The war tried to kill us… The majesty of The Yellow Birds

From the first line: “The war tried to kill us in the spring” to the final stanza, The Yellow Birds is an astounding work of literary fiction. Authored by soldier-turned-poet Kevin Powers, the novel traces the relationship between two men in arms (one of whom dies while serving in Iraq, the reader quickly learns) in life and death, into war, out of childhood, and throughout the troubling spaces in-between.

The novel’s prose, at once heartbreaking and captivating, allows The Yellow Birds to surprise the reader with the sharp beauty of a soldier’s fear, of their pretend fearlessness, and of the Middle Eastern terrain upon which the nightmare’s of our generation (and many others) have been borne. Where the book succeeds is not in its idolization of conflict, but its honest look at how violence defines the lives of those it courts.

“I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed,” Private Bartle, the book’s main character, says in an early passage after watching the platoon’s translator fall victim to a mortar strike. “I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”

These moments, told with the earnestness of youth so exposed to the elements, is what gives Powers’ short novel such gravity —a force that pulls the audience in, towards, and dangerously close, to a conflict rarely spoken of in American households. Yet family, or the struggle to sustain family through wartime, is exactly where this book’s tension emanates.

For instance, a brief encounter between Bartle and Murphy’s mother leaves the reader to ponder how significant some passing words and sentiments can be. A promise to keep a friend safe spawns a sense of responsibility that only grows throughout the course of the novel. For Powers, though, building up and out of this promise (largely impossible to keep) gives the story legs —legs that limp towards the inevitable conclusion.

In an interview about the book, Powers discusses the power of fiction in the context of war. While straining to assert the book’s neutrality (it isn’t to be read as indictment or endorsement of the war in Iraq, simply a testament to the existence of that war), he said that fiction does have a unique ability to relate the details of conflict in a unconventional way.

“It is perfectly understandable that people become inured to the violence when it is presented to them in the same way for ten years or more,” Powers said. “Art will sometimes allow you to see the same thing in a new way.”

However, Powers’ deftest touch is saved for the inner monologues of Private Bartle. The intermittent reflections are presented as if to suggest some eternal convergence with the grand soliloquy of war.

“Maybe if things happened a little differently…” Private Bartle reflects. “But things happened the way they happened without regard for our desire for them to have happened another way.”

What bleeds from these passages are not the musings of a stubborn and hungry war-machine created by the world’s most powerful military, it’s the seething helplessness felt by those tasked with responsibilities most colossal: to feign power when positioned as pawn.

This admission of powerlessness is what military leaders cover up with badges and stripes, it’s the sense they physically shake loose when smacking their soldiers awake before each firefight. None of this takes away from the soldiers bravery, though. In fact, Powers’ words only strengthen that: to be courageous is to be afraid and commit yourself to duty in spite of that fear.

As the details of the Private Murphy’s death arise —late in the novel— the narrative twists, keeping the viewer enraptured as war forces its way into life at home. When Murphy’s death is deemed criminally curious to military investigators, Private Bartle is trapped under the final consequence of that small, passing promise made to Murphy’s mother.

The reader follows Bartle as he bears this punishment with steady control and calmness —as if the routine of prison pleasantly reminds him of combat boots and body armor, when his minutes and meals, miles and memories weren’t truly his own, either.

But the impact on the reader (or at least me) was profound: that justice (in some principled, practiced, way) doesn’t, and perhaps cannot, exist when war is involved. It wasn’t judicious that Bartle’s and Murphy’s translator was murdered (or that helping the US troops required the translator to wear a mask to obscure his identity and protect his family). It wasn’t judicious when the soldiers fired their bullets into the body of an old woman who drove a car down the wrong street at the wrong moment. It wasn’t judicious that, in seeking to protect the feelings of a friend’s mother, Private Bartle surely damaged the feelings and relations with his own. Powers show us that there is little, if anything, judicious about war and the places it touches.

But as the book pulls to a close, Powers leaves the reader with the final image: A body, now lost to time, being swept into the vast expanse of a Middle Eastern waterway. It is the return to the elemental, in the same way that the book’s title embraces the natural world, that strikes as most profound.

War, like the systems that it corrupts, seems a natural and composite element of our world. What it takes away, it never fully replaces. War shows no remorse, utters no apology, and strives only to satisfy itself. For in taking the lives of men (and women), it proves to be the ultimate predator.

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Resisting Resistance: Why Syria isn’t Rwanda…. Or Iraq.

In an op-ed penned last week, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter took square aim at President Obama regarding his administration’s reaction (or lack thereof) to new evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people.

Invoking memories of Former President Clinton’s ill-handled response to reports of genocide in Rwanda, Slaughter is quick to warn readers about the cost of inaction:

The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

But while I would like to (and often do) agree that action is not only necessary, but also required in situations of human suffering, the 10-year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech —and a reflection written by James Wright, yesterday— suggests that the situation presents something more akin to a ‘do and die’ situation

Unabashedly, Wright is quick to note that when a country chooses to fight in war, that country must also accept that they will die in that war. Wright’s suggestion, then, is that the true cost of conflict is not only greater that anticipated, but it is also exacerbated when the mission or outcome (these “goalposts” as Wright calls them) morph over time:

President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

But that is why dualities (to intervene or not) posed by Slaughter should strike the reader as too simplified, too… hell… Hawkish.

In a country like Syria, we’re only just beginning to understand the ways the impact of conflict has deformed our measures of right and wrong, how long-term hostilities, and the people who suffer them, only complicate our understanding of enemy and ally, and how instability that threatens one actor is liable to compel responses from another (i.e. Iran).

To avoid repeated (error-ridden) forays internationally, Wright calls for cooler heads, rational and tested analysis, and clear objectives when intervention is necessary. In this light, it is difficult to adopt (blindly) the clarion call of Slaughter.

In fact, in Slaughter’s own words, intervention should take place regardless of challenges that could create even further complexity and suffering in the long term:

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.

Opting to challenge Obama’s administration on the basis of populism:

The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

With there respective pedigrees, both academics surely understand the immense cost and consequence of the issues they tackle. But behind their arguments, are two radically different assumptions; assumptions that —if correct, and by this I mean in-keeping with the personal philosophies of each academic— follow logically from their worldviews.

For Wright, acts of war or intervention must be informed, or perhaps even derived from, accounting of costs and benefits: providing force for the purpose of principle may well jeopardize any positive “end game.”

For Slaughter, the act of intervention appears as American duty, owed to others given the values espoused by the United States. While Slaughter is not agnostic about the cost of intervention, “the decision to do nothing” violates a far more essential moral code.  [It may also have to do with Slaughter’s privileging of US “soft power,” but that is a story for another post].

Thus, the challenge is overcoming a “level of analysis” problem: the granularities of why war is ‘bad’ are tough to reconcile with an ideological argument that asserts  wars of justice, or on principle, as necessary for their own sake.  Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

If the answer to that question is limited, our expectations for success should be too.