‘The cartography of one man’s consciousness’

POWERS The Yellow BirdsKevin Powers has won the Guardian‘s First Book Award for The Yellow Birds, widely praised as one of the finest American novels to have come out of the Iraq War.   Powers enlisted when he was just 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004-5; the title of this post comes from the novel, but the title of the novel comes from a US Army marching song:

 “A yellow birdWith a yellow bill/

Was perched upon/ my windowsill.

“I lured him in/With a piece of bread/

And then I smashed/His fucking head.”

Writing in Time, Nate Rawlings begins his interview with Powers with an observation that speaks to my own work on war at a distance:

War has always been a strange and distant endeavor, brought home from the battlefields in letters, photographs and stories after the guns fell silent. Then beginning with the war in Vietnam, images of battlefield violence were beamed into our homes; you’d be hard pressed to find an American with a television who hasn’t seen images of troops battling in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after 11 years of war, the challenge is to make people truly understand that experience.

That was Powers’ starting-point too: he wanted to find an answer to the question he was constantly being asked: ‘What was it like over there?’  Yet he soon determined that, even in fictional form, he couldn’t do it: ‘War is only like itself’, he writes.  That terse phrase circles back to an inquiry into war and representation – representations in war and representations of war – that is focal to any understanding of contemporary conflict: an inquiry that will, inevitably, need to confront the labile limits of representation itself.  (And that is not a surreptitious bugle call for non-representational theory to gallop over the horizon to the rescue).

Minimally, The Yellow Birds is about memory and violence, about the landscape of death and the lingering foulness of war.  The protagonist of the novel is Private John Bartle, who promises the mother of Private John Murphy that he will bring him back alive…  There are thoughtful reviews from the Guardian’s John Burnside here, from Elizabeth Samet here – she’s a professor of English at the US Military Academy – and from Benjamin Percy here, and a (better) interview with Powers here.

At Slate, Jacob Silverman locates The Yellow Birds alongside three other novels from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He doesn’t like its lyricism – Powers is a poet, and it shows – but he makes a more telling point about all four novels:

‘These new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon.’

US patrol in Tal Afar, September 2005

That’s true of so many novels from other wars too, but the point is all the sharper because Powers’ novel takes place, in part, in Tal Afar: one of the key sites from which the US Army traced the ‘cultural turn’ that was to be enshrined in its new counterinsurgency strategy.  Powers left there in the spring of 2005, by which time Tal Afar was being described as ‘the next Fallujah’.  But – according to George Packer at any rate – the tide was about to turn.   In one of his Letters from Iraq, ‘The Lesson of Tal Afar‘, Packer recorded the words of one US officer who, twelve months on, had been working the fragile contact zone between the US Army and different groups in the local population:

“History teaches you that war, at its heart, is a human endeavor. And if you ignore the human side — yours, the enemy’s, and the civilians’ — you set yourself up for failure. It’s not about weapons. It’s about people.”

War is about apprehending those ‘people’ in distinctive and differentiated ways, to be sure, but it’s also about apprehending the landscape in embodied ways that transcend the maps and jottings of today’s Human Terrain Teams.  Here The Yellow Birds excels, and for a reflection on the sensuous, visceral landscape of an earlier Iraq war, one described in Anthony Swofford‘s Jarhead, you can’t do better than read Geoffrey Wright‘s fine essay, a sort of corpo-cartography of the combat zone, in  ‘The desert of experience: Jarhead and the geography of the Persian Gulf War’, PMLA 124 (2009) 1677-1689.  He addresses the later Iraq War in ‘The geography of the combat narrative: unearthing identity, narrative and agency in the Iraq War’, Genre XLIII (2010) 163-90.

And I do recommend reading The Yellow Birds too…

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