There was a headline in the news recently about the cost of the war in Afghanistan. Apparently, we’ve all paid more than £2,000 for what seemed, even from the beginning, a futile exercise. What struck me was not the waste of money in times of austerity but what this story says about us. We seem to have become a society that measures things in terms of material cost and, specifically, personal material cost. If a government was trying to start the NHS now, it wouldn’t stand a chance. The true cost of war can never be measured in terms of capital. The true cost of war is immeasurable. A lost son, a daughter who will never hold her father’s hand, a mother left with all that desperate grief, a soldier whose moral compass has gone, the orphaned child desperate for revenge.
The title of Kevin Powers’ much-lauded debut on the Iraq war comes from a traditional U.S. Army marching cadence. However, the colour yellow, and birds, pervade the whole novel. It’s seen in the deserts of Iraq, where parts of the novel are set; it’s seen in a yellow ribbon tied around a bar at an American airport, a symbol of support for troops fighting on foreign soil; it’s seen in the tale of a miner setting canaries free from their cages, only to have them return to perch on the symbol of their captivity and cease their singing. That image alone tells you where this novel is going. It could have been called, ‘I know why the caged bird doesn’t sing.’
Written in fragments, moving back and forth between home and Iraq, Powers charts the story of two soldiers who become friends, Bartle and Murph, and Sterling, their slightly unhinged gung-ho sergeant who is a character not unlike Robert Duvall’s character in ‘Apocalypse Now, perhaps. Yet this isn’t an all-out action powerhouse, so beloved of Hollywood movies. Bartle, who narrates, spends much of the time reflecting on the abstract and describing in close detail the events on the margins as events lead, inevitably, to Murph’s end.
And death is at the heart of this novel. Death and human insignificance, ‘We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation with cause…Our biggest error was thinking that it mattered what we thought…There were no bullets with my name on them…There were no bombs made just for us…Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not being ordinary.” It’s full of passages like this. Some of it doesn’t work and some images jar the reader. ‘Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed’ left me rather bemused. However, there’s a great deal of lyrical beauty in this novel, with a dream-like atmosphere being conjured in the midst of great sadness and tragedy. As Bartle struggles with returning from duty and faced with the sight and sound of his carefree friends, there’s a long sentence strung over two pages, ‘…that thing you started to notice slipping away is gone and now it’s becoming inverted, like you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug…’ It’s a little overdone perhaps, but it’s also incredibly powerful and moving.
But this isn’t a novel just about war. Its scope is far greater. The sense of futility, of war, of friendship, of promises, of life itself is beautifully drawn. And it’s that tenderness that makes it such an important novel. The tenderness in the relationship between Bartle and Murph, the tenderness in the way nature is used, the tenderness in the telling itself. And in a place that seems to make heroes of soldiers and celebrates its military pomp and power (and I’m talking of Britain, not America – just think Thatcher’s funeral), this book is urgent and vital.
I haven’t read a book in one sitting for a long time but I did with this, and I was left with an ache for all the beauty we have been given and all we have done to destroy it.
‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers is published by Sceptre.