Sunday, July 22, 2012

Death by Acronym: "OIF" by Phil Klay

When I joined the Army in 1988, I dove into a deep bowl of alphabet soup and nearly drowned.  AAFES, TDY, POV, FTX, CQ, HHC, MOS, OPSEC, CENTCOM, FORSCOM, ARCOM.  In basic training (BCT), I struggled to learn not only how to properly load my rifle (M16) and how to march in formation (D&C) but also how to figure out this new lexicon.  Military acronyms can be an impossible wall to scale for the new recruit.  The acronyms were born out of necessity--a shorthand to telegraph meaning quickly in combat when time is of the essence.  But acronyms also keep us at a distance--cold, hard block letters stripped of language's emotional resonance.

In his short story "OIF," Phil Klay beautifully exploits those roadblocks the military deploys around its secret language.  We're plunged head-first into the bowl of alphabet soup from the very start as the narrator, a young Marine serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, fires off acronyms like rounds coming out the barrel of an M16.

EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPCIM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.

The unnamed narrator--the "twitchiest guy in Iraq"--is clinically detached, holding himself at arm's length from the brutal horror of war through his use of acronyms.  Even the central character of "PFC" is never named (though others riding in the humvee are).  He comes to us as a rank only--a private first class who thinks it would be "cool" to get hit with a roadside bomb..."long as no one got hurt."  Famous last words.

Klay's story originally appeared in Granta but was recently republished as part of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading series which "publishes one story a week, each chosen by today's best authors or editors."

"OIF" was hand-picked by Nathan Englander who notes that in short-short stories, "a writer faces a particular set of stumbling blocks when attempting to build a fully realized world in so tight a space. What makes 'OIF' particularly special is that Klay not only succeeds in establishing voice and character, he not only manages to walk us through the narrative with confidence, but—for the majority of the story's audience, unfamiliar with its lexicon—Klay teaches us a new language that we come to understand as we read."

Indeed, it's the compression of "OIF"--mirroring the acronyms themselves--that impressed me the most.  Klay crash-lands us in unfamiliar terrain but quickly establishes landmarks so we can find our way around.  With the constant barrage of abbreviations, "OIF" can be challenging--even to 20-year military vets like me--but there's a huge pay-off in the final paragraph.  Get there and you'll see what I mean.  It's a total OMG.

You can read "OIF" at this link, or you can get it for your Kindle, as I did, at this link.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I am a GI rights volunteer counseler at Coffee Strong, the coffee house outside Fort Lewis McCord in WA state. I am a published poet, but I am not a vet and I am starting a writing group for vets and GI's and I need all the help I can get. There is a deep need to bridge the gap between the military and civilian communities. It's not just that soldiers need to tell their stories, in their own voices, but that we need to hear them.