Posted tagged ‘Kevin Powers’

War Film: The Yellow Birds

August 30, 2018

Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds arrived in 2012 to great fanfare. In company with David Abrams’ excellent Fobbit, also published that year, as the first post-9/11 war novels written by military veterans, The Yellow Birds seemed both preternaturally good and strikingly unique. Combining a heightened lyrical style, gritty scenes of combat carnage, and a psychological interest in military leadership, duty, and guilt, The Yellow Birds attracted plaudits left-and-right, including a nomination for the National Book Award. Part of what made The Yellow Birds so interesting was its prose: rather than hard-boiled grunt-speak and super-concern for realistic military detail, it featured a fractured narrative composed of sentences often more allusive than descriptive, knit together by crafted patterns of color and imagery, and punctuated by portentous stabs at profundity, as in its oft-quoted opening line, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Even more striking was its sensibility. The novel’s protagonists are infantryman, but they aren’t the tough guys who populate World War II and Vietnam novels. They drink, smoke, say “fuck” a lot, go to whorehouses, curse their chain-of-command, and shoot people—all the usual infantry things—but do so without the emotional hardening, or posturing, that seems de rigueur for infantrymen in real life and even more so in books and movies. More emo than hardcore, not so much Slayer as Death Cab for Cutie, the protagonists of The Yellow Birds are fragile and vulnerable, and the whole business of war leaves them in morose isolation. Disconsolate and self-loathing when they might be pissed-off and self-righteous (or even proud), they direct their capacity for violence inward, not outward.

With success came backlash, as the very things that made The Yellow Birds unique brought quick strong rebuke from a variety of angles. Powers’ prose was charged with being too mannered, too much the product of the University of Texas MFA program he attended, and too unfaithful to the vernacular idiom of “real” infantrymen. For many, Powers’ characters, in particular the first-person narrator Private First Class John Bartle, were unappealing, more listless dishrags (like Melville’s famous Bartleby; Melville’s Billy Budd also seems to be an antecedent) than decisive men-o-war. To veterans who had kicked-ass-and-taken-names in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed unconscionable that Bartle was being held forth as a representative US combat soldier, and as the far greater popularity of works such as American Sniper attested, the reading public wanted little to do with the Bartle model, either. Academics, who one might think would be sympathetic to Powers’ effort to portray the “human cost of war” in a literary way, soon piled on, too. They accused Powers of trying to recoup sympathy for emotionally traumatized young white male veterans rather than castigating them for killing Arabs in an unjust war, as if The Yellow Birds were a white nationalist stealth project designed to assert that white American soldiers were the “real victims” of the war in Iraq. It was a lot, maybe a bit much, as the overall impression rendered by the attacks was that The Yellow Birds was a book that everyone might comfortably find a reason to feel superior to. One wonders what Powers has made of it all, but he has been mostly mum on the subject, even as he continued to write and publish. 2014 brought a volume of poetry titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and a novel, A Shout in the Ruins, arrived earlier this year.

In early 2017 a movie version of The Yellow Birds inconspicuously appeared to somewhat surprisingly little notice. I make it my business to track these things, but I missed it upon release, and I was not the only one, for no one I know seems to have noted its appearance or has yet watched it. The movie’s now available through Netflix, but even so seems still to be governed by mysterious forces minimizing its impact. A terrific John Mellencamp song called “The Yellow Birds,” for example, runs over the closing credits, but is not available on any of the popular music streaming services. As of a couple of weeks ago, the movie was only available by mail-order DVD, not via streaming, and a video documentary available with the DVD version that describes its making is missing commentary by the film’s director Alexandre Moors and its biggest-name star Jennifer Aniston. The signs unfortunately suggest that several of the principals who might best promote The Yellow Birds movie have distanced themselves from it.

All that’s curious, for the movie version of The Yellow Birds, while not perfect, or even great, is pretty good. In at least two ways it excels, garnering in my opinion head-of-the-pack kudos among recent war films for the excellence of its cast and the beauty of the cinematography. Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, as Bartle and his battle buddy Private Daniel Murphy, respectively, are handsome faces and poised actors who for my money render the best GWOT cinematic portrayals of the 20-year-old white males who still make up the bulk of the fighting force. British actor Jack Huston (son of famed director John Huston) as Sergeant Sterling doesn’t quite capture the body language and rhetorical swing of the career NCOs I knew in the military, but in a stylized way he’s still impressive enough to make his dominance over Bartle and Murphy realistic and compelling. Aniston as Murphy’s mother—in the film an aging soccer-mom—and Toni Collette as Bartle’s mom—a hard-bitten country woman—are also strong. Their characters are given far more play in the movie than in the book, to include a moving scene in which they commiserate about their sons, and it’s all to good effect.

Production-values-wise, The Yellow Birds is a little shaky. The use of M113 Armored Personnel Carriers instead of modern Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and and Huey helicopters instead of Blackhawks signals cut-rate reliance on surplus Vietnam military hardware rather than the real stuff used in Iraq. The soldiers’ gear and weaponry also seem to be pared-down simulacra of actual soldiers’ “kit,” as if the film were gesturing at authenticity as in a stage-play rather than replicating it in gnat’s-ass detail. Curiously, Bartle and Murphy consistently call Sergeant Sterling, “Sir,” which is weird because every male sergeant I ever knew announced at least once, “Don’t call me ‘sir’; I work for a living.” Extremely grating from a veterans’ viewpoint is that many scenes feature actor-soldiers wearing their helmets with chinstraps unfastened “John Wayne” style—that just plain never happened in the Army I served in for twenty-eight years. On the other hand, the bang-bang combat scenes are good, and the representation of the soldiers’ blood, sweat, grime, and gore post-battle is excellent to the point of harrowing. Above and beyond reproach is the look of the film—tonally dark in scenes set both overseas and in the States, with faces framed and scenes paced thoughtfully, it has an artistically-unified feel that I’m guessing is director Moors’ effort to create an atmospheric visual style commensurate with Powers’ moody lyricism.

Alterations from the book are not especially significant thematically, but still worth noting. One example is Bartle’s first name; the scriptwriters have seen fit to replace the old-fashioned “John” of the novel with the millennial moniker “Brandon.” In the book, Murphy’s mom is a rural mail-carrier and Murphy is said to have never left the county in which he was born before joining the Army. Bartle, on the other hand, seems to be from some more middle-class place that makes his deterioration into criminality, drunkenness, prison, and isolation more calamitous. The movie reverses those backstories, with Murphy announcing that he hopes to go to UVa and study history after the Army and his mom (played by Aniston) a frosted-highlights suburbanite, while Bartle’s mother ekes out existence on the edge of poverty and respectability. There’s also the scene in the movie uniting Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Bartle that is not in the novel, which is a shrewd addition, and a long episode in the book set in Germany at the end of Bartle’s deployment is cut without loss from the film.

These are all minor switcheroos, I feel, for the movie gets the most important element of the book—the entangled web of obligation and remorse binding Bartle, Murphy, Sterling, Mrs. Bartle, and Mrs. Murphy—right in just about the same proportions that the novel does. The crux of the story is that Bartle makes a foolish promise to Mrs. Murphy that he will look out for her son on their upcoming deployment. Sterling overhears the conversation and lambastes Bartle for making a commitment that is not his to make and which will prove almost impossible to keep. Sterling, a war veteran who knows war’s capriciousness and who possesses his own over-developed sense of responsibility, lords it over his two young charges in ways that the two privates feel first charismatically, then perversely, and finally diabolically. In Iraq, Murphy begins to crumble under the stress of combat and then falls apart completely when a female soldier on whom he has developed a crush is killed. Murphy subsequently goes AWOL, or in modern parlance, DUSTWUN, and Sterling and Bartle search for him apart from the rest of their platoon. Finding Murphy’s mutilated dead body, they make a fateful decision to dispose of it (in the process killing an innocent Iraqi) rather than recovering and returning it to the States, because they want to spare Mrs. Murphy the emotional devastation they presume she will feel upon seeing her son’s ravaged corpse. In the book, Bartle compounds his duplicity by writing Mrs. Murphy a letter full of lies and evasions; it’s not as clear in the movie that this happens. In any case, the men’s plan succeeds for a while, as the Army lists Murphy as MIA rather than KIA. Over time, though, the difficulty of living with a lie renders both Sterling and Bartle suicidal, and eventually a military investigator (in the movie played by Jason Patric, another “name” cast member) puts together the clues linking Bartle to Murphy’s disappearance—an act of misguided mercy that in fact is a war crime—and brings Bartle both to legal justice and a soul-crushing apprehension of the magnitude of his mistakes and the vicissitudes of life.

As plots go, that’s not bad for an Iraq or Afghanistan war story. The attention paid to the bonds linking soldiers, with the suggestion that heroism is a delusion, leadership is a canard, and camaraderie and loyalty are traps, is fine. The effort to incorporate mothers and the homecoming into a war saga is good, too. The book as does the movie fails to explain why Murphy in particular exacts such an emotional investment on the parts of Bartle and Sterling—I’m supposing it has something to do with his innocence. Similarly, Sterling’s character emits confusing clues as to whether we should understand him as rigid military martinet, caring NCO bound by duty, or ethically-fluid shaman whose evil genius is unleashed by war’s chaos. The suggestion is that his experience is the yin to the yang of Murphy’s innocence, but the end of the novel and film complicate the matter, for it is Bartle who convinces Sterling that they should dispose of Murphy’s body, rather than vice-versa. That seems out-of-character for both of them, as well as being a dumb, under-explained decision that defies plausibility. Oh well, nothing’s perfect and everything could be better. The Yellow Birds was never going to be American Sniper, but it has its virtues and its fans nonetheless. If the film doesn’t quite succeed on all levels, the excellence of the cast and Moors’ direction suggest that Powers’ novel might ultimately find its most powerful expression on-stage as a play, where plot ambiguities and military quibbles would be incidental to the emotional force of the human interactions being dramatized.

27 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets

April 12, 2017

Soldiers Patrolling Wheatfield, Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF-ISAF photo)

To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by twenty-seven American writers that reflect and engage America’s 21st-century wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, directly, indirectly, or possibly only in my mind.* They run the gamut from the nation’s poet-laureate to MFA-honed to raw, and are written by veterans, spouses, and interested civilian observers, but they’re all great individually and collectively they articulate the nation’s crazy play of emotions as it sought redress for the sting of the 9/11 attacks. Many thanks to the authors for writing them and much love also for online media sites that feature poets and poetry–please read them, support them, share them, and spread the word.

The links should take you directly to each of the poems, except for Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren’s and Maurice Decaul’s, which are featured on the Warrior Writers page. An additional click on “Writing” will get you in the ballpark, and you can figure it out from there.

*Seth Brady Tucker’s “The Road to Baghdad” probably draws on Tucker’s experience in the 1990 Gulf War, but was first published in 2011 and can certainly be read as a contemporary war poem.

1. Chantelle Bateman, “PTSD.” Apiary Magazine.

2. Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, “Real Vet, Fake Vet.” Warrior Writers.

3. Benjamin Busch, “Madness in the Wild.” Slippery Elm.

4. Eric Chandler, “The Stars and Stripes is Free.”  Line of Advance.

5. Liam Corley, “A Veteran Observes the Republic and Remembers Ginsberg.” The Wrath-Bearing Tree.

6. Maurice Decaul, “Shush.” Warrior Writers.

7. Jehanne Dubrow, “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard the USS New Jersey.”

8. Elyse Fenton, “Word from the Front.” Reed Magazine.

9. Amalie Flynn, “Where” and “Know.” New York Times.

10. Colin D. Halloran, “I Remember.” Drunken Boat.

11. Lynn Houston, “At the Harbor Lights Motel After You Return.”  As It Ought To Be.

12. Victor Inzunza, “The Part of Ourselves We’re Afraid Of.” Pacific Review.

13. Hugh Martin, “Ways of Looking at an IED.” Blackbird.

14. Phil Metres, “Hung Lyres (for Mohamedou Ould Slahi).” Poets Reading the News.

15. Dunya Mikhail, “The Iraqi Nights.” Poetry Foundation.

16. Abby E. Murray, “Asking for a Friend.” RHINO/Frontier Poetry.

17. Jenny Pacanowski, “Strength in Vulnerability.” Women Veterans’ Rhetoric.

18. Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting.” Poetry in Multimedia.

19. Kevin Powers, “Improvised Explosive Device.” Bookanista.

20. Roy Scranton, “And nevermore shall we turn back to the 7-11.” Painted Bride Quarterly.

21. Solmaz Sharif, “Look.” PEN America.

22. Charlie Sherpa, “Toward an understanding of war and poetry told (mostly) in aphorisms.”  Wrath-Bearing Tree.

23. Juliana Spahr, “December 2, 2002.”

24. Lisa Stice, “While Daddy’s at Training, Our Daughter Asks Questions.” the honest ulsterman.

25. Seth Brady Tucker, “The Road to Baghdad.” Colorado Poets Center.

26. Brian Turner, “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” Poetry Daily.

27. Paul Wasserman, “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days.” Time Now.

Unhappy Memorial Day: Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

May 26, 2014

Powers LetterThose who have fallen in our nation’s wars deserve unambiguous commemoration on Memorial Day, and all other days for that matter. But for veterans and artists it’s not that simple.  Remembering the dead while gathering strength to go on become vexed projects, shaded by doubt and perspective.  Memory and hope crash together disjointedly; forgetfulness and despair operate at cross-purposes. Kevin Powers’ new book of poems, titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, illustrates the truth of these points, though it doesn’t address American dead in the Iraq War very often or directly. If anything, the deaths of Iraqi civilians and his own father concern Powers more, as well as those of the historical inhabitants of the Richmond, Virginia locale in which many of the poems are set.  In a poem called “The Locks of the James,” he writes:

If I’m honest, mine is the only history
that really interests me, which is unfortunate,
because I am not alone.

Though the deaths of fellow American soldiers doesn’t preoccupy Powers, killing and dying considered more abstractly definitely does. The poems in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting trace the intertwining processes of remembering, reflecting, and projecting, roughly but not always centered on an awareness of mortality brought to an intensified pitch by combat.  The title is sensational, but misleading. Few of the poems are composed in media res with the speaker in the warzone.  Instead, most are recollections in more-or-less tranquility after return home.  “Meditation on a Main Supply Route,” a poem that has the speaker comparing notes with a Vietnam War vet, is typical:

I am home and whole, so to speak.
The streetlights are in place along the avenue
just as I remembered
and just as I remember
there is tar slick on the poles
because it has rained. It doesn’t matter.
I know these roads will work
their way to me. They may arrive
right here, at this small circle of light
folding in on itself where brick
and broken sidewalk meet.
So, I must be prepared. But I can’t remember
how to be alive. It has begun
to rain so hard I fear I’ll drown.
I guess we ought to
take these pennies off our eyes,
strike them new likenesses;
toss them with new wishes
into whatever water can be found.

The “pennies off our eyes” that turn living vets into walking ghosts is a sense of obligation born of guilt.  In “Photographing the Suddenly Dead,” Powers writes:

We no longer have to name
the sins that we are guilty of.
The evidence for every crime
exists. What one
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for the weight of what remains
as residue—every effort
must be made to scrub away
the stain we’ve made on time.

The last poem in the collection, “Grace Note,” tries to muster the imagination to figure out how to carry on purposefully into the future after war:

And I know better than to hope,
but one might wait
and pay attention
and rest awhile,
for we are more than figuring the odds.

“The world has been replaced / by our ideas about the world,” Powers had warned in the volume’s opening poem, “Customs,” and by the collection’s end we know he hadn’t been kidding. For a veteran-artist such as he is, every day is a day of remembrance and every poem a document of pain. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting’s most imaginatively exciting poem, “Improvised Explosive Device,” consists of an extended metaphor in which Powers compares a poem to an IED:

If this poem has left you deaf,
if the words in it are smoking,
if parts of it have passed through your body
or the bodies of those you love, this will go a long way
toward explaining why you will, in later years,
prefer to sleep on couches.

“Yet you will weep and know why,” wrote English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, not about war, but about death generally.  As Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and All,” ends, Hopkins claims that it is for herself whom the poem’s subject weeps, not anyone else.  Powers seems to have arrived at similar view, while suggesting that it could only have been obtained by contemplating the death of his father, innocent Iraqis, and all the Americans killed-in-action or died-of-wounds in the nation’s wars.

Veterans' tombstones, Towson, Maryland.

Veterans’ tombstones, Towson, Maryland.

Kevin Powers, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. Little, Brown, and Company, 2014.

“Terps”: Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters in War Memoir and Fiction

March 28, 2014

One aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not generally understood is how dependent were American and other Western forces on the services of native interpreters to mediate virtually every interaction with host-nation military personnel and civilians.  Given the lack of Arabic, Dari, and Pashto speakers actually in the military and the paucity of bilingual speakers in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can assume that anything you might have read about in the papers that involved on-the-ground operations, and the millions of missions and engagements you didn’t, took place with a native speaker translator at the side of the officer or NCO charged with carrying them out.  Though some interpreters in Iraq outlaw-platoonand Afghanistan were American citizens or residents recruited in America and then deployed back to their homelands, most were natives. The fullest portrait of a host-nation interpreter and a US military member I know of appears in Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Platoon (2012), a memoir about Parnell’s service as an infantry platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan.  Parnell uses anecdotes about his interpreters, one, named Abdul, faithful and competent, the other, Yusef, untrustworthy and treacherous, to frame his account.  “A good ‘terp,’” writes Parnell, “could make a huge difference in daily operations.”

“Terp” was the commonly used shorthand to describe military linguists.  I never really liked the term, but it was ubiquitous and even I would use it to describe “Terp Village,” the humble compounds affixed to US bases in which a unit’s interpreters lived.  The term appears again in a passage found in journalist-historian Bing West’s The Wrong War (2011).  West, describing operations in southern Afghanistan, writes, “The interpreters were the funnel for all coalition interactions with Afghans at all levels.”  Then, describing an interpreter named Siad, West continues: “Siad was typical of the local The Wrong Warinterpreters.  They all tried hard, and most worshipped the grunts they served locally.  Their thirst for absorbing American culture never ceased…  Their skills were marginal, no matter how hard they tried.  Their hearts were huge.  Anyone who doubted the magical image of America in the minds of millions of Afghans had only to spend a day under fire with a U.S. squad and the local terp.”

Before examining fictional representations of interpreters, I’ll post a passage from a private document written by a former interpreter of mine who is now applying for admission to the US.  It offers insight into the lived life of the men described abstractly so far:

I am engaged now and my fiancé is from Ghazni province.  All her relatives know that I am working with Coalition Forces as a linguist.  For that reason, I cannot go to Ghazni province now to see her or relatives or take part in a condolence or happiness party.  Since I know that everybody knows that I am working with Coalition Forces I do not feel free and I am sure my life is at risk.  Even in Kabul City where I live, I cannot go out at night and visit other people because I am very afraid my life is at risk.

War fiction writers have begun to make something of the possibilities offered by these complex figures and intense soldier-local national relationships.  Their portraits do what fiction does:  combine artistic creativity with realistic verisimilitude to provide social, psychological, and emotional nuance.  They might be said, however, to focus on dramatic aspects where the day to day record is more placid or positive.  The first depiction of which I am aware is in a Siobhan Fallon short story “Camp Liberty,” from her collection You Know When the Men are Gone (2011).  In this story, Fallon tells of a soldier deployed to Iraq, named  David, whose romantic relationship with SF-PictureMarissa, his stateside fiancé, fades as the working one with Raneen, a female interpreter, intensifies.  David grows enamored of Raneen, but she disappears and is probably killed before he is able to speak to her in anything but an on-the-job context.  Her disappearance leaves him more adrift than he imagined possible, and perhaps now too estranged from Marissa for that to ever be right again.  Fallon puts a romantic spin on what was usually a close working relationship between two men, while characterizing David and Raneen’s relationship as at least reasonably compatible and effective, but other stories depict much more fraught relationships.

In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012), an Iraqi named Malik appears as a minor character early in The Yellow Birds Coverthe book.  Powers’ narrator John Bartle tells us that Malik’s “English was exceptional… He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature.”  He wears a hood and a mask because, he says, “’They’ll kill me for helping you.  They’ll kill my whole family.’”  A few pages Malik is killed by a sniper, and Bartle and his friend debate whether to include him in their morbid count toward 1000 Coalition Force casualties:

“Doesn’t count, does it?” Murph asked.

“No.  I don’t think so.”

Bartle reports, “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then.  Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed.”

Redeployment“Money is a Weapons System,” by Phil Klay, in his recently released collection Redeployment (2014) portrays “a short and pudgy Sunni Muslim” interpreter known as “the Professor.”  Sullen and contemptuous, the Professor is “rumored to have blood on his hands from the Saddam days,” but Klay’s narrator, says, “Whether that was true or not, he was our best interpreter.”  A short exchange reflects their tense relationship:

“Istalquaal,” I finally said, trying to draw him out.  “Does it mean freedom, or liberation?”

[The Professor] opened his eyes a crack and looked at me sidelong.  “Istalquaal?  Istiqlal means independence.  Istalquaal means nothing.  It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.”

The most extensive portrait of an interpreter and the only one I know of published first in English that attempts to portray the interpreter’s thoughts and point of view is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (2012).  In this novel, The Watchwhich is set in the southern, Pashtun-region of Afghanistan, a young ethnic Tajik interpreter named Masood, loyal to the Americans and eager to do well, is dropped off at a remote combat outpost in the middle of the night after the big battle.  He doesn’t know about the battle, but expecting better he confronts hostility and mysterious behavior at every turn from his new American hosts and allies.  Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit.  Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally the outpost commander, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security coincides with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.

The dramatic focus on interpreters and the soldier-interpreter relationship, to my mind, suggests several points:

  1. The interpreter, not the host nation populace, was the “other” most often encountered by American soldiers, and the only one with whom he or she might bond.  With emotional investment, however, comes gratitude, guilt, and feelings of loss after the relationship ends.
  2. In life, the relationship between soldier and interpreter was often characterized by respect and mutual affection.  In fiction, however, the relationship is mined for tension and drama.  The interpreter, from the fiction author’s viewpoint, is part of the problem, and dysfunctional interpreter relationships symbolize the divide between Western military forces and the populaces they intend to help.
  3. The interpreter himself, or herself, is a complex, in-between figure who must manage a thicket of complicated personal histories and commitments.  In some ways they become “people without a country,” or a contemporary “tragic mulatto,” neither white nor dark and doomed to unhappiness and premature death.
  4. Contemplation of the interpreter’s role help us understand the basic unreality and unknowability of the wars:  mediated, filtered, coming to us second-hand via seriously invested witness-participants.  The general situation short of combat was always linguistically, rhetorically, and even artistically arranged for us by translators about whom we knew little and did little to comprehend.

The Corpse ExhibitionThe only fiction I know of written by an Iraqi or Afghan that portrays interpreters is Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim’s story “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” from his recently published collection of translated short stories The Corpse Exhibition (2014).  It is also the only tale that imagines a future existence for interpreters post-war and measures the long-term consequences of their involvement with Americans.  Carlos Fuentes is the pseudonym of an Iraqi named Salim Abdul Husain who has emigrated to Holland; he has taken the name because he reports that his own name makes him a marked man in the eyes of those who won’t forgive him for working as a translator for American forces.  Carlos Fuentes has seen nothing but violence and injustice in Iraq, and in Holland he becomes a model citizen, fully embracing European values and habits while scorning immigrants who don’t.   Blasim’s narrator states:

“Why are the trees so green and beautiful, as though they are washed by water every day?  Why can’t we be peaceful like them?  We live in houses like pigsties while their houses are warm, safe, and colorful.  Why do they respect dogs as humans?  ….  How can we get a decent government like theirs?”  Everything Carlos Fuentes saw amazed him and humiliated him at the same time, from the softness of the toilet paper in Holland to the parliament building protected only by security cameras.

All goes well for Carlos Fuentes until he begins having nightmares about his past life.  He takes extremely fantastic measures to avoid the nightmares—“One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds”–and yet nothing works.  At tale’s end he is confronted in a dream by Salim Abdul Husain, his old self:

Salim was standing naked next to the window holding a broom stained with blood…. Salim began to smile and repeated in derision, “Salim the Dutchman, Salim the Mexican, Salim the Iraqi, Salim the Frenchman, Salim the Indian, Salim the Pakistani, Salim the Nigerian….”

The Carlos Fuentes character takes aim at Salim with a rifle, Salim jumps out the window, and the narrator tells us that Carlos Fuentes’s wife finds him dead on the pavement below in the morning.  In a final indignity, Carlos Fuentes’ death is reported in the papers as that of an “Iraqi man” rather than a “Dutch national,” and his brothers have his body taken back to Iraq for burial.  No one it seems has been much convinced by his effort to renounce his past.

Interpreting the interpreter, we can surmise that Carlos Fuentes’ divided self and attempted cultural makeover does not hold.  The war has traumatized him beyond his knowing and his idealization of the West a dream not meant for him to possess.  But it’s not just about what happens to him while working alongside American and European forces in country, or that his attempt to adopt and internalize Western values and beliefs have instead generated pathological self-hatred and destructiveness.  It’s about the lived life of immigrants after the personal relationship ends, the Americans go home, and the rest of the interpreter’s life begins.  Blasim’s story, and all stories about interpreters, remind us that real linguists exist by the 1000s in both Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere, and letting them fend for themselves now that we are gone is one more of the ways we fought the wars very callously and in ways that kept us from being as successful as possible.


Most of this post was first presented at the recent American Comparative Literature Conference in New York City.  Thanks to panel organizer Susan Derwin for inviting me to speak.  Thanks to fellow panelist Brian Williams, who reminded me of the presence of the interpreter Malik in The Yellow Birds.  The paper as delivered at ACLA did not reference The Yellow Birds.  I am invested in this subject because of my own positive experience with two interpreters in Afghanistan who are now in the United States, enlisted in the US Army, and who hope to become US citizens.  I am actively engaged in trying to help a third trusted interpreter emigrate to the US.  Paul Solotaroff describes the difficulty interpreters have in obtaining visas in “The Interpreters We Left Behind,” published this week in Men’s Journal.

James River Blues: Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds

July 29, 2013

The Yellow Birds CoverKevin Powers’ acclaimed The Yellow Birds features many scenes set in Iraq, Germany, and Fort Dix, New Jersey. The latter locale intrigues me, for I served two years at that backwater post and it pleases me to see it made central in an important contemporary war novel. But being from Virginia myself I’m most attracted by the great portions of The Yellow Birds that take place in the Old Dominion. John Bartle, Powers’ distressed narrator, resides across the James River from Richmond before enlisting and just after completing his service, and he ends the novel living in a remote cabin tucked under a western Virginia mountain. The novel’s geography resonates with my own biography. For eight years, I lived with the James River a straight half-mile shot through the woods behind my house and all-in-all I spent the first 22 years of my life in Virginia. In Afghanistan I served alongside members of the Virginia National Guard, which gave me further understanding of the descendants of Virginian plantation gentry and small farm yeomen. All this would be irrelevant if I didn’t in fact detect a certain Virginia-ness permeating The Yellow Birds, a quality that makes it what it is and as effective as it is, a quality rooted in Virginia geography, history, and culture. Let me see if I can explain.

Frank Hobbs,

Frank Hobbs, “Condominium Construction on the James Riverfront, Richmond, VA”

To be a Virginian is first to be a product of the soft and beautiful landscape and climate of the Tidewater, Piedmont, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachians, all of it connected by the state’s languid rivers, the most significant of which is the James. Virginia’s gentle terrain and weather seem to conspire to make it physically and psychically hard to get or stay angry. Such natural tonic is corroborated by the impossibly high standards for gentlemanly comportment and achievement set by icons such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lee. To this day, I have trouble imagining a Virginian perpetrating a truly vicious or hurtful act. Even as they are confused by or ignorant of their proud aristocratic tradition, most find it absolutely painful to say no to anyone or not lend a helping hand where needed. To say that such deference makes them wildly vulnerable in the face of a world that is a lot more conniving and harsh than they are is an understatement, which is part of John Bartle’s problem in The Yellow Birds. In all this I speak mostly of white Virginians, for consideration of the state’s tortured history of race relations and its African-American demographic seriously undercut idealization of its white patrician elders while infusing the calm landscape with blood and fire. We can think first of Sally Hemings–desire and denial–and Nat Turner–rebellion and suppression–and then wonder about the contemporary athletic prowess of ferociously competitive African-American Virginia sportsmen such as basketballers Moses Malone and Allen Iverson and football players Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and Michael Vick.  Do they represent a modern instantiation of Virginia’s genteel white and gritty black social bifurcation and commingling?

These factors seep into the works of Virginia artists as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe and Patsy Cline and help make them thoroughly unique and rich. Poe and Cline, the sweetest of souls, seemingly doomed to die young, their art works melancholy to the core, tinged everywhere by loss and yearning, haunted by fear and desperation, and deeply wise about pain that comes from within and without. That’s heady company in which to place Powers, and time will tell if the comparison holds up, but it represents a way to begin to understand the lyric morbidity of The Yellow Birds. To my mind, John Bartle’s effort to make sense of his tangled life and deployment is a particularly Virginian response, knowingly sketched by its author, who was raised and went to college in Richmond.

Frank Hobbs,

Frank Hobbs, “South Richmond (Richmond, VA)”

The novel’s subject is the loss of innocence completely and irredeemably; its title is taken from a military cadence that tells of a “yellow bird with a yellow bill” whose head is smashed “upon my windowsill.” Like Poe’s raven, the doomed canaries represent an idea that torments narrator John Bartle as he recounts the story of his criminal complicity in a war crime and his subsequent deterioration during and after his deployment to Iraq as an infantryman. Bartle’s story is not as much about his encounter with military culture and combat as it is about the intense relationship with two fellow soldiers who imbue his service with color and significance. Murph is a younger enlisted soldier, also from Virginia, whom Bartle vows, foolishly as it turns out, to protect. Sterling is Bartle and Murph’s platoon sergeant, a stone-cold veteran of several deployments whose rough love envelops his subordinates even as it hastens them toward their destruction. Bartle’s name is an obvious nod to Herman Melville’s famous Bartleby, the scrivener who “prefers not to” do what his boss asks of him. Bartleby’s passive-aggressive non-compliance is a result of spirit-draining stint working in the US Mail’s dead letter office, and letters figure prominently in The Yellow Birds, but Powers’ Bartle is brought to a state of numbed withdrawal from life after a series of events vastly more horrific and consequential than those experienced by Melville’s scrivener. Compared to Bartle, Bartleby’s choice to opt out is a far greater act of agency and free will than anything manifested by Bartle, who seems dragged through life by circumstance, chance, the will of others, and the mishaps that ensue anytime he tries to act purposefully. Actually interested in trying to please others, he learns, if anything, that doing so negates his own individuality and resourcefulness, while mostly screwing things up for his intended beneficiaries.

Many reviews of The Yellow Birds point to its opening lines as evidence of Power’s stylistic pitch:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.

Such prose is not sedate, but in comparison to the jazzed-up language of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and David Abrams’ Fobbit—both full of laugh-out-loud figures of speech and one-line zingers—The Yellow Birds is slower, more contemplative, more lyrical. No character is ridiculed, and military and political ethics and purposes are not scorned. Even descriptions of combat and the characters’ rough military speech are rendered in a heightened literary register that conveys brooding seriousness and intense artistic imagining. The cumulative effect is to suggest that the catastrophic events that lead to the death of many of the novel’s characters and Bartle’s deterioration are akin to a slow-moving car wreck. Murph in fact uses that analogy to explain combat:

“It’s like a car accident. You know? The instant between knowing that it’s gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do shit about it And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not …. Like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days.”

These sentiments make a mockery of heroism, or any kind of human free will. They recast soldiers as inert entities to whom things happen. By the end of The Yellow Birds, Murph dies, Sergeant Sterling dies, and so do several minor characters. Bartle lives on and tries to feel ordinary again, but does so only by severely reducing the scope of his world: “I don’t want to look out over the earth as it unfurls itself toward the horizon. I don’t want desert and I don’t want plains. I don’t want anything unbroken. I’d rather look out at mountains. Or to have my view obstructed by a group of trees.” “James River Blues,” a terrific song by Old Crow Medicine Show, a band with deep Virginia roots, helps explain Bartle’s state-of-mind:

On the cool flow
Floatin’ down, down below
The bridge to the water’s edge
From the ridge to the ledge
From the hills to the sea
I’ll become a memory

Ensconced back within the Virginian landscape Bartle waits his own vanquishing. His journey beyond the state borders has been a disaster; his personal saga mirrors the downward historical trajectory of the Commonwealth; his character flaws those of his people. Bartle’s catastrophe could be any soldier’s, or that of the nation’s, but that it is a Virginian’s makes it that much more distinctive and poignant.

Frank Hobbs,

Frank Hobbs, “Sycamores and Green Bridge, Richmond, VA”

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds. Little, Brown, and Company (2012).

Frank Hobbs’ art by permission of the painter.

This post is dedicated to Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard who died of wounds suffered in 2009 while attached to a Virginia National Guard advisor team assigned to Camp Clark, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

UPDATE September 13, 2015:  RIP today Moses Malone, mentioned here-in, a Virginia high school basketball prodigy and later an NBA MVP–one of the heroes of my youth.

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