BOOKS SEPTEMBER 10, 2012
by Kevin Powers
Little Brown & Co., 240 pp., $24.99
I CAN STILL remember the excitement of discovering the drugstore rack of mass-market paperbacks in the vast, idiosyncratic bookstore where I spent so many youthful Saturdays. It was stationed incongruously close to aisles full of the “serious” books on my school’s summer reading list. The gaudy covers on the rack shrieked at me with images of fiery explosions and titles in bold capital letters, often punctuated by exclamation marks (just in case the point was lost). You see, these were books about WAR: I. J. Galantin’s Take Her Deep!, a World War II submarine captain’s account of submerging to rivet-popping depths in the Luzon Strait; George S. Patton Jr.’s War As I Knew It, subtitled (also in capitals), The Battle Memoirs of ‘Blood ’N Guts’; and, most memorable of all, Audie Murphy’s bestselling autobiography, To Hell and Back.
Murphy’s book caught my adolescent eye because I had recently seen on television the eponymous movie that it inspired. As I read, I discovered that hell looked rather different on the page from the way it did in Hollywood. It was a lot dirtier, for one thing: bloody, visceral, rotten, crawling with lice. Despite the film’s gestures toward a degree of realism, there was a decorous quality to war onscreen. Something else had been sanitized as well: Murphy’s own sorrow and suffering. How uncanny it must have felt to Murphy, the soldier-turned-actor, to reprise on film a war story that was somehow completely, yet not at all, his own.
The book disclosed to me a lie at the heart of popular representations of war: what Wilfred Owen, in his anthemic World War I poem called “the old lie.” No one who had witnessed the death of a soldier poisoned by gas, insisted Owen, could ever again say to glory-seeking children: “Dulce et decorum est/ pro patria mori”—it is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country. The Latin lines comes from Horace, whom Owen uses as something of a straw man; the Roman poet’s thoughts on dying for one’s country were rather more complicated. But the mendacity of war was no secret to Horace or, for that matter, to Homer. Listen carefully to Achilles in Iliad 9, as translated by Robert Fagles: “The same honor waits/ for the coward and the brave.” The dissonant counter-narrative of war is as old as the old lie itself. But only after the unprecedented horrors of World War I did exposing the old lie become the central project of Anglophone war literature.
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers’s debut novel about an American soldier’s experience in Iraq, joins the campaign that Owen began almost a century ago. “I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier,” Powers’s narrator, Private Bartle, declares, “that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today?”
Powers, who was a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, received his undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth after serving two tours as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army in Iraq. His military experience clearly taught him many things, yet his book feels less like a thinly veiled autobiographical fiction than like a fully realized work of the imagination.
The Yellow Birds is a rich chronicle of mendacity: men lie to each other and to themselves; “memory” itself, the narrator observes, is half imagined. Bartle reveals that he has already surrendered to dishonesty even before he leaves for Iraq: “The world makes liars of us all.” He comes to this conclusion after being knocked to the ground by the more experienced Sergeant Sterling for foolishly promising a fellow soldier’s mother that he will bring her son safely home.
By the end of the first chapter, the reader knows that Murphy, the soldier Bartle has pledged to protect, is doomed. The particular lie—savage, desperate, and criminal—intertwined with Murphy’s death is the core of the book, and it is best left to the reader to uncover. Edging ever closer to it, the novel bounces back and forth in time, its narrative momentum driven by Bartle’s compulsion to find a way to excavate and articulate the truth.
The disordered, digressive narration, together with the jangly, amped-up vernacular in which Powers’s characters (especially Sterling) sometimes speak, places the novel squarely in an American tradition of war writing. “Send guys to war,” Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried, “they come home talking dirty.” That talk is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the literature that emerged from the Vietnam War, which emphatically decoded the euphemistic “fug” of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
For O’Brien, profanity was a moral imperative—as essential as his fragmented narration and his hybrid of fact and fiction—to revealing the larger obscenity of war itself. “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted,” O’Brien observed, “or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. … If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth.”
But dirty talk has lost much of its sting, and the passages of dialogue written in this now familiar idiom are in fact the least powerful moments of The Yellow Birds, which achieves its most surprising and authentically obscene moments in a different register altogether. The book revives the World War I tradition that the late Paul Fussell called “war pastoral,” a mode practiced by Owen’s soldier-poet contemporaries (Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden, among others), who exposed the old lie by transplanting the pastoral imagery of the English poetic tradition to the wasted soil of the trenches.
Powers is similarly attuned to flora, fauna, geography, and the vicissitudes of weather. Whether he is describing a patrol through an Iraqi town or a walk through the Virginia woods, Powers roots his account of war’s tangible and intangible destructions within an eerie pastoral landscape. His arresting first sentence, with its sinister juxtaposition of death and the season of renewal, reveals one of the many ways in which he puts this poetic sensibility to use: “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.” Thus, in another kind of obscenity, even nature lies.
Powers’s brutal lyricism feels fresh because it recalls a mode so decisively eclipsed by the high-octane hyperrealism of so much contemporary writing about war. It is this tenacious lyric voice that sets his novel, heavy though it is with war’s silencing pain and shame, apart. The structural and idiomatic influences of Vietnam are palpable, but Powers shakes free of the too often paralyzing burdens of that legacy. The ending distills the entire novel into a kind of regenerative pastoral elegy for Murphy, who resists throughout the novel being defined—being “bound”—by the war story in which he happens to find himself. Ultimately, the novel reasserts a kind of faith, inseparable from its disillusion, that wounds can be “softened” and “disfigurement transformed.” A faith that the hum of life, as well as lies, might yet be heard.
Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.