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 does the simple brutality of war, the dehumanizing reality of killing, in which a lady — with a deep history and a favorite way to drink tea — crawls to her death. War spares no one, even the old, with their old cars and their old blood. Later, a soldier is dying, and snot runs onto his lips and his body shakes and then he is gone. "I thought he was going to say something," the narrator says, and the fact he doesn't is a perfect summation of everything that's happening in the novel. An old woman has no voice, and the dead kid says nothing, and we survivors hope someone will do the talking for us. Ever watch a ruined body turned into meat? Powers has: "His left leg was no longer a leg but instead dangled like a coarse cornmeal mush the color of wet clay beneath his scissored pants."
What's at stake? Right on the second page, the narrator says "everything that will ever matter in my life began then." Powers has said he didn't experience everything he describes in the book but that the novel's emotional core was "something that he identified with very strongly." Our narrator, like Powers, appreciates poetry; this might be abnormal for an army gunner, but it makes for a good story, and, perhaps more importantly, good storytelling. "I remember feeling relief in basic [training] while everyone else was frantic with fear," the narrator says:
It had dawned on me that I'd never have to make a decision again. That seemed freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then. Eventually I had to learn that freedom is not the same as absence of accountability.
At its heart, this is the book's central concern: freedom is bullshit, and in the end it is also what matters, while what propels us forward or holds us back is accountability. Who is to blame for making people kill? How will the people who did the killing go on with their lives, knowing they are responsible for death? And what responsibility does the narrator have to us, to himself, to anyone? Finally, there is the question posed to us, all of us reading: what can be done? Will anyone be made to pay, and in what currency? These are tall orders for a first-time author, and one appreciates the ambition.
Powers builds the novel around the narrator's responsibility not just for the death of enemies, but for the life of one of his own. When Murph's mom begs the narrator Bartle to protect her son before the company ships off, the gun is cocked. "The world makes liars of us all," our narrator says, and he shows how tempting it is to allow a horrible and complete cynicism to take root; it’s easier to pretend nothing happened in the first place, to ignore what you did, your stake in the darkness. His refusal to do so is the book. "They have an old saying about situations like this," a sergeant says to our narrator, after things have gone terribly wrong. "You are only as sick as your secrets."
From a soldier's tortured perspective, those back home in America can't possibly understand the agony of the battlefield. Yet Powers’s novel, to its great credit, expands the problem of suffering, acknowledging that we all have our pain, that the trauma of two wars is indeed a broad and shared grief. No one's pain is more important than anyone else's. Moving forward is a matter of all of us finding some common language. "You're all so sad," a prostitute tells the narrator, meaning he and all the soldiers, but in the end she just wants her money. Equally desirous, a colonel visits the battle and says, "How's the war tonight, boys?" and all they can say is "good;" the colonel, tailed by a TV crew, then says: "We're counting on you boys. The people of the United States are counting on you. You may never do anything this important again in your entire lives." The colonel's angling for a promotion, talking for the cameras. Back home, the story of war gets sidelined for sports scores, or a celebrity marriage. Over there, an 18-year-old boy is handed a rifle, and he finds shooting is easy. It's everything else that's hard.
For all the praise the book deserves, I can't forgive a few examples of overwriting. "While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer." The writer reaches for something and if you squint, it's gorgeous, this thing he describes, but it's not quite right, and he's trying too hard; this essential incorrectness and overcompensation erodes the credibility we'd easily grant him. There's no need to deploy the phrase "palsy" or "palsied" multiple times in 200 short pages, nor can it be good to have multiple cases of a person "conducting themselves" as someone dies or "describing circles" in the dust with their limbs. Also: "He showed me a broad, disheveled grin." And: "'She did not try to replant them this year' he finished brusquely." I want to scream, Powers, we know it's brusque and he's finished because it's the end of the paragraph and it’s brusque!
There's a wonderful image in the book of a man letting go of two dozen canaries. They swoop into the trees, begin singing, and then, just as suddenly, they stop, return to their cages, and fall quiet. They want back in. Returned from the battlefield, the narrator drinks himself to sleep, stops bathing, and spends hours on a roof, rifle in his arm, firing shots in a kind of lonely and insane target practice. Eventually, he sees an Army patrol car pull up in front of his apartment. He's headed for his own cage. Just before he's taken away, he says this about the homeland:
"It's different out there now."
"No it's not," the arresting officer says. "You're different."
"No one cares," the narrator says.
"So what?" the arresting officer says.
This scene is powerful because we know it's not right to say no one cares. When a chaplain visits a soldier’s family to announce a death, we try to understand why we spend such massive amounts of money to send boys overseas, knowing so many will shoot and die and then come home in coffins. We know it's important to imagine this chaplain flying to the next town, getting a hotel room and a meal, confronting yet another mother or spouse, then driving on to the next hotel room on the next interstate. This is our America. Nothing will stop the next battle. More will die, as Percy knows, and we need to confront the full complexity, as Powers, emerging we can only assume from his own cage, helps us to do.