"THE WAR TRIED to kill us in the spring. As green greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into he windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire."
I read this opening paragraph and then as I tend to do I read it out loud to my wife as she was making (I wrote fixing first, but then realized that was a nonsensical Kansas word.) supper. Her response was WOW!
If you decide to read this book you will experience jaw dropping lyrical sentences describing the fear of combat, the futility of war, and the life that has to be rediscovered afterwards.
Kevin Powers volunteered to join the army and served in Iraq from 2004-2005 as a machine gunner. He was in the Tal Afar and Mosul region (see map above showing the location of the events in the novel in the Northern part of the country),and that is also the same areas patrolled by Bartle, Sterling, and Murph in the novel. Machine Gun Operator in Iraq
Powers then studied English at VCU and went on to get his MFA in poetry from the Michener Center for writers at the University of Texas. He is a poet and it shows in his prose.
"When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling. The sunlight fell absently through the spaces in the treetops, here and there glistening as if on water from smudges of bird blood and citrus."
We see everything through the eyes of Private Bartle who is desensitized by the war, so spiritually removed from his day to day activity that without ingrained training I wonder if he could have functioned at all. Despite the fact that Bartle is shutting down, aging with each new horrific experience, he has these moments where he describes a scene so vividly, so wonderfully, that I actually felt my heart rate increase because words excite me. His war buddy is Murph and though he cares about Murph there is this distance between him and everyone as if all that he experiences is happening to someone else. Survival instinct or someone who has reached a limit of emotional response?
Now that is not giving away the plot, because it is referenced early in the book. The book skips around between 2004 and 2005 in Iraq and also to the time when Bartle returns home. The glue that strings the plot together is the death of Murph, and how Bartle deals with the complicated aspects of that death and the aftermath. "Anyone can feel shame. I remember myself, sitting in the dirt under neglected and overgrown brush, afraid of nothing in the world more than having to show myself for what I had become. I wasn't really know around there anyway, but I had the feeling that if I encountered anyone they would intuit my disgrace and would judge me instantly. Nothing is more isolating than having a particular history. At least that is what I thought. Now I know: All pain is the same. Only the details are different."Mosul, Iraq
Sergeant Sterling is the veteran of the group an ancient 24 year old that is trying his best to survive, but maybe not sure why he is trying so hard anymore. He is a volatile man, brutal and unpredictable. One of those guys that make you wonder if he can ever adjust to regular society again. “I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me, how I felt like a coward until he screamed into my ear ‘Shoot these hajji f****s!’.”
Murph is 18, signed up when he was 17, one of those statistics that made me wince every Sunday morning when I would tune into "This Week with George Stephanophoulos".
At the end of the program they would always have an "In Memorium" segment that would list the deceased from Iraq and Afghanistan with their ages and where they were from. My wife and I would usually end up a little teary eyed every week as those names for a moment became very real for us.
I used to have a Marine recruiter that lived across the street from me. I mentioned to him how devastating it was to see the names of these kids that were sitting in high school classrooms just months before they died overseas. He replied to me that they had realized the political ramifications of that and now were holding up deploying Marines to combat zones until they turned 19. He could have just been bullshitting me (He was a spin doctor patrolling the mall daily looking for kids with nothing to do.), as if 19 was so much better than 18, but I did notice that average ages of the deceased soldiers did spring up especially after Bush called up and deployed all those reservists. Soldiers Tal Afar"The world makes liars of us all."
Obviously one cannot read a book like this without thinking about this war, the causes, the instigators, the liars, the waste, the shattered lives, and a secretary of defense demanding a country to go to war with that had hard targets. Afghanistan was a bit of disappointment to Rumsfeld in that regard. I don't want to detract from the accomplishments of Powers by spilling the vitriol of my own issues with this war. This book certainly had an impact on me. The two days that I spent reading passed in a fog. I was grumpy and a bit detached myself. My stomach felt tight and my thoughts were all weighted.
This war reminds me too much of Vietnam. I had flash backs to that fine novel Matterhorn. When you fight a war, putting your life on the line you want an objective and with that objective you want to know what you need to do to win. We keep fighting these wars that we can't win. We kill people so somebody can put another chalk mark on a board, but those deaths never get us any closer to winning. Powers explains it for me.
"I thought about my grandfather's war. How they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we'd march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly,; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We'd drive them out. We always had. We'd kill them. They'd shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they'd come back, and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops."
People are mentioning this fine young writer in the same breath as Tim O'Brien and Erich Maria Remarque. I won't disagree with them. I'm even thinking this won't end up being his best book. The promise he shows in this book has me excited about what he will do next. Highly recommended with a shot of bourbon and a beer chaser.