FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, we've been sending soldiers over there, and when they come back we say thanks, but we don't really talk about what they did. We call them heroes, but what do we call them when they kill each other on the base, or beat their wives, or clock one of us, maybe, in the parking lot of the Home Depot? Which words do we offer then? We know this violence is some kind of residue, left over from the work we asked them to do. We don’t excuse their crimes, yet we feel responsible and perhaps ashamed, so we say little, or nothing. All the violence we asked them to do is hanging there, and none of us has a clear idea how to apportion blame, or even how to discuss it. What has this silence done to us? These questions drive the work of a few good writers, such as novelist Benjamin Percy, in his stand-out short story from the 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh, and more formidably and more recently, Kevin Powers, in his novel Yellow Birds. A former U.S. soldier, Powers announces his candidacy as the generation's premiere war writer with a cerebral and searching knockout of a debut. Nominated for the National Book Award, and informed as it is by what Powers experienced first-hand, Yellow Birds is crushingly mature, real, and fragile.
“Refresh, Refresh,” which appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of The Paris Review, focuses on the children who get left behind. Fathers, gone to the wars, call once a month from the sand, describing apocalyptically weird things such as taking a bath with baby wipes. Flailing, in small towns, the children commit horrendous violence against each other, before turning their wrath and confusion upon the man sent by the army to bring bad news. Making matters worse, the wounded boys in Percy’s story eventually enlist to fight, and we have no reason to expect anything but heartache and additional death.
War sucks. We all agree. But each conflict has its own unique traumas, on the battlefield and back home. We've spilled oceans of blood — ours and theirs — in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we rely on literary writers to go beyond the news reports and political grandstanding to take us deeper, to let us see and feel the horror. Former Army machine-gunner Powers, who fought and maybe killed, and also studied poetry, shows from his opening line — "The war tried to kill us in the spring" — that he intends to wrestle not only with the big stuff, but to bring us into the ring.
The book follows a young Army gunner named Bartle, tasked by his supervising officer — and a soldier's mom — to take care of an even younger grunt named Murph. The two are stationed in Tal Afar, one of the most contentious cities in an already tense province of Nineveh. This is 2004 and 2005, when Iraq was spiraling into chaos. Soldiers die, and the rest keep fighting. When it's time to go home, everyone who managed to stay alive returns to an America they no longer understand, confronting versions of themselves no one knows how to handle.
When it's tight, the writing is astonishing: a rifle flashes during a gunfight, and it's "an obscene photography." With the stink of death all around, the narrator looks up from the killing to see a "ruddy, mackerel sky." Later, describing the death of an Iraqi grandmother: "The door opened and she fell from the old car. She tried to drag herself to the side of the road. She crawled. Her old blood mixed with the ash and dust. She stopped moving." This is gorgeous stuff, emphasizing as it...read more