November 28, 2012
The best war novels come from those who’ve participated in the conflicts. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried immediately comes to mind as does Karl Marlantes’ more recent Matterhorn, both about the Vietnam War. And then there’s Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about World War I and considered to be one of the greatest war novels ever written. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds about the 21st Century’s Iraq conflict is likely to join this canon of bests. He gives us a deeply affecting story about two soldiers who become friends during basic training and fight alongside in Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. (I’m assuming Al Tafar is a fictional reference for the real city, Tal Afar.)
Lead by a steely Sgt. Sterling, who tolerates nothing less than an unfeeling approach to fulfilling their duty, 21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy follow him and keep going despite their overwhelming shock, fear and uncertainty. They take cues from him to be calloused and indifferent so as to stay sane, while they patrol and clear the streets of the city under siege and witness gruesome deaths. Private Bartle is the narrator, now almost 30 years old and looking back, speaking to us with an engaging, sorrowful voice about the experience in Al Tafar and a promise he made Murph’s mother to bring her son home safely — a promise that became a responsiblity, then a burden and finally a compassionate crime. A promise, Bartle tells us, he couldn’t keep.
The book is divided into chapters that alternate between Bartle and Murph’s time in Al Tafar and Bartle’s end-of-tour homecoming to Virginia. It’s a slick means of creating vivid emotional understanding of the effect of war on a soldier while engaged in combat as well as after, let alone creating a murmuring intrigue about what happens to Murph. Halfway through the book, we still don’t know the answer, but we know it is destroying Bartle at home, when he’s no longer a soldier, where he isolates himself, quietly tormented by his guilt and everyone who says “thank you” and calls him a hero. His spill of inner thoughts both in Al Tafar and at home is reflective, unforgettable prose poetry that so lost me in the beauty of the writing I had to reread passages to know what they had said.
Bartle’s inner life and perceptions are the real story here, interpreting what it’s like to be a soldier with visceral truth that transcends the literalness of non-fiction. I will warn that a few times what he witnesses is unbearable — a body bomb, a soldier killed in action with gunfire to his gut, let alone what’s visited upon his friend Murph — and yet Powers carefully measures the level of detail so the horrors of war don’t overwhelm and drive us away but build the story about how they can destroy one soldier and not another. When Bartle’s mother asks him what happened to him in Iraq, Bartle, in this beautiful passage, tells us:
“That’s not even the question, I thought. How is that the question? How do you answer the unanswerable? To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery. The dominoes of moments, lined up symmetrically, then tumbling backward against the hazy and unsure push of cause, showed only that a fall is every object’s destiny. It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.”
The Yellow Birds was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in fiction, won by Louise Erdrich for The Round House. Kevin Powers served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, as a machine gunner. He earned an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry.
June 5, 2010
I discovered Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy via Ken Lopez, an antiquarian bookseller in Massachusetts. His weekly e-newsletter included a first edition of the fourth/revised edition of this classic account of the French Indochina war between 1946 and 1954. I’d never heard of the book and, being drawn to stories — fiction and non-fiction — on the U.S. Vietnam War that filled the black-and-white TV screens of my childhood, I copied the newsletter summary of Fall’s book in Notepad and kept it on my computer.
It bears mentioning here that several weeks back I read Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, an unforgettable, gut-wrenching novel that follows a fictional U.S. battalion in Vietnam. The now best-selling novel so fully absorbed me I wish I could start it new again, to relive the days when all I wanted to do was read that book. My gravitation to Street Without Joy seems natural in this context because Bernard Fall lays bare the French army’s strategic mistakes that led to their famous defeat at Dien Bien Phu, giving the U.S. obvious warnings we’d repeat their failure if we proceeded similarly, which we did.
When Street Without Joy was first published in 1961, the Kennedy administration was escalating the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The book didn’t get much attention, an unfortunate response considering Fall hammers home the impossibility of Western military arms and technology triumphing over the region’s terrain and people. Colin Powell attests to the oversight in his autobiography, My American Journey when he writes:
“I recently reread Bernard Fall’s book on Vietnam, Street Without Joy. Fall makes painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into. I cannot help thinking that if President Kennedy or President Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book, they would have returned to the White House Monday morning and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Vietnam.”
The fourth edition of Street Without Joy, published in 1964, includes revisions by Fall that address the escalated U.S. military presence in the region. I see it as a non-fiction prequel that gives the novel Matterhorn deeper meaning. I’m reading a library copy of Fall’s book, but I don’t think that’s going to diminish a developing, insistent desire to own its rare cousin available from the antiquarian bookseller.
That cousin is inscribed by Fall to a Major Weber in 1964, and there’s also an ownership signature of a major in the U.S. Air Force dated 1965. Who knows how many other soldiers read this copy, as they prepared to fight the same enemy as the French. I imagine these solider-readers as those I got to know in Matterhorn and see the two books sitting side-by-side on my bookshelf in necessary recognition of what happened to them. What stops me is the price, beyond what I can justify within my book collecting budget; however, it’s likely only a matter of time before I give in. Of course, if I wait too long, the book may no longer be available. But that’s how this collecting jig is danced.
February 9, 2010
The New York Times featured an article yesterday about U. S. soldiers writing memoirs on their war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. “So far there are relatively few novels” about the current wars, the article said. It attributed the fictional dearth to soldiers needing “more time to explore ‘what happened inside,’” according to Tim O’Brien, who’s written both memoirs and novels about his Vietnam war experience. (Going after Cacciato won the 1979 National Book Award in fiction.)
A case in point is ex-marine Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn to be published in April. This 700-page Vietnam epic took 30 years to write. When it was completed, the author couldn’t find an agent or publisher until El León Literary Arts, a small publishing house in Berkeley, saw its merits and planned to publish it . The book was printed, review copies were mailed, and then interested New York publishing houses started calling El León’s editor-in-chief Thomas Farber. That’s how the small publishing house came to join forces with New York publishing house Grove/Atlantic in getting Matterhorn to readers.
The author Marlantes earned several military medals, including the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism. He joined the Marines after high school, but he got into Yale and so went to college first. Then he received a Rhodes Scholarship. Although the military continued to give him a leave of absence to attend school, he felt he was hiding behind privilege at Oxford, according to The Oregonian, and walked away: “He was in Morocco, living — drifting, really — off his Oxford scholarship funds when his duty became clear. He showed up at a U.S. naval base in yellow curls and a djellaba, smelling like a camel, and announced, ‘I’m 2nd Lt. Marlantes.’” Marlantes went to Vietnam in 1968.
Publisher’s Weekly gave Matterhorn a starred review saying, “…he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences.” Library Journal also gave it a starred review with this caution, “Obviously not a brief, cheery read…”