By Brian Castner
Best Defense book review department
What is the defining image of America's just-concluded war in Iraq? Not the defining weapon, major battle or significant speech. Rather, what is the image every writer and film-maker will feel compelled to use to sum up the stuff of the place, to distill the essence and personality of the war in a single glance? World War I has the screaming horses and clouds of chlorine in the trenches. The western front of World War II evokes a cloud of bomber formation across the sky. Vietnam, the circle of bare-chested soldiers, smoking cigarettes (or more) in the deep jungle. The towers of black smoke from an oil well fire in the First Gulf War. What comes next?
There are several images that have already appeared in a delayed (though now sudden) wave of books and films. The civilian-clothed veteran searching a U.S. interstate for IEDs and reaching for a rifle that is no longer there. A dead body hiding an IED. Orange and white taxis. A native interpreter wearing a ski-mask to hide his features. The palm groves and orchards that hug the Tigris and Euphrates.
In the National Book Award-nominated The Yellow Birds, essentially a string of such well-drawn images, Kevin Powers makes an eloquent case for those and more, specifically these two that are harder to shake:
--First, the ubiquitous dust that impregnates every crack and every piece of equipment and every thought in Iraq. Layers of dust, 'moon dust' we often called it, dust storms and clouds, swimming pool-sized pits of it and a film of talcum powder that stuck to every available surface via the magic of static electricity. This book is so full of dust that I was amazed I couldn't turn the book over, grab it by the binding, and shake some out.
--Second, and more haunting by far, the songs and screams of the Iraqis themselves. Four times in the book we hear the Muslim call to prayer or the mourning wails of the women after battle. Each time, the ghostly intrusive sound is a harbinger or coda to the worst of the horrors The Yellow Birds has to offer. And in this image, Powers creates a perfect analogy for the war itself. Hide behind the walls of your FOB, behind your machine gun on the highlands overlooking the village, and you can still hear the muezzin's voice from the minarets. Iraqis live publicly in the street. Emotion is public for men and women, whether a pious call to prayer or mourning the dead, public grief as the bodies are recovered and wrapped in white and paraded through the streets for everyone to view and mourn. The mothers and wives and sisters unselfconsciously wail in their grief, and you can't escape it. "I was not sure if it really came from the women around the campfires, if they pulled their hair crying out in mourning or not, but I heard it and even now it seems wrong not to listen," Private Bartle, the main character, tells us. It seeps under your skin. And so will the war; you will bring it home.
It is no spoiler to reveal that it is only Bartle who brings every experience home. The novel follows him, his younger friend Murphy, and their tough platoon sergeant, Sterling. Bartle mistakenly promises Murphy's mother that he will come home safe, a charge we know from the outset that Bartle cannot fulfill. Told in a back-and-forth style, jumping between war and home, the tension for the reader comes in only incrementally understanding both how Murphy dies and how Bartle deals with it.
The title of the book references a chant sung by soldiers while running in formation during physical training. "A yellow bird / With a yellow bill / Was perched upon / My window sill. I lured him in / With a piece of bread / And then I smashed / His f___ing head." I sang that one myself, and others, equally brutal in retrospect. The songs, at the time, are fun: "I went to the market / Where all the women shop / I pulled out my machete / And I began to chop." Singing these chants do more than desensitize the soldier. They make a game of what is coming.
But in truth war is no game, and the only birds smashed in the head in this book are the soldiers themselves, the narrator and Murphy and even the hard-nosed Sterling. Being damaged goods, Bartle is an untrustworthy guide for even his own memory and knowledge of Murphy's tragedy. His post-war ruminations dimly focus on the "why" of Murphy's death, and here he can provide no clear answer either. Sitting in his jail cell at the end of the book, Bartle uses chalk marks to try to recreate a timeline of what happened to him. "Eventually, I realized the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern," he tells us. During the firefight that opens the book, Bartle and Murphy and Sterling cover only one small sector of the village. They have control over very little, their view of the war will be small, no national policy issues will be solved in Powers' novel. Bartle focuses only on Murphy, and even here he feels ultimately helpless.
I wish I knew more of Powers' actual war-time experience, and how much resides in this book. In a joint interview the two of us did for Connecticut Public Radio, Powers said that he wrote fiction because he needed the space to first make sense of the war, and then put it down in a new way that provided separation between him and it. I wonder if he also felt it was the only way to tell the truth, because the heart-breaking story of Bartle and Murphy and Sterling is so ordinary, if it wasn't fiction no one would believe it.
Brian Castner is an Iraq veteran, a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and the author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.