War what is it good for? Well at the risk of sounding incredibly cynical I’d say as source for some of the most powerful books ever created.
I’ve just been reading 2 fascinating looks at two totally different wars.
The first is Kevin Powers ‘The Yellow Birds’, a much praised book that is the first of what I expect to be a stream of novels concerning the Middle-Eastern conflict of the last decade.
The second is Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things they carried’ about the Vietnam War.
Both are highly recommended reads because both have to deal with one of the most deadly enemies a writer has to face – sky high reader expectations.
War books more than any other genre have to effectively transform us into better human beings for reading them. As if the simple act of reading a book will stop all conflicts. We also have the slightly absurd expectation that somehow reading them will let us know what a war is like.
‘The Yellow Bird’ deals with these pressures by ignoring them. Powers is content to tell a simple first person tale with the minimum embellishment.
At the heart of his story is the promise made by our narrator, Private Bartle, to protect another solider, Private Murphy. It’s a promise made to his friend’s mother and from the moment the words pass his lips he begins to regret them. For the world he is about to enter is not one that allows promises to be honored.
Sure enough we soon learn he was unable to save his friend but exactly how is kept from us until the penultimate chapter of the book.
While we wait Powers cuts back and forth between the Virginia home of Bartle and Iraq revealing little by little the incidents that have thoroughly disillusioned him. Each scene, from the death of a translator to the observation of old school mates swimming in a river, are powerfully imagined through our increasingly alienated narrator.
Of course we have seen much of this before. The people at home who struggle to understand what our soldier hero has been through, the soldier who feels like an outsider to the rest of humanity but Powers overcomes this by giving us a disarmingly, normal narrator who’s final actions seem like a justified reaction to the carnage around him.
Now we come to our second war novel. Tim O’Brien has a simple advantage over Kevin Powers. Time. He’s had years to process his war and think about what it actually means.
He’s thought about it so much that he no longer feels the need to create a simple memoir or a novel. Instead he creates something between the two, making us question what is truth and what is not.
Some of his stories are quite deliberately made up because in essence, according to the narrator of O’Brien’s book, it’s not whether something happened or didn’t happen that is important but that it feels like the truth.
Often he will repeatedly describe the instances of a particular death as if trying to find the most accurate portrait of what occurred, before settling instead for the most accurate feeling of what happened.
The overall effect is thought provoking, emotionally gut wrenching and at points almost mysterious, as if the soldiers had entered some strange twilight world where ordinary logic no longer applied.
I’m thinking and hoping that in 5, 10 or 15 years time, Kevin Powers and writers like him will be able to create masterpieces of similar depth.
If we’re lucky they’ll be the last generation that ever has too.