Monday, October 8, 2012

War is Personal! And That's All.

"The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers, 2012.

This book has been hailed as the first and best U.S. book coming out of the Second Iraq War.  “Jarhead” was written by Anthony Swofford based on the First Iraq War, and is arguably the best of that war.  We have already reviewed one other book written by soldiers involved in war, Paul Zerby’s, “The Grass,” (reviewed below), about U.S. involvement in Korea.

The book is centered on actions around Al Tafar in Iraq.  Al Tafar is a distance from the Tigris River in far northern Iraq, peopled mostly by Sunni Turkomen. While Powers does not mention it specifically, U.S. Operation “Black Typhoon” in September 2004 secured the city for a time, but emptied the city of residents and was protested by the Turkish government for the excessive killing of ethnic Turkmen by U.S. troops.  The city was later lost to Iraqi rebels and had to be ‘retaken.’

The plot is simple.  Two young Virginia boys enlist and end up in Al Tafar, Iraq in 2004, and one dies, interspersed with the scenes of preparation for war, and the consequences of war.  There is the fatherly but rough and crazy sergeant; the German whorehouse; the sad and almost invisible Hajjis, the alcoholism, the fear, the need to be a man, the depression, the desperate acts – one hinging on a stupid promise made to a mother – and the familiar theme, ‘war is hell.’  Tom Wolfe, a man who figured that if he wore a white suit all the time people might mistake him for Mark Twain, heralded this book as the “All Quiet on the Western Front” of this war.

Let us assume it is.  Why is there not a drop of politics in this book?  Why are we on war #47 and writing about war has not gotten past, let us call it War #1?  Why is war still primarily a private and internal matter of crushed poetry and bloody silences?  Why is this war, a war draped in politics since its beginning, now a springboard for one individual’s post traumatic stress syndrome?  In a sense, the war is ‘aestheticised’ and purely individualized.  Trauma is filtered through art until the trauma weakens.  Even the central event of the book does not ‘seem’ believable, but more poetic.  As such, there is something oddly artificial at the heart of the book, and that shouldn’t be.  Powers is a graduate of the MFA (“Master of Fine Arts”) program in Austin, Texas.   Politics is not what they do in MFA programs, evidently. 

There are some fine lines in this book, there is no doubt.  A description of war given to some useless, embedded reporter as, and I paraphrase, ‘constantly existing in the moment just prior to a violent car crash’ captures something.  Powers’ anti-war sentiments are present: “We were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence.  Each page was in an exercise book performed by rote.  I didn’t care.”  Powers commenting on the ‘yellow ribbon’ mania – “…you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight…”

War will never end until books about war are actually more than this.  Of course, the books reflect the soldiers.  The soldiers who went to war in Iraq were not a slice of the general population, but a self-selected group of mostly rural working-class and poor people who had specific economic, emotional or political reasons for enlisting.  This is why the U.S. government does not want to draft soldiers anymore, but prefers private volunteers and mercenaries to ensure a military force as compliant as possible.  War and the services do not really allow this in the end, as the effects are brutal on everyone involved, no matter the intention they first had.  Soldiers, even volunteers, will one day organize against the military of constant war, and when that happens, the continuation of wars will really be in doubt.

However, this books shows how far we have to go. 

P.S. - October 10, "Yellow Birds" was nominated for a National Book Award.   Prescient, hey.

And I did not buy it at MayDay Books, which has a large selection of books on war.
Red Frog
October 7, 2012

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