Why words fail to express the horror of combat.
War is, in most respects, the opposite of love, but these two subjects share one conspicuous trait: No matter how many novels are written about war or love, it’s unlikely we will ever fully comprehend either of them.
That hasn’t deterred people from writing war novels, and thank goodness for that—in our 24-hour news cycle, fighting in far-off regions can seem like an abstraction. But even fictional stories about combat provide a visceral reminder of its physical and emotional toll.
The experience of war has spawned a wide variety of novels, from painstaking, almost journalistic accounts (Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead) to freewheeling satire (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22) to hallucinatory conspiracies (Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). There is no single way to write an affecting war novel, nor should there be: As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. proved with Slaughterhouse-Five, a book with aliens and time travel can still provide heartbreaking insight into the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden.
Released late last year, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds is surely one of the darkest books ever written on this dark topic. Powers is an accomplished poet and a mesmerizing prose stylist—which is one reason the New York Times included The Yellow Birds in its list of the five best novels of 2012. Set in the mid-2000s, it concerns a 21-year-old U.S. private named Bartle, who has just returned from a three-year deployment in Iraq. During his tour of duty, he kills helpless civilians, loses a close comrade, witnesses unspeakable violence (such as the husk of a dog stuffed with explosives), and concludes that his role in the conflict has been utterly pointless.
Fiction writers have long addressed the violence and hardship of battle, but often insisted there was an underlying glory; consider the way Hemingway’s hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls sacrifices himself so that his anti-fascist comrades may live to fight another day. What separates The Yellow Birds from many of its predecessors is that Powers—who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005—sees nothing glorious or even meaningful about military service. At an airport pub immediately after Bartle’s discharge, a bartender offers to buy him a beer as a token of patriotic gratitude. Bartle balks, telling the reader, “I didn’t want to smile and say thanks. Didn’t want to pretend I’d done anything except survive.” When Bartle returns to his hometown in Virginia, the relief of his mother and friends only increases his self-loathing and alienation. Powers’s message is unequivocal: There is nothing noble about being a soldier.
To some extent, Bartle’s pessimistic tone mirrors growing public unease about U.S. military engagements—notably those, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, that fall under the nebulous War on Terror. But this is a largely apolitical book. Bartle’s misgivings are those of any soldier who fights in the name of someone else’s ideology. It’s the curse of following orders.
Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam vet who’s written many war novels, including the National Book Award–winning Going After Cacciato (1978), shares those conflicted feelings about the meaning of combat. O’Brien, like Powers, is driven to make war real for readers, but he acknowledges that words are painfully inadequate to make sense of it. In his 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, O’Brien wrote, “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.”
You’d think that being able to tell war stories to a rapt audience back home would offer some satisfaction. But Bartle returns with nothing he can brag about. He becomes a loner, afraid to engage with anyone, and falls into a shame spiral. In one agonizing section, he vents his disgust at what he did in battle and ridicules his logic for joining the army: “Deep down you went [to war] because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now.” War, like love, is transformative. But where love has a way of stirring the human spirit, The Yellow Birds shows that war fights tooth and nail to kill it.