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Remember the absurd projections by the Neo-cons before we invaded Iraq? It was going to be a quick, surgical operation—over in a short time. It wouldn’t cost much ($50 billion, as I remember). We’d be welcomed by the Iraqis with open arms? God, how we were duped. I remember writing articles shortly after the invasion—when it was already clear that things were not going well—arguing that the escalating costs of the war would not be paid off for almost a hundred years. Of course, very few people wanted to hear that, and many haven’t faced reality a decade later.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be with us until the last soldiers die in some veterans’ hospital eighty or ninety years from now. The expenses will go on that long, in spite of the continued shoddy treatment of veterans—still one more conservative attempt to do things on the cheap. Don’t fund our bloody wars. Don’t take care of the vets when they return home, but always call them heroes. Enough to want to make you vomit.
Kevin Powers’ instant classic, The Yellow Birds, is all about the way we treat America’s finest. It’s a riveting novel that his grown out of the author’s own war experiences in Iraq, where he went at age seventeen as a machine gunner, spending two years in Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005. As far as I can determine, that’s the extent of the similarities, because Powers’ returned to the United States and earned a BA in English, which has been followed with an MFA. He’s one of the lucky ones. If The Yellow Birds is any indication, he’s at the beginning of a major literary career. War has done that for a number of our great writers.
Without being didactic, Powers’ novel captures the unending sense of repetition of battle, of fighting in recent times, where the enemy is often amorphous and the parameters are not clearly defined. Here, for example, a contrast to previous wars:
“I thought of my grandfather’s war. How they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we’d march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We’d drive them out. We always did. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.”
Just before their departure for Iraq, the narrator, John Bartle, meets his closest friend’s mother, who asks him about her son, “John, promise me that you’ll take care of him.” He has no idea what a burden that will become, especially as the time drags on, and Murph (his buddy) begins to act like a pacifist. On one occasion, Murph tells him, “I’m never going to tell anyone I was here when we get home.” That’s just before Murph disappears.
The narration skips back and forth between scenes of fighting in Tal Afar and others in the United States, before and after the actual incidents at Tal Afar. Powers’ canvas in Iraq is tiny, focused on a few soldiers fighting in their battalion. We have no sense of major battles or incidents that will change the course of the debacle. But the scenes—especially after the narrator’s return to the United States—become increasingly claustrophobic, as Bartle begins to develop the classic symptoms of PTS. He’s distant, aloof, anti-social, and he eventually retreats to an abandoned building where he contemplates suicide. These scenes are rendered with stark precision as Powers leads up to the denouement of his story, for Bartle has a secret. He did take care of Murph, but in such a way that it’s only a matter of time before he knows the military officials will come searching for him.
In a recent article called “War Wounds,” Nicholas D. Kristof wrote, “Military suicides are the starkest gauge of our nation’s failure to care adequately for those who served in uniform. With America’s wars winding down, the United States is now losing more soldiers to suicide than to the enemy. Include veterans, and the tragedy is even more sweeping. For every soldier killed in war this year, about 25 veterans now take their own lives.” Yet when veterans call the help line intended to prevent suicides, they are likely to be put on hold.
Since there is no heaven and no hell, we can’t count on that kind of payback for George Bush and his Neo-Cons who took us to war. We can only imagine what the architects of our recent wars should be doing today: emptying bed-pans in veterans’ hospitals for the rest of their lives.
The Yellow Birds soars. Almost everything else hits the earth with a dull thud.
Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds
Little Brown, 240 pp., $24.99
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.