India. He also asked about calls from some quarters for direct military action in Ukraine and against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS and ISIL). The interview is recommended for anyone interested in the possibility of further deployments or redeployments.

Calling the violent extremists of ISIL a "death cult," Obama said he is "mindful of the terrible costs of terrorism around the world," adding, "What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by over-inflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order."

A key point related to reading, education and free access to the Internet came in a question about authoritarian rule. President Obama said:

"What I continue to believe is that an authoritarian model, in this day and age, is going to be less and less sustainable. And I think we've seen evidence of that around the world. Part of it is just the flow of information. Authoritarian to some degree depends on the ignorance of people, and the Internet and social media means people have access to information."

President Obama visits troops in Bagram, Afghanistan in May 2014. Photo by Pete Souza.
The discussion about what's on President Obama's reading list lately came at the end of the interview, and in that context, after mentioning Klay's "Redeployment," he said:

"And part of the reason that I am deliberate about decision-making when it comes to foreign policy, and part of the reason that I do think it’s important to aim before you shoot, is because I’ve met enough young men in Walter Reed and talked to enough families who have lost loved ones to remember that there are costs to the decisions that we make. Sometimes we have to make them, but they’re real and they’re serious, and you know, we don’t – we can’t play political games and we can’t engage in bluster or reaction or, you know, try to beat our chests when we make these decisions. If we’re going to deploy folks to war, it better be for a darn good reason, and we better have a very clear objective that is worthy of the sacrifices that these folks make."

Holiday shopping for books in 2014. Photo by Pete Souza.
Fareed Zakaria's interview with President Obama is posted at CNN Press Room.

Last November Bloomberg reported on book purchases by the President and his daughters. The list included: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End" by Atul Gawande, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan, “The Laughing Monsters” by Denis Johnson, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China" by Evan Osnos and “Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin.

Phil Klay cited influential authors in a discussion about favorite books and works of fiction and poetry: Billy Lynn, Shusaku Endo, Homer, Tolstoy, Poe, Hemingway, Crane, Dahl, Silverstein, Bernanos, Nathan Englander and Edward P. Jones.
Phil Klay, former U.S. Marine public affairs officer, 2014 National Book Award winner for "Redeployment."

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