Kevin Powers and The Yellow birds: What were we doing there?

In my own experience I had moments of lucidity when I recognized what was happening to me. And I recognized ways in which my own moral center was being knocked out of alignment… We were on a patrol once, dismounting our vehicles. I was pulling security on a ridge line near Mosul, and I realized that in fact we were on the walls of ancient Nineveh. And something about that recognition was so alarming to me — that we were in this place that was, really, in the Cradle of Civilization. What are we doing here? Why am I here? I mean, knowing that my job as a soldier was to kill people. Ultimately, if you’re wearing the uniform, if you’re carrying a weapon, that’s what your job comes down to. And it was so staggering to me in that moment. But then that moment passed, and moments like that would come and go.

Novelist Kevin Powers, of The Yellow Birds, with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 2013

Kevin Powers is being credited with the first literary masterpiece of the war in Iraq. My question in our conversation is why, like so many horrifying war masterpieces since the Iliad, The Yellow Birds leaves us feeling so helpless to fight the next onset of the madness.

Drawing on Kevin Powers’ life as a teen-age Army volunteer from Richmond, Va and a year’s duty as a machine-gunner near Mosul, The Yellow Birds is an absorbingly double-edged book. One very short form might be: Yes, the war was as cruel and criminal a mission as we all knew in our guts it had to be — young kids scared out of their wits 24/7, asking what the f*** are we doing here? The Yellow Birds is a consuming observation of breakdowns — of fraternity and loyalty, discipline and sanity; but it leaves no doubt that the general collapse began in a cloud of delusion and oblivion on the home front. Dave Eggers calls it a “gorgeous novel” and “easily the saddest book I’ve read in many years. But sad in an important way.”

Both the sadness and the significance of it affirm the great wisdom of William James. “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect” on modern man, as James wrote in The Moral Equivalent of War. “The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us…”

A commenter on the Guardian website made James’ point more pointedly about this very book that everyone (me, too) finds “beautiful,” this winner of the Guardian’s First Book Award. “Kevin Powers’ novel is part of the war industry,” wrote “fan64”. “None of this beauty and fascination would be possible without the warmongers we pretend to hate — oh, and the voters who elect them and become their war consumers…”

Oh, and us readers as well. As I confessed to Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds is a marvelous accomplishment that made me feel sick.

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  • The Parrot

    Great conversation. We take another stroll with the shadow. The most difficult type of shadow: the shadow in our wake that won’t leave us alone. I look forward to reading Mr. Powers’ book. It seems war gives us monumental stories. Maybe that is why we indulge them. The price seems too high, in my opinion, to merely satisfy our desire for stories and spectacle.

    Regarding accountability: there is no real, substantial accountability in our culture for those in the elite classes. For a culture to thrive, there is always the imperative for risk. But risks without consequences, well those aren’t risks. Hence, we get a variety of moral hazards. The media sector needs an accounting for their absence in reporting and diligence to veracity (some exceptions, Chris Lydon, Chris Hedges, Julian Assange, et al). It’s absurdly tragic when John Stewart and Steven Colbert are the standards for excellence in mass media.

  • Robert Zucchi

    After the footfalls of antiwar protesters had died away in the ’60s, and the activists had been scurrilously but successfully defamed as malcontents and druggies, the American people seem to have struck an implicit devil’s bargain with successive administrations: we know your legitimacy hinges on our forgetting Vietnam, and the crimes against humanity we committed there, and so we shall…provided you don’t affront our adaptable consciences with another abominable war.

    The bargain held on the public side even though the executive branch retracted its assent early. Richard Nixon escalated the Vietnam War but won re-election by a landslide. Even more damning, George W Bush won re-election after repudiating the tacit “pact” by waging TWO wars of aggression.

    The retreat by so many into expediency, self-interest, and cravenness has coarsened our national life, enfeebled our democracy, and emboldened the perdurable antidemocratic forces in our land, whose contempt for the civilizing values so loftily proclaimed at our founding keeps finding ever more ingenious forms of hateful expression.

    Kevin Powers and Chris Lydon are in this interview sublimating their anger into artful literature and journalism, much as the interviewees Chris featured in his “Arab Artists in a Revolution” series were doing, and for the same reason: intending through their work to engage the public in transformative dialogue. I thank Kevin and Chris for rattling the skeletons in the cupboard…we need to be made regularly uncomfortable with our easy accommodations of savagery.

  • nother
    This was General Eisenhower’s moving message to prior to the D-Day and It’s poignant to me because it illuminates the differences in the Iraq war – a message of mission like this could not be delivered to the troops because what would it say? I personally interviewed many of the recruits for the Iraq war and they were simply joining for job. And even the ones who mentioned 9/11, knew full well that the connection was precarious to say the least.

    War is hell regardless, but when we lose even a coherent rational for engaging in it, we become less human. Is there any battlefield in Iraq that President Bush could have visited and said: “…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”

    The sad reality is many of our fellow citizens have died in vain…they lie in coffins we’ll never see, and the survivors are now left to feel as they “are being eaten from the inside out,” as the characters in The Yellow Birds states. But could it be that they are the lucky ones? That while the rest of us are busy shopping, they at least recognize what’s being eaten away?

  • Potter

    This certainly brings us back to those moments before we collectively went to war, or were collectively dragged into it. I don’t know what any one of us could have done to stop it. I felt helplessness too. And it was confusing at the time. I am trying to eliminate the hindsight here. We collectively were swept up into war fever. I knew it at the time too–the insanity of it. Then the guy who talked about the Pottery Barn principle went to the UN and helped get this train speeding. I don’t think the New York Times was gung-ho for war either.Nor do I think the press could have stopped it. Nor were the American people for war. The polls that I remember were 65% against. And there was a lot of discussion about it that I recall, a lot of hesitation and warnings. I place blame on our leaders absolutely — the executive branch and Congress.

    Next thing I saw were SUV’s on the road with flags flying high and all those “support our troops” ribbon stickers. That made me sick.

    I don’t think the awful awfulness of war transmits from generation to generation. I agree with William James. But I also agree that we each should in our own way do what we can to end the insanity of it.Maybe technology, the intimacy created by the mass media can help. These are people we are killing.

    Obama is disappointing for sure in this area BUT he is backing away ever so slowly from the headiness of American exceptionalism .. or at least I think so.

  • Potter

    PS- I think we are actually holding people accountable after these years, reviews and anniversaries,though not legally ( which we should). Don’t you think we are a people more war averse?

    Bill Mayer did an excellent monologue the other night ending with the notion that not going to war, peace, in fact, makes us stronger:

    The War-Happy US and Kim Jung- Un

  • Eric

    This conversation inspired me to go buy and real the book. I am so glad I did. Thank you Kevin Powers for such an eye opening storying.

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