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Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown; 240 pages; $24.99).

                Few fiction authors have tackled the subject of the Iraq War; most of those have been published only within the past year: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Fobbit by David Abrams, and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.  All are written from a soldier’s perspective.  While Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Fobbit are satirical, The Yellow Birds is intense and somber.  Perhaps there is a reason for that; Powers was the only one to see real combat in Iraq.

Powers enlisted in the army when he was only 17, later serving as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005.  He knows firsthand the horrors of war, and that knowledge is what makes his book stand apart from the rest.  The Yellow Birds is achingly real and passionate.

“The [Iraq] war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, [and] child,” Powers writes in his powerful debut, The Yellow Birds.  “But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph.  Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began…We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed.  If we died later, then we died.  But let that number be someone else’s milestone.”

The Yellow Birds is written from the perspective of 21-year-old Private John Bartle.  Powers structures the novel back and forth through time in alternating chapters from 2003 to 2009.  He tells us early on that a main character dies and dies shockingly.  The many plot twists Powers employs makes this a truly compelling and intense read.

Bartle represents the countless numbers of American youth sent to far-flung places whose names they cannot even spell or pronounce correctly.  Far from home, these young men and women form bonds quickly.  Such is the case for Bartle and 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy.

The two young recruits meet during basic training and quickly become friends.  Sergeant Sterling, barely older than Bartle at 24, tells Murph to stick close to Bartle.  “All right, little man,” he says, “I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there.”  The bond is further sealed when Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he will look out for her son.  This vow will weigh heavily on Bartle as they fight in Iraq.

When Powers shifts the action once again to Iraq, he illustrates the deep emotional toll that the war has inflicted on the soldiers.  Bartle and Murph are brothers in arms, praying not to get killed, praying it is someone else.  They keep track of the casualty list as it slowly creeps upward toward 1,000: “We didn’t know the list was limitless.  We didn’t think beyond a thousand.  We never considered that we could be among the walking dead as well.”

There are two warzones in The Yellow Birds: the war in Iraq and the war at home, a fight just as tough as the real conflict.  When a soldier leaves Iraq, he truly trades one battle for another.  With Bartle, Powers explores the difficulty of readjusting to life as a civilian: “What now?” and “Instead of a slug, give her a hug.”

Even seemingly small things take Bartle back to Iraq.  “The yelp of dogs echoing out from where they rolled in wet garbage in the shadow of the Shamash Gate,” Powers writes.  “If I heard the caw of ugly crows swing down from the power line that they adorned in black simplicity, the caw might strike in perfect harmony with the memory of the sound of falling mortars, and I, at home now, might brace for the impact….”

How to turn off that kill-or-be-killed mentality that all soldiers must have to survive is a recurring theme in The Yellow Birds.  The things Bartle saw and did haunt him.  Through his character, Powers allows us to see the high cost of war for both combat veterans and their families.  Because they think no one else understands, many vets turn to violence, alcohol, and even suicide.  In Powers’ hands, the many struggles of vets come to life.

With The Yellow Birds, Powers does something Abrams and Fountain could not.  He turns the brutal language of war into something lyrical.  “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” the author writes.  “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 Bartle and his fellow soldiers 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.”

Powers was nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction for The Yellow Birds; however, Louise Erdrich took home the award for The Round House.  The Yellow Birds is unlike other Iraq War novels.  Powers actually fought in combat so he knows his stuff.  This is fiction, but there are kernels of truth within these pages.  He drives home the point that the War in Iraq has irrevocably changed a whole generation and our country will not ever be the same.

The Yellow Birds is penetrating, poignant, and deeply personal for Powers.  I can’t stop thinking about Bartle and Murph.  This is the debut of the year.

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Spotlight on The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds has been heralded as “a war novel written by a veteran of Iraq, The Yellow Birds is the harrowing story of two soldiers trying to stay alive in the most unforgiving of landscapes.” (from the jacket copy)

 

Recently, Powers was nominated for a National Book Award in fiction for his debut.

I am about to begin reading this novel. The following comes from the jacket copy:

“‘The war tried to kill us in the spring,’ begins this breathtaking account of friendship and loss.  In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year-old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city.  In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger.

Bound together since basic training, when their tough-as-nails sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.  As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him, and Bartle takes impossible actions.

With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a distant war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds captures the almost unimaginable costs of war in language that is precise and truthful.  It is destined to become a classic.

Kevin Powers joined the army at the age of seventeen and served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008 and is a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin.”

Powers knows war, and this could just take home a National Book Award in fiction.

 

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Thanks for Your Service!

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Ecco; 320 pages; $25.99).

 

            Good literature should test our limits and push our boundaries.  The best novels should force us as readers out of our comfort zones.  If those novels feature touchy subjects, then bravo!  Novelists should never shy away from any issue, no matter how much the topic makes readers or critics uncomfortable.  How better to ponder life’s big questions than in the pages of a book?  The novels that focus on The Way We Live Now and even The Meaning of Life are the precise ones that stay with us because they are so memorable.  For the rest of our lives, we remember what it was like to read them for the first time and the countless times after.  The best authors take risks and are not afraid of the repercussions.  Take John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, Yann Martel, Toni Morrison, Kathryn Stockett, Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood, just to name a few.

That is what Ben Fountain does in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that satirizes warfare, football, and pop culture.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a literary tour-de-force and a modern-day Catch-22.  Not only is the story an entertaining, laugh-out-loud satire, but it is also well-written and brilliant.  However, as much as I loved it, I do not think Fountain’s novel is for everyone.

Fountain’s story takes place during a single day, over the span of a few hours.  It is Thanksgiving Day of an unnamed year in George W. Bush’s presidency.  The main character is Billy Lynn; Fountain tells the story from Billy’s point of view, often using strange bits of streams of consciousness and flashbacks.  Billy is one of eight members of Bravo Squad who survived the Battle of Al-Ansakar Canal, a fictional skirmish in the Iraq War.  Since a Fox News crew was embedded with the soldiers, the whole thing went live on television; Americans were glued to their TVs.  The Bravos became instant heroes and instant celebrities, even though they are ready for neither.

At nineteen, Billy is clueless: “Self-confidence has been a struggle these past two weeks, this sense of treating water way over his head.  He’s too young.  He doesn’t know enough.”  The reader cannot help but feel for Billy and for the rest of his squad.  They were only doing their jobs and do not see themselves as heroes.  For them, it is literally kill or be killed.

In a hilarious propaganda-like maneuver, the Bush administration brings Bravo Squad home for a victory tour.  Their stops are all in key swing-states for the Republicans.  Everyone wants to shake each Bravo’s hand, get autographs, and take pictures with the boys.  “As one trembly old guy in Cleveland” puts it, “Yew ARE America.”

The Bravos participate in an extravagant halftime show at the now-defunct Texas Stadium in a Thanksgiving Day game between the Cowboys and the Chicago Bears.  Destiny’s Child is scheduled to perform.  The Bravos are psyched at the prospect of meeting and greeting Destiny’s Child and the Cowboys.

As Fountain writes, “This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it…deep within the sheltering womb of all things American—football, Thanksgiving, [and] television.”

Are they being used?  Of course they are.  But the kicker is they know it: “Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?  Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed.”

The “party” cannot continue indefinitely.  In two days, the squad heads back to Iraq.  Unfinished business hangs over their heads, though.  Hollywood wants to make a movie of Bravo’s bravery.  The squad thinks big bucks are in their future.  For the duration of their victory tour, Albert, a Hollywood producer, has been on them like bees to honey.  Albert “is a man who direct-dials the likes of Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones and whose movies have featured such money stars as Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, [and] two of the four Baldwin brothers.”  In other words, he is a mover and a shaker.

Albert believes in the film and in Bravo’s story.  So does actress Hilary Swank.  She wants to play one of the male roles in the film or even consolidate two soldiers into one character.  Bravo is not happy about this.  Not all of Hollywood is as enthused as Albert and Hilary.  Tom Hanks and Ron Howard have backed out.  George Clooney is a “maybe” and then a “no.”

Billy learns it is a Catch-22.  A star cannot commit to the picture until a major studio is on board.  Then again, a major studio will not give the green light unless a star is attached to the movie.  It is a paradox, “so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way” that all of Bravo “can identify.”

Fountain does a superb and funny job of spoofing Hollywood and movies.  But he does not stop there.  Fountain draws comparisons between the culture of warfare and the culture of football.  His assessment is interesting and surprisingly apt.  When the Bravos visit the Cowboys’ locker room, even they are intimidated.  “The players,” Fountain describes, “seem so much more martial than any Bravo.  They are bigger, stronger, thicker, badder, their truck-sized chins could bulldoze small buildings and their thighs bulge like load-bearing beams.”  The players crank Testosterone, “their warrior aura ramps up exponentially as they assemble themselves for the game.”

The players’ gear fills Billy with “shock and awe.”  When the team travels, loading and transporting their gear is akin to loading and transporting soldiers’ gear.  The support the players’ receive flabbergasts Billy.  The players “are among the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance.”  Billy arrives at a thought, “Send them to fight the war!  Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL!  Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys–how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans?”

As if reading Billy’s thoughts, several players are very curious about Iraq.  “Huh, fah real doe.  But like you ever cap somebody you know of?  Like, fire yo’ piece and dey go down, you done that?”  The players want to know what it is like to kill.   One of the players takes Billy to the side, “We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you.  Extreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that?  Like we ride wit yall for a week, couple weeks, help out.”  When Billy tells them to enlist in the Army, the players laugh at him.  They have a real job, they tell him.  Fountain truly is at his best here in his fine use of satire.

As much as I love this novel, I feel it is not a book for everyone.  Those with loved ones serving in the armed forces may feel offended.  You see, it is one thing to make fun of governments, administrations, Hollywood, football, and popular culture.  But it is quite something else to satirize wars in which people die.

I also fear that Fountain ridicules the troops.  In his book, the members of Bravo are often inebriated, stoned, sex-crazed, and vulgar to the point of profane.  Many, like Billy, are delinquents.  Billy is serving in the army to escape jail-time.  While his cause was noble, it was still illegal.  Billy is not the only person in his squad on the wrong path.  Perhaps Fountain writes it this way to show how the Army can make boys into men.  At least I hope that is his intention.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not all spoof.  Fountain manages to give us some very serious and somber instances as well. Bravo attends the funeral of a fellow soldier and deals with protestors.  A member of their squad loses his legs.  Billy’s sister worries he will be killed and urges him to run away and hide out.  A waiter at the game thinks of joining the Army for the signing bonus since he cannot support his family.

Perhaps the most sobering of all: Billy and his unit worry they will not make it back home after their next deployment.   This is the best piece of literature on the Iraq War.  Yes, it did offend me at times but that is just the very nature of warfare.  It isn’t pretty nor is it neat and flowery.  If war literature should always be gritty, real, and memorable, then Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk is all these things and more.

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War Is Hell

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (Blue Rider Press; 272 pages; $24.95).

            War is hell.  If you do not believe me, just ask Robert Bales, the US Army officer accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians, including women and children.  Bales suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition many servicemen and women face.  Although PTSD does not excuse Bales’ actions, it does help explain them.  Experiences on a battlefield alter a person.  How could they not?  After a conflict is long over, a soldier’s symptoms of PTSD remain and may worsen over time.

PTSD does not affect only those in the Armed Forces.  The condition also affects family members whose loved ones died in combat and even people in the countries we are fighting.  In his sparse yet elegant debut The Book of Jonas, Stephen Dau effectively gives us stories of all three grappling with the horrors of war.

Dau is at his best when he shows us the indelible damages war inflicts on us all.  The wounds left over from combat are not just physical, not just injuries, body counts, and ravaged landscapes.  The Book of Jonas zeroes in on the emotional, mental, and psychological scars that time will probably never heal.

That sentiment best describes Dau’s main character, Jonas, a troubled young man touched by unspeakable tragedy.  The US Army destroys Jonas’ entire village; he is the lone survivor.  A war orphan, Jonas comes to America to live with an American family.  While on the plane to America, Jonas is met with his first challenge: what to call himself.

Jonas is not his real name.  His given name is Younis.  On the plane, he changes it to Jonas; thus, he renames himself.  Instead of this being empowering for him, I see it as an example of just how utterly lost Jonas feels.  He is now disengaged from everything he ever knew and disconnected from his country.  His detachment continues.

In school, classmates ridicule and even bully Jonas.  To them, Jonas is just too different.  His accent, his ways, and his place of birth make him stand out in all the wrong ways.  Jonas is Othered.  When the bullying of his classmates turns violent, Jonas fights back.  His schoolmates do not get in trouble for fighting, but Jonas does.  The school forces him to see a psychologist.

Jonas’ visits to the psychologist, Paul, are a real boon to readers.  We learn more about Jonas as a result.  Paul gradually gets Jonas to tell us the full story behind the attack on his village and its aftermath.  However, Jonas is an unreliable narrator.  This makes him all the more interesting to me, but, as a reader, one must be careful not to take what Jonas says as truth.  His memories of the past contradict what really happened.  Jonas is clearly suffering from PTSD.

One thing is certain: after his village is bombed, Jonas retreats to a cave.  He is badly injured.  He almost dies.  An American soldier saves Jonas.  The kicker is that the soldier then vanishes.

Jonas learns the soldier, Christopher, is missing from a newspaper article.  Paul suggests it may help Jonas if he meets Rose, Christopher’s mother.  So Jonas travels to her home.

Rose is herself suffering.  She wants closure.  Her son is missing and no one, not the government, not the Army, and not those he served with, know what happened to him.  Rose only wants his body so she can mourn him.  Dau does not use Rose enough.  Her character shows us what survivors go through day after day as they struggle with the simple act of living.  Rose is desperate for answers from Jonas, especially after Jonas tells her the story of how her son saved him.  Jonas swears he does not know anything.  But is this unreliable narrator telling the truth?  What really happened to Christopher?

The character of Christopher is almost chilling.  He and his unit have been in countless battles against insurgents, and they have paid the price.  Dau uses Christopher’s diary entries to illuminate his intensity and his obsession with battle.  Christopher’s account is hurried and disjointed.  Christopher and his unit seem hungry with power; indeed, they are almost drunk with it.   Their bombing of Jonas’ village is an act of revenge.  Dau makes it clear Christopher has PTSD.  As I read his diary entries, I feel as if Christopher will ultimately commit suicide in the cave with Jonas.  Yet Christopher’s fate is one even I did not see coming.  I applaud Dau for superbly crafting an ending no one can see coming.

Dau’s portrayal of war is brutal.  It is almost as if warfare is as inherent in our genes as eyecolor and diabetes.  Early in the novel, Christopher describes a scene in Africa that forever stays with him.  A lioness had lost her cub and was bereft.  She was in a pack that had recently killed a gazelle.  A baby gazelle was then left alone, also filled with a sense of loss.  The lioness and the gazelle seemed to take comfort in the other’s presence.  The lioness mothered the gazelle.  Heartbroken, they adopted each other.  But it had been three days since she had last eaten.  The pack was hungry, too.  Animals get hungry and their survival skills kick in.  You can guess what happens.

The lioness and the gazelle adorn the cover of Dau’s book.  The pictures are more than just ornamental.  The lioness and the gazelle symbolize Christopher and Jonas.  They may, in fact, be a wider metaphor for warring countries.  The account foreshadows events that occur later on in the novel and strengthens his narrative in ways you have to read to appreciate.

In his timely, unfliching debut, Dau gives me much to ponder as he explores the high cost of war to both sides.  I recommend The Book of Jonas for those who enjoy Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke), and Megan K. Stack (Every Man in This Village is a Liar).  I come away with the knowledge that we are not doing enough to help those suffering from PTSD.  War does not only ravage landscapes; conflict also destroys people.  We should remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Love and War

1. “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen” by Jennifer Steil (favorite of the three)

2. “The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam” by G. Willow Wilson

3. “Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War” by Megan K. Stack

Jennifer Steil and “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky” captivated me. Part memoir, part travelogue, part love story, it offered a fascinating look at Yemeni culture. Especially interesting was her argument that Yemeni people saw Steil, an American woman, as a third gender. She was clearly not a man but she was not a Yemeni woman, bound by cultural constraints, either. She was able to walk among men and women. Most of those she came in contact with respected her and wanted to learn from her.

G. Willow Wilson helped me see the error of my ethnocentric ways. As an American woman, I had a tendency to view Islam and the veil as sexist, backward, and oppressive. However, in “The Butterfly Mosque, it was Wilson’s choice to be Muslim and to wear a chador. Her extraordinary true story allowed me to see how, for Wilson, her conversion was freeing and enlightening. I was able to see her experience through a new lens and am better for it.

Do Elle readers really need an “education in war”? That was the question in my mind after finishing Megan K. Stack’s “Every Man in This Village Is a Liar.” There was just nothing new, fresh, or groundbreaking. Although I appreciated how Stack risked her life for the story, it seems we already know this stuff. Stack’s account would have had more impact if it had been published a few years ago. Her disillusion with the war is nothing new either as many Americans feel the same way.

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