THE YELLOW BIRDS
By Kevin Powers
April 2013 (paperback edition)
Back Bay Books
The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
This is how The Yellow Birds, the debut novel of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, begins. It is breathtaking and brutal in its introduction of the story of a private, John Bartle, who is surviving and who will survive his tour of duty in the carnage of Al Tafar. For those who think in these tech-reliant days that war is not carnage should see what Powers and David Abrams, both novelists who were there, and others who served and came back, have seen. I believe them. It is carnage.
For those in the carnage, it also is nihilistic. Making one's mark, surviving, carrying on, making promises and keeping them -- they are all pointless in Bartle's world. It's the war that is in charge, not the people wrapped up in it. There is what would be foreshadowing in other novels early on, when Bartle and his buddy, the younger Private Murphy, keep track of whether 1,000 have been killed yet or not. It's a superstitious number that they think will mean they are safe if it is reached and they are still alive. But what looks like foreshadowing about 1,000 dead here is not the point. The point is that the numbers don't matter. The point is "the war would take what it could get".
Of course, the war gets Bartle, Murphy and their charismatic sergeant, Sterling, in different ways. Bartle survives, but he is dead inside when he returns. The emptiness, the pointlessness, is shown in what Murphy and Sterling experience as well.
Murphy is the stereotypical innocent, the doomed-to-be-sacrificed. Sterling, on the other hand, is John Wayne-certain of what he and his men have to do, Pilgrim. Here's how he inspires Bartle, in the narrator's introduction to this character:
I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me...
Then he and the others kill a shooter and civilians, including an old woman.
Midway through this short novel, Bartle is in Germany after Iraq, still in the Army. He runs into Sterling in a whorehouse (after he, of course, visits a church and can find salvation at neither location). Sterling is a mean, abusive and angry drunk. The war and what he has had to do, has chosen to do, have taken their toll on him. This section of the novel was difficult to read the first time through; it didn't flow. I thought that was one of the MFA weak points to the novel. But after reflection, perhaps it was written that way on purpose. It doesn't fit. It does jar. Perhaps that was its purpose.
When Bartle visits the cathedral before the whorehouse, he goes all-out "what does it matter?" It's one of those passages that seem significant at the time but which also seem written to make the grade in writer's workshop, the kind of storytelling in which all snowflakes look alike to Bartle and in which he keeps trying to wash away the blood by immersing himself in a river. He has been baptized by warfare and dipped in that blood, not the blood of the lamb, and the water does not wash his sins away. Sterling and Murphy also go through this baptism, but are they saved?
Even though Bartle notes "I had less and less control over my own history each day," he and Sterling try to make their marks. Back home, Bartle finds his initials carved on a tree. He doesn't remember making them but is certain he did so. On the battlefield, Sterling casts salt over the earth. It's from Judges 9:45:
Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and killed the people who were therein: and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.
It's so Hemingway and so MFA that this reader who fell in love with literature because of those whacky Victorians almost gave up on the novel at this point. But that opening paragraph. I couldn't give up because of that. And, because there was finally a plot, a mystery to solve, a reason to look for the narrative to pick up. It's a mystery that concerns Murphy and one that I won't give away. It's not very surprising in the end, except for what Bartle does because of it and what happens to him as Powers tries to have Bartle pay for the sins of war that he did not commit. But it does have a moment of great beauty that is worth discovering.
There is one other reason to keep reading for those who love the power of words. Powers writes a sentence that is more than a page long. It's harsh and glorious. It tells us more about Bartle before the war and what he should have been, and survivor's guilt, than the rest of the novel. It also is the best example of Powers's voice as a writer, outside that opening paragraph, than his terse prose. I don't feel it's right to quote the entire passage because of fair use. But here's the start:
Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn't any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually klll them and it was just like trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you're taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn't matter ...
A novel like this is worth spending time with not because of its own literary merits, but because what it makes you the reader think about its larger ideas. When I read The Yellow Birds, I think of Vietnam as much as Iraq. I think of the lives lost and destroyed, all the heartbroken mothers, all the justice that will never be served because what could make things right for these individuals? Regardless of the merits of The Yellow Birds in the writing prowess shown by its writer, the novel and its author deserve respect. Powers was there. He came back. He is trying to tell us something about what it was like.
Oh, that our sons and daughters and their children never again have to go through this hell of worthlessness for such worthless reasons.
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