The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My dad was a cold warrior, serving in the Air Force from before my birth to well into my adult years. Part of that time was spent serving in Vietnam and Thailand (and, yes, there was combat in Thailand at the time) where he was a radio operator who also served on base defense whenever his base was attacked. Apparently, this happened a few times in his stay in Southeast Asia. As a boy, being a boy, I asked my Dad "Dad, did you ever get a purple heart?". He responded "No way! I kept my ass down! That's what the Army's for." When I (insensitively) broached the question: "Did you ever kill anyone?" He responded "I don't know. I shot at a few people, but I was too busy keeping my head down to see whether or not I hit them. The Security Police and Army detachments did most of the dirty work. We just laid down fire to keep the enemy pinned."
Still, Dad felt the after-effects of combat. When we lived in the Philippines, there was a collision at an intersection where we were waiting at a four-way stop. Dad, more scared than I've ever seen him before or since, opened the car door and hid under the steering column. Even at that young age, I knew that this wasn't normal.
Dad's fine now. Has been for years. But I've often wondered what he would be like had he been in heavy combat for longer periods of time. Now, there are plenty of people who have seen combat and come out unscathed, perfectly healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I'm not an alarmist about what combat may or may not do to a person's psyche. No one is doomed to an unhappy life for having been on the front lines. On the other hand, I've personally seen some bad cases of PTSD, some stretching out for many, many years. Some of my earliest memories are those of seeing wounded soldiers, incoming from Vietnam, getting off the medivac helicopters at the base where we lived in the Philippines. It took years before I realized why they were all bandaged up, some on stretchers, some with gauze completely covering their eyes. Now I realize that red and white are not colors you want to see on a soldier. Thankfully, these guys were already stabilized on the hospital ships out in Cam Ranh Bay and were going home, now, or at least back to the States, where they would try to pick up their lives again with what was left of their bodies and souls.
So when my son's best friend stated that he was joining the Marines, I was concerned. It's probably the right decision for him, and he's going to be a helicopter munitions crewman, not the most dangerous job, to say the least. Still, I worry about him.
The Yellow Birds didn't help.
This is as disturbing a novel as you'll read about war. The horrors of the Iraq war were bad enough to see from news reports flashed into my living room, but to see it from the inside out, as it were, from the perspective of a soldier in the thick of it, was difficult to digest.
Mechanically, the book is outstanding. My only complaint was that the poetic framework of the book was sometimes exposed, as in the multiple, rapid fire use of the word "and" to try to push the narrative down into a stream of consciousness channel. ". . . and . . . and . . . and . . .". Powers seemed like he was trying too hard to be poetic. It was too clever. Too contrived. Thankfully this only happened a few times.
But there is some beautiful prose in this novel, prose that contradicts the ugliness of the situation. The very personal voice of the narrator is buried in the impersonal, unfeeling circumstances:
I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You're nothing, that's the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation with cause and saw a special significance in the portraits of the dead, arranged neatly next to the number corresponding to their place on the growing list of casualties we read in the newspapers, as indications of an ordered war . . . Of course, we were wrong. Our biggest error was thinking it mattered what we thought. It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our lives. That each one of those deaths belonged to a time and that therefore that time was not ours. We didn't know the list was limitless.
It's this sense of being caught up in something bigger than oneself that informs the entire novel. There is a feeling of inevitability to the events that occur, an existentialist cosmic mockery of the individuals who think they are their own agents, that they control their own destiny; shades of Orwell's 1984 and the works of Lovecraft, though this fiction feels closer to a memoir than to the fantastical hyperbole of its more speculative cousins. This is grounded in the banal. This feels real:
I thought of my grandfather's war. how they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we'd march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We'd drive them out. We always had. We'd kill them. they'd shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they'd come back, and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we'd throw candy to their children with whom we'd fight in the fall a few more years from now.
From the foregoing quotes, you might think that this book is short on hope. You'd be right. It's a downward spiral into meaninglessness and despair, a vortex of emotional numbness. This is not for the faint of heart. But I still recommend it. It's difficult to review this book without becoming a little pedantic, so please excuse me for a moment as I point out one of the reasons you should read the book. Read it, and the next time it's election day, ask yourself whether or not you should go vote. And think carefully on the consequences. Think on the blessing of freedom, including freedom from war and its effects. This book might just cause you to more carefully weigh the alternatives at your disposal and choose wisely. Who knows? With your marker hovering over a check-box in the voting booth or with your hand poised over the phone and the phone book open to your congressman's number, you might just be preventing the sequel to this book from ever having to be written. Though I have little faith that there will be a cessation to the series of war, one of these books is enough for a lifetime.
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ADDENDUM: The same day I reviewed The Yellow Birds, THIS came out on yahoo news. One of the creepiest coincidences of my life. Disturbing and not very reassuring.