Veterans Phil Klay and Timothy Donley on Writing, Music, and the War Experience

March 4, 2015  • Aidan Flax-Clark, Guest Blogger

US military veterans Timothy Donley, left, and Phil Klay, right, discuss their war experiences with Aspen Institute Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel in New York (Photo Credit: Erin Baiano).

Any immediate consequences of wars rarely persist with as much force as the intellectual and artistic efforts we employ afterward to arrive at the truth about their impacts and repercussions. American novelist John Crowley wrote that the past, “has continued to expand rather than shrink with distance.” No past is more capacious in this respect than the increasing store of memory, emotion, and understanding we circumscribe around our wars.

Tim O’Brien, author of the war classic “The Things They Carried,” said the greatest tool for “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth,” is fiction. As O’Brien’s book did for Vietnam, “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, is offering new and intimate truths about the experiences of those who served in the Iraq War.

Klay recently spoke about his book in a live conversation hosted by the Aspen Institute Arts Program in New York. An Iraq veteran who served in Anbar Province as a public affairs officer from 2007 to 2008, he wrote the book after his return home. His efforts were rewarded last year with a National Book Award in fiction. He also received a televised plug from President Barack Obama, who said on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS that “Redeployment” makes clear the “costs to the decisions we make.” The book tells 12 stories from the hearts and minds of an array of service members in and out of Iraq, from chaplains to State Department officials, infantry to commanding officers.

Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel moderated the discussion with Klay and Timothy Donley, a US Marine who uses different art for much different purposes. Donley served in Afghanistan in 2012, and now sings in the Wounded Warrior Band. The band is part of MusiCorps, a program that helps severely wounded veterans in their rehabilitation through conservatory-style musical training.

“The mystery and mystification of war for those who have never really served is at the heart of this [book],” said Woetzel. “How we describe the war, how we understand it, how the general population can come to grips with events happening at such an expansive geographical and experiential remove — in a way that’s palpable and real.”

Klay described his book’s mission to be “not so much as giving messages” about Iraq, but rather one of “inviting people in to imagine and to understand.” “I didn’t come to the table thinking, ‘This is the thing you have to know about Iraq, because I didn’t even know what to think about it,’” Klay said. “I came back and a lot of the time was like, ‘What the hell was that? What was it for me? What was it for other people?’”

Klay’s work, he believes, invites veterans and civilians to come together and contend with some of the difficult and unsettling truths about what it was like to serve in Iraq, as well as what it was like to come home — not to mention what might happen here and abroad on account of our time there.

Donley performs with MusiCorps Founder and Director Arthur Bloom at the piano (Photo Credit: Erin Baiano).

Donley’s motivation for making use of music in the wake of his war experience comes from a very different place.

Deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2012, Donley saw his service cut short one month later by a roadside bomb that exploded while he was on dismounted patrol. He lost both of his legs.

Donley described the experience of being in Walter Reed National Military Center for months as enduring not just extreme pain but a crushing lethargy. It’s a destructive combination for him and other vets in positions like his — to go from operating at peak levels of physical and mental training to being reduced to situations in which they are  “staring at the ceiling — maybe you have doctors’ appointments, watch a little TV, work out if you can — but some days you’re in just too much pain to get out of bed.”

Donley said that it helped to battle the torpor by redirecting the rigorous training ethic they had previously practiced as soldiers into the service of becoming musicians. “[It takes guys who never picked up an instrument before in their lives, and three months later are really good — I mean really good.” And in focusing and achieving, he said, life came back into people’s eyes.

Klay described a similar level of obsessiveness applied to his writing after he came back from Iraq: a meticulous research and interview process that produced a painstaking level of detail and dedication in his words —“because the subject mattered to me a lot… It was important not just to write a good story, but to communicate something.”

But Klay described the work as decidedly non-therapeutic. “I didn’t come back traumatized,” he said. “I came back with lots of questions and a lot of things that disturbed me to think about… Writing this book didn’t make me feel happier about the Iraq War. Writing it at points made me very angry.”

MusiCorps Founder and Director Arthur Bloom was on hand to accompany Donley on the piano for a performance of the Levon Helm song “Wide River to Cross.” He explained that the goal for MusiCorps was not to generate a “kumbaya” moment.

The staff at Walter Reed, where MusiCorps operates its program, wasn’t interested in “let’s bring some guitars, get a few injured soldiers together, and play a few songs and have a good time…” Bloom said. “They wanted a music conservatory…We put that in action.”

Bloom said the result of the program is best articulated by one wounded veteran, who said, “Through music we’re able to be heroic again.” MusiCorps currently only operates in Bethesda, Maryland, but Bloom is in talks with other major military hospitals around the country about expanding the program.

“I don’t trust my memories,” said one character in a story in “Redeployment.” “I trust the vehicle, burnt and twisted and torn […] No stories. Things. Bodies. People lie. Memories lie.” One audience member raised the issue of trust and memory during the Q&A period — is dealing with the traumas of war between a writer and an audience a matter of trust?

It is exactly a matter of trust, Klay agreed, and that operates in two directions: one from the audience to the writer, trusting him to convey truth as best he can — this is part of art’s special ability, to create a level of resonance on the subject of war between civilian and veteran alike that other forms may not attain.

The other direction trust moves in is from the writer to the reader. “I might not be the best interpreter of my own work; oftentimes writers aren’t,” Klay said. “I might not be the best interpreter of my own experience.”

Klay pointed toward the burden that we all share — him as a writer, the musicians of MusiCorps as veterans and musicians, and civilians as American citizens — responsibility. “We’re a nation that uses military force a lot; we elect the leaders who do it,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the vets who are coming back to our communities. It has political consequences and interpersonal consequences if we assume that this one aspect of human experience forever alienates you from mankind, and I don’t like that idea.”

“What we do overseas relates to what happens over here. These are all of our wars.”

Aidan Flax-Clark is senior project manager of the Aspen Institute Arts Program