It's become such a sadly regular occurrence that there is a danger that the public becomes immune to these bulletins, and that we forget that behind every bulletin is a young life cut short, a grieving family and an individual story. The media has little time for nuance and detail and a life lost is no more than a brief, depressing flash except for those closest to the casualty.
Kevin Powers, a poet and American veteran of the Iraq war, has told one such story in The Yellow Birds, an intense and powerful pyschological novel that follows the campaign of two young soldiers - the 21-year-old Bartle and the 18-year-old Murphy - in the battle for the town of Al-Tafar, as well as their sergeant, Sterling.
The Yellow Birds reminded me of a brief conversation I once had with an American uncle, who in the 1950s, as a green teenager from the industrial northern city of Pittsburgh, signed up for the US Army and quickly found himself fighting the Korean war, following a basic training stint in Kentucky. I rarely heard him talk about his war time experiences, but on this occasion he did offer one insight into his journey: "Hell, I didn't know where Kentucky was, never mind Korea."
Murphy and Bartle are equally disoriented and lost - pitched into a battle they don't really understand, fighting an enemy they cannot see in a land they do not know. They move forward, one foot after another through the dust, because they have no choice. But as the violence builds and their exposure to the horror of their war grows, Murphy begins to detach from the world. Bartle - the tale's narrator - charged by his mother with keeping Murphy safe, clings on as long as he can but ultimately his friend's distress and terror is too much and their story accelerates into a tragic conclusion.
Interspersed with the story from Iraq, is Bartle's narrative of events of both before and after Al-Tafar, which provide poignant and damning bookends to the events of the battle. Collectively they tell a tale of betrayed innocence, of futility and of the closed minds and turned backs of those at home whom the likes of Bartle and Murphy supposedly fight for.
This is an important book - a timely reminder of the savage personal cost of our public wars. It is also a beautiful book, touched by poetic genius, even as it reaches deep into man's darkness, a domain of cruelty, grief, anger and despair. What makes the story all the more powerful is that Powers delivers his message without resorting to polemic. He doesn't need to, hes far too good a writer for that.
Powers had me at his opening paragraph: "The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed... It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded... While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would get its way." And he never let up. Throughout the narrative and the description is utterly compelling.
In the prologue, Powers says The Yellow Birds began, "as an attempt to reckon with one question: what was it like over there?" only to dismiss his question, declaring himself "unequal to the task of answering it". He goes on, "if there is any thing true in this world it is that war is only like itself".
He is likely right - I, like most of us secure in our beds listening to the morning news bulletins am fortunate not t know. But his intense and moving novel should give pause to thought to everyone that reads it and persuade many that we should do everything in our power to avoid sending any more young men "over there".