On the first day I ran with Achilles International, a running club for those with disabilities, I ran with a vet who had recently returned from Iraq. Very personable, he seemed well adjusted to returning, and to his condition. He had come from Pennsylvania to run in New York City. It wasn’t unusual. When home he would just get in his car and drive hundreds of miles to different places. It wasn’t about exploring. He needed the action.
There is an uneasy feeling to Kevin Powers’ well-received “The Yellow Birds”. The title comes from an Army marching cadence.
“A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
his fucking head…”
Mr. Powers is no ordinary soldier or writer, despite this being his debut novel. He was a machine gunner deployed in Mosul and Tal Afar. The latter is the scene for most of the novel. Mr. Heller has an MFA from the University of Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. The first chapter of the novel demonstrates his artistry. It begins “The war tried to kills us in the spring.” Life and death are easily interchangeable throughout the book. “War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today.” Certainly not your average grunt just kicking back with the platoon.
Most of our wars turn out one or two novels that define that war. This novel will define Iraq. Like many war novels it travels from boot camp, to war zone, to home, backfilling the principle characters, privates Bartle and Murph. The theme is the dehumanization of war, particularly guerilla warfare, with repetitive sweeps and no victory. All that sticks is the killing, positive emotional bonds are circumscribed to platoon buddies.
The novel captures the chilling reality of maladjusted vets returning home to platitudes of thanks and hero status from a largely unaffected country that ignored the stat counts and went on with their comfortable lives. There is some phoniness to this post-Vietnam commercial. Bartle feels like a murderer, not a hero. He cannot relate to those who have no idea what he and others have done and have become. He does not want to be patronized, he wants to be left alone. The pace, the anxiety, the addiction of life on the edge, does not exist for him at home. It is not living. He does not glorify death or killing. It is just a job. He does not re-up, although that is often the expectation.
This is not fiction. This is real, for vets, many of whom go homeless, are unemployed, have PTSD and commit suicide. It is not that they are lesser men (or women) than those in combat during WWII who bottled their memories. It is that those in more recent wars have nothing to show for what they were doing other than the killing. Vietnam vets were often villified; Korean vets regrettably ignored; Iraq and Afghanistan vets get a moment of fame and then get to replay their memories as exiles.
You can’t help being disturbed by this book. You should read it.