Robert Gottlieb on his career as an editor and publisher, and a life spent among many of America's greatest writers.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Kevin Powers, from a town in Virginia, joined the army when he was just 17 years old. Six years later, he was in Iraq, deployed in Mosul and Ta Lafar at a time of fierce fighting. He draws on that experiences in a novel titled “The Yellow Birds.” It is the story of Private John Bartle and Private Daniel Murphy, two small town boys bound by a rash promise Bartle made to Murphy’s mom. But they are unprepared for the battles they face. Tom Wolfe says this novel is “the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ of America’s Arab Wars.” Kevin Powers joins guest host Tom Gjelten of NPR to discuss the emotional gravity of war and the dangers that do not end when soldiers get home.
- Kevin Powers served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from the book THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Powers. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Kevin Powers fought with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Then he came home and got an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin where he was a Michener Fellow in poetry.
MR. TOM GJELTENHe's just published a debut novel about the combat experience. Critics are comparing it to Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead."
MR. TOM GJELTENIt's about a 21-year-old soldier who makes a promise to a fellow recruit's mother, a promise he regrets once the two of them arrive in Iraq. The title is "The Yellow Birds" and Kevin Powers joins me in the studio this morning. Thanks so much for being here, Kevin.
MR. KEVIN POWERSThank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
GJELTENWell, this is a story that will touch many of our listeners, especially those of you who have been to war and a little later, you can join our conversation. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. Email us at email@example.com or reach us through Twitter or on Facebook.
GJELTENSo Kevin, like your narrator, Private Bartle, you came from a small town in Virginia, right?
GJELTENLike him, you were deployed in Ta Lafar in Iraq as a young man, not quite as young as Private Bartle, who is 21, as the story unfolds. You were how old when you went to Ta Lafar?
POWERSI was 23.
GJELTENSo just a couple of years older?
GJELTENSo let's start with your own story as a soldier, where you went when you -- what was your mission when you got there?
POWERSSo I was a machine-gunner in a combat engineer platoon in Mosul and Ta Lafar, Iraq, from February '04 to March '05. Our job was essentially to go out and look for IEDs, roadside bombs. My individual job was kind of security over-watch to make sure that the guys who had their attention on the road didn't need to look out for other dangers that may be there. So that's what I did.
GJELTENAnd those were intense times, weren't they?
POWERSThey were, particularly. And I think that that period of our participation in the conflict in Iraq was very intense, yeah.
GJELTENYou know, you could have written a lot about Iraq and about, you know, your understanding of the conflict there, the people you met. And yet, in a sense, "The Yellow Birds" does not strike me as a novel about Iraq. You told someone I saw that in writing this novel, you looked at the war through a magnifying glass. You wanted to see the small things. That gives it a universal quality, doesn't it?
GJELTENI mean, your first line is that the war tried to kill us in the spring. Almost as if the war itself was a character in your story.
POWERSThat's true, and I think that's partially because the things that concerned me as a veteran, as a human being, were those small scale individual concerns. How do you make sense of that experience? What does it mean to have intentions that don't go well? How do you come home and readjust to your individual life?
POWERSAnd also because while I felt I had access to that experience having been a veteran, having participated in combat I also didn't want to presume that I could speak for other people. You know, you mentioned Tim O'Brien, one of his quotes is "There are as many wars as there are men who fight in them." So I wanted to make sure that I acknowledged within myself that I was keeping this story, kind of providing myself my own limitations so that I always remembered that I was speaking for one example of what this experience may have been like.
GJELTENAnd would you say it's true that particularly for young soldiers and Marines who perhaps don't have, you know, college education behind them, haven't really thought about the world that much, that when they go to a place like Iraq, do they really not think about where they are and what are the issues in the war that much and really focus on what the kind of personal experience it is for them?
POWERSWell, I mean, I don't know. I think that's true in a way and even if you do think very deeply about why the military is involved or what the political ramifications are, once you've arrived, once you're inside of the circumstances, those considerations, just for practical reasons, have to take a back seat.
POWERSYou have to. Your primary focus has to be the task at hand, the people that you're with. So there's not much mental energy left over for those kinds of abstract questions.
GJELTENLet me read a couple more lines from very early in your book, again, talking about the war and how you saw the war almost in sort of personal terms. You say, "The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn't care about objectives or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all.
GJELTENWhile I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose to go on, only to go on." This is your narrator speaking, of course, but boy, what that connotes is a sense of futility about the experience of being there.
POWERSI think that's true and as an individual inside of -- and the kind of beast of machinery and complexity that is warfare. There is a moment and I'm sure many people who have been there can relate where you recognize that your own ability to control your circumstances is so limited. There's so much happening that you can't really do anything about.
POWERSAnd there is, I think, a sense that I tried to capture in the book of being inside of this thing that you're not able to control.
GJELTENWell, let's talk about the story. Let's review the story a little bit. First of all, the characters, as I say, two boys, and I think we can call them boys, young privates. The narrator, Private Bartle, is 21. Private Murphy, he's 18, fairly close in age, but Private Bartle seems a little bit older and wiser.
GJELTENHe is asked by the platoon sergeant to take care of Murphy. And before they leave for Iraq, Murphy's mother makes Bartle promise to bring Murphy home to her. You know, one of the things that occurred to me here, Kevin, is that both of these boys, in both their cases, we don't hear about girlfriends much less about wives. It's their mothers who are important and that really sort of underscores the youth, if not the immaturity of these two boys.
POWERSRight, absolutely. And I think, you know, I think it's easy to forget just how young many of these soldiers are. And I mean, myself, I'm not that old now, I'm 32.
POWERSBut when I look back at how old I was, it seems amazing to me that I had to deal with this kind of compression of life experience. And, you know, another reason I wanted to emphasize on the kind of relationship that these characters have with their mothers is my own experience of coming home.
POWERSAnd as I matured, recognizing the kind of challenge that my mother and, you know, obviously, hundreds of thousands of mothers have gone through that they're -- in a way, that they have their own battles to fight that are just as stressful and just as difficult as ours.
GJELTENNow, the other really important character in your novel is Sergeant Sterling is a wonderfully complex character. Cruel, he seems on occasion, but kind of in a functional sense, if that makes sense. Like, he knows what is necessary to survive in war and he's determined that the soldiers in his care learn what they need to know in order to survive.
GJELTENYou, the narrator says, "I wasn't sure he wasn't crazy, but I trusted that he was brave and I now know the extent of Sterling's bravery. It was narrowly focused, but it was pure and unadulterated. It was a kind of elemental self-sacrifice free of ideology, free of logic. He would put himself on the gallows in another boy's place for no other reason than that he thought the noose was better suited to his neck."
GJELTENThis is not the kind of bravery that we're accustomed to reading about in war novels. It's a very unique kind of bravery.
POWERSAnd I think that, you know, my experience, my attempt to understand that, you know, this sort of extraordinary ability of some people to function in these circumstances. It's an astonishingly complicated product of training, of commitment, but also I think in the case of Sergeant Sterling, a kind of -- he's holding on to this aspect of his life that he can control, which is his proficiency as a soldier.
POWERSHe understands his task is to make sure that the soldiers in his charge survive. So he, as a kind of a way of grasping at what's left of his humanity, he fixates on that and almost nothing else.
GJELTENAnd but you say it's functional in war, but it's not that functional outside of war.
POWERSThat's right. And I almost, you know, I think when creating these characters, in a way, I thought of them as existing on a kind of spectrum. And one of the things that most troubles Bartle, the narrator, is both his admiration for Sterling's kind of ability and his competence, but also a very deep profound fear that that may be necessary, the kinds of things that he gives up may be necessary to survive the war.
POWERSYou know, he may have to give up part of his humanity. He may have to let everything else fall by the wayside, other than this dedication to the task at hand. And I think that terrifies Bartle, the narrator.
GJELTENWas there someone like Sergeant Sterling, in your own experience?
POWERSI mean, not directly, none of the characters correspond to people I actually knew. But I think, you know, looking inside of myself and sort of reflecting on the very fluid ideas I have and had about my own experience, I think there is part of, you know, there is some combination of aspects of myself and my imagination that I really didn't like to look at, but that I felt was kind of necessary to approach the story and my experience of the war in an honest way, in a way that would be meaningful both to me and hopefully to readers.
GJELTENKevin Powers is the author of "The Yellow Birds." This is his first novel. It's based on his experience as a soldier in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq. When we come back, Kevin is going to read a couple of short sections from his very powerful novel. We'll also be getting to phone calls. I'm especially interested in hearing from veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and we will, as I say, get to all of the calls that we can. Please stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane today with my guest Kevin Power who served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq and wrote -- has a new novel based on that experience. It's called "The Yellow Birds." It's a powerful novel. It's received wide praise. And, Kevin, just before the break we were talking about an important character in your novel, Sergeant Sterling, and the way that he prepared the soldiers in his charge for what they were up against, for what they would have to do including killing people. And as you said, these are kids 18, 19, 20 years old.
GJELTENI want you to read one section here where the soldiers are in his charge, in particular Sergeant -- Private Bartle and Private Murphy are wondering what it will be like to shoot people. And Sergeant Sterling talks to them about it. Can you read that section for us, please?
POWERSAbsolutely. What's it like over there, Sarge, Murph asked sheepishly. He was sitting cross-legged in the snow, his rifle over his lap like he was cradling a doll. Sterling laughed, God, that question. He had begun gathering rocks and tossing them into my upturned Kevlar. Murph looked away from him. He spoke firmly, they aren't gonna pop up and wait for you to shoot them. Remember your fundamentals and you'll be able to do what needs to be done. It's hard at first but it's simple. Anybody can do it. Get a steady position and a good sight picture, control your breathing and squeeze. For some people it's tough after but most people wanna do it when the time comes.
GJELTENMost people want to do it when the times comes. What does that mean? That's -- that sounds terribly callous and yet you don't get the feeling it really is that callous.
POWERSI think there's -- you know, for Sterling there's a sense -- again, he's so fixated on this idea of proficiency and what they are trained to do and what they're -- this kind of tunnel vision of what the job at hand is. And he thinks that it's almost obvious that the end result of that preparation would be the performance of those actions that you've been preparing for. And I think that they're -- you know, I think there's probably some aspect of -- or some element of the soldier's life where you spend so much time in preparation that there can be a kind of morbid curiosity about what the experience will finally be like when it's realized.
GJELTENAnd a relief that you can actually do this terrible thing that you've been trained to do?
POWERSYeah -- no, I think there's a big -- probably a big fear for many people that they'll fail the people that they're with when confronted with this -- you know, this awful task, this -- you know, the most sort of grave thing that you can possibly do. There is a fear that -- I think for a lot of people that you won't be able to do it so that it's a kind of crossing of the threshold in a way. And I think Sterling sees that as a necessary threshold to cross.
GJELTENNow Private Bartle of course comes to this threshold as do all soldiers in that combat experience. Could you go now to the second section that I want you to read? This is a time when Private Bartle actually is in the situation finally where he does have to raise his rifle and shoot someone. Could you read that section for us, please?
POWERSUh-huh. Rounds by the hundreds shook dust off the ground, the trees and buildings. An old car crumpled and collapsed beneath the dust. Once in a while someone ran between the buildings, behind the orange and white cars over the rooftops and they'd surround themselves with little clouds of dust. A man ran behind a low wall in a courtyard and looked around astonished to be alive. His weapon cradled in his arms. My first instinct was to yell out to him, you made it buddy, keep going. But I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that.
POWERSIt was not long before the others saw him too. He looked left, then right and the dust popped around him. And I wanted to tell everyone to stop shooting at him, to ask what kind of men are we? An odd sensation came over me as if I had been saved, for I was not a man but a boy. And that he may have been frightened but I didn't mind that so much because I was frightened too. And I realized with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn't stop until I was sure that he was dead. And I felt better knowing we were killing him together and it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it.
POWERSBut I knew. I shot him and he slumped over behind the wall. He was shot again by someone else and the bullet went through his chest and ricocheted breaking a potted plant hanging from a window above the courtyard. Then he was shot again and he fell at a strange angle backward over his bent legs. And most of the side of his face was gone and there was a lot of blood and it pooled around him in the dust.
GJELTENGreat emotional detachment from what he's doing. You don't even get a sense that he's shooting this person out of anger, out of malice, out of a desire for vengeance or victory. He's just doing it.
POWERSYeah, and again I think there is the sensation, this kind of -- this idea in the book for him, his experiences that he's caught up in this kind of wave of actions. The war has in a way swallowed him. He's kind of inside this thing that has intentions and a mind of its own and he's almost powerless to do anything but perform the task that he's required to. And I think because much of the novel is told looking back, he's at various times able to reflect. And at other times kind of there's this fog between his memories of his own experience and his ability to kind of understand them. Yeah, so it's a fluid situation for him both during and after the fact.
GJELTENWell, we won't give away the ending of the book, but the narrator is, what, about 30 at the time he actually tells the story?
POWERSHe is. It's significantly later.
GJELTENSo -- and yet his recollection of the details of some of these events is so clear that you understand that they were just indelible.
POWERSYeah, I think that's true and I think one of the -- particularly for the narrator one of the challenges that he faces coming home and one of the reasons that the story unfolds in the way that it does is because he has these memories that intrude on his daily life that they become as real as his experience of living in the present. And he has very little control over them. So one of the things that he sets out for himself is to try to arrange these emotions, these memories in such a way that his experience will make sense, that he can kind of integrate it into his -- whatever his world will look like in the future.
GJELTENI want to get back to the actual situation in Iraq at the time. That was a really important period in the war. Did you, as a soldier, have a sense of who you were fighting against, or was it as undefined as the characters in your book make it out to be?
POWERSWell, I mean, I think my experience it may have been perhaps more undefined than it was for other soldiers because to a large degree I was, you might say, battling these objects that had this potential energy. You know, I was dealing primarily with these roadside bombs with IUDs. And although there were oftentimes people, you know, who were controlling the detonation of those things, my experience may have been slightly different from some others.
POWERSBut on a larger level, you know, I'm not sure that I was able to sense, you know, a distinction between the various kinds of groups that were being described to us. I mean, they were just called anti-Iraq forces.
GJELTENWell, actually in the book you call them hajjis.
POWERSRight. Well, that's the kind of -- you know, the soldiers speak for -- yeah, and...
GJELTENYeah, but that's really interesting to me, Kevin, because hajji actually means something. It's someone who -- it's a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. And then after they come back, for the rest of their lives, they are called hajji.
POWERSRight. It is. It's an honorific and it's -- there is certainly some irony that soldiers, you know, adopted that, co-opted that and used that as a kind of colloquial way of talking about locals of any age, gender, variety, enemy, friend. You know, it's kind of an unfortunate catchall that was developed by the military.
GJELTENNow some of your officers, or at least the colonel in your book, really did make an effort to explain to the soldiers what the cause was, what they were fighting for. The way that you tell the story of the colonel, you say that he came to the soldiers and said to them -- made this great speech, said, boys you will soon be asked to do great violence in the cause of good. This is the land where Jonah is buried, where he begged for God's justice to come. We are that justice. You know, you read that and you almost want to say, give me a break.
POWERSRight. Well, you hear occasionally sort of extreme rah-rah kind of speeches. And if you're a certain kind of person you do want to say, give me a break. So I mean, obviously that's probably exaggerated for effective bit, but I do recall certain times during my experience where I found it difficult not to roll my eyes at the kind of cheerleading that was happening. So...
GJELTENSure. Let's get back to the story. So Bartle and Murphy -- so Murphy's mom asks Bartle to promise her he will bring Murphy home and Bartle agrees. Sergeant Sterling overhears him make that promise and then when he's alone with him he actually punches him out. And explain that.
POWERSWell, I think even though in his official capacity as, you know, their leader Sterling has asked Bartle to do essentially the same thing. But I think what Sterling recognizes is that, you know, forces that are beyond any individual's control will dictate whether that promise can be fulfilled or not. So while Sterling says, it's your job to look out for him there's an understanding that that can't be guaranteed. You do everything you can but you can't make a promise like that. It's simply not a promise you can keep.
POWERSAnd I think he's repulsed by the idea that Bartle would presume to have that kind of control knowing, as he does that you simply don't.
GJELTENAnd again, is that kind of a functional thing that he's driving home to him in that moment that you can't have any expectations of what lies ahead?
POWERSI think -- yeah, I think it is. And later in the book he will even talk about this idea that if you lose focus, you know, you may as well just kind of concede that you're going to become a casualty. Like that is in itself the thing that he thinks causes your downfall, is losing focus, losing attention to the task at hand.
GJELTENKevin Powers is the author of "The Yellow Birds." I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And in a little bit, in a few minutes we want to bring our callers -- our listeners into this conversation. As I said before, I'm especially interested in hearing from people who have gone to war, who have gone to war in particular to Iraq or to Afghanistan, but anyone who is hearing this conversation and wants to join in it. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850.
GJELTENThe -- so Bartle makes this promise to Murphy's mom to bring him home and he later, not surprisingly, comes to regret that promise. Why did he come to regret the promise that he had made to Murphy's mom? Not even sort of recognizing the danger that they were both in and the possibility that he could not guarantee Murphy's safety. But there's seems that there's a larger thing going on here with Bartle regretting that he had made that promise.
POWERSWell, I think the larger question is one of responsibility. How responsible can you be for another person? How much of yourself do you have to sacrifice to fulfill that responsibility, to kind of achieve the level of attention and dedication and love that it takes to care for another human being, particularly in a situation as extreme as that? And I think that's difficult for Bartle.
GJELTENHe wanted to be good, but he was afraid he would fail in that effort.
POWERSThat's right. No, he desperately wanted to be good and that fear of failure I think drove him in many ways, in some ways defines him as a human being.
GJELTENI think that I read, Kevin, somewhere that you said that when you returned home from Iraq everyone wanted to know what it was like over there. Is this novel sort of your answer to all those people?
POWERSIt's -- yeah -- no, I mean, it was certainly a question that I was asked on a regular basis. And the novel began as an attempt to deal with that question. You know, I think the way I feel about it now is that I'm comfortable acknowledging that I still have more questions than answers. I'm not sure that's a question that has a simple answer. I mean, there is, as far as I understand, no perfect analogue for the experience of being in a war.
POWERSBut what I tried to do was just take this one soldier's perspective, you know, hopefully allow a reader to occupy some part of his mind to understand his interior life, the kind of emotions that he feels. You know, the things that Bartle is experiencing regret fear, anger confusion. You know, those are certainly emotions that soldiers feel very intensely within combat and when they return home but they don't have a monopoly on that. I mean, we as human beings all understand what those feelings are like.
GJELTENI'd like to bring Dave into the conversation now. Dave is on the line from Norton, Mass. Good morning, Dave. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVEGood morning, Tom. Thank you for taking my call, and good morning to your guest. Like he -- well, I served in Vietnam back in '68, '69. I was 24 when I went in the country, 25 when I came out. And so I did not experience the life of the grunt, the infantry soldier. I was fifth division level in the field and did see this. And one of the things that I've had a problem with is that the things they're coming back with today are different than the things that we came back with then. And I'm just kind of -- the army is very good at making us feel that we're on a mission and letting us know that this mission is real and good and everything.
DAVEAnd yet, as you said, you get angry, you get frustrated. You have -- there's a certain amount of fear that's involved. And all of these things kind of tie up and the army does a great job of making us killers, but they don't do a damn thing when you get out to make you a non-killer. And I'll take your responses on (sic) the air. Thank you much.
GJELTENOkay. Thank you very much, Dave.
POWERSThanks, Dave. Yeah -- no, I mean, I think that is certainly a challenge and a significant portion of the book is an attempt for -- you know, it's a description of Bartle's attempt to figure out what he's supposed to do with himself when he gets back. The kind of intensity level required to participate in combat, to be a soldier every single day for a year, you know, often for many cases of soldiers now for two, three, perhaps even four years. There is no off switch. So when you come home you're still operating off an -- on this extraordinary level of intensity. What has been normal for you is not normal any more.
GJELTENKevin Powers is the author of a new novel "The Yellow Birds." Stay tuned. Short break, we'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm, with my guest Kevin Powers. He's the author of a new novel, "The Yellow Birds," based on his experience serving in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq. Actually, Kevin, not a lot of novels have come out of this war yet. War has produced novels, but it seems like it takes a little while for them to come out.
POWERSYou're right. I mean there have been a couple. Of course Billy Lynn's, "Long Halftime Walk," and David Abrams has a book called, "Fobbit." So I think they're beginning to come out, yeah.
GJELTENWe have lots of callers. We also have some interesting emails. The first, Kevin, I'm sure you have an answer to this. Patricia wonders, "I'm wondering about the name Bartle. Any connection to Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener?"
POWERSWell, it's funny. That's a, you know…
GJELTENIt's one you get a lot.
POWERSYeah, well, it's a story that was very important to me when I was thinking of trying to figure out a name for the character, just because that story's been so meaningful to me. And I thought there was some kind of communication between this sort of desire to pull away, the desire to retreat and withdraw from the world. So it was kind of an homage in a way, yeah.
GJELTENAnd a couple of comments here, very similar. First of all from Barb, she says this, "Kevin Powers' mention of the difficulty mothers face as they send their sons and daughters off to war is greatly appreciated. My son recently returned from a year in Afghanistan. To say it was the hardest year of my life is not an overstatement. Based on the excerpts you read, I'm not sure I could emotionally handle reading the book." She talks about the efforts by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to deal with the spouses of service members, but she worries that there's not much concern for their parents.
GJELTEN"And these family members," she says, "have no support from military bases and spend the deployment time in anguish. Thank you for recognizing the pain that parents feel." Also a tweet, kind of in a similar vein, "My son will deploy in the upcoming months. You mentioned how hard it is for moms. Any ideas for me to make it through?"
POWERSWell, I mean there are family groups. Generally, within the unit, there will be kind of family support groups. So I would encourage, you know, not just spouses, but I'm sure that parents could be involved, you know, even if they're not close, by phone or email, but I think it would probably be valuable to find other people who are going through a similar thing. I mean that kind of feeling of solidarity can be incredibly meaningful. And I think it is, again, I mean, I don't think it can be overstated the kind of challenges that mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers face. It's an incredible burden, not just for the soldiers, but for the families as well.
GJELTENWell, and as our listeners point out, they are grateful to you for having highlighted that concern, that issue. I want to go now to Rebecca in Greensboro, N.C. Good morning, Rebecca. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for calling.
REBECCAHi, thank you for taking my call.
REBECCAI just wanted to say to -- it's Todd, right?
GJELTENKevin Powers and I'm Tom. I'm Tom.
REBECCAOh, okay. About this book, I'm very happy when a veteran writes a book like this. And I'm very interested to read it. I’m a veteran myself. I was a platoon leader in 2003 when we invaded Iraq and I was in charge of a military police platoon. But the thing that I wanted to speak to was that when you come back and move on with your life -- I'm now nine years removed from that experience and I've moved on and have a completely different life now than I did.
REBECCAI'm a mother of two wonderful children. I have a job that's completely unrelated to law enforcement or military service and yet even though I feel like I have successfully moved on with my life, there's still this, you know, you still have flashbacks. You still have this piece of you that never leaves, that this experience with the war never really leaves you. And even though you think you've moved on and, like I said, I think I've done it successfully, but so many people, unfortunately, don't and have post-traumatic stress and substance abuse issues.
REBECCAAnd it's something that even those who deal with well can't ever really shake. It becomes a part of you and like the war travels with me through my years.
GJELTENThank you, Rebecca. Kevin, I'm sure you would agree with that or that's certainly a theme that comes out in this novel as well.
POWERSRight. No. And I appreciate the comment, Rebecca. Absolutely. No. And I feel fortunate. You know I certainly had challenges of my own when I came home, but many soldiers faced far greater challenges, both during their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and coming home, than I have. But yeah, absolutely, I mean one of the main concerns of the book is this kind of how do you arrive at a place where you can accept the fact that this will always be a part of your life, that you can never be a person who didn't go to war? You're always gonna have that as an aspect of your understanding of the world.
GJELTENAnd one of the most powerful parts of your novel actually does not take place in Iraq. It deals with Private Bartle after he comes back. He's dealing with some very specific things that he has brought back with him that I'm not gonna get into because it would sort of give away the end of the book, but what you make clear in the book is how difficult it is for him to relate even to his former friends with whom he was really close. We have one more section I'd like you to read, where he is confronting this need to reconnect to his friends, but also his inability to do so.
POWERSUm-hum, absolutely. "Luke and the rest of the boys and girls still splashed in the water, taking turns diving from the broad, gray rocks into a little draft of current that swept them 10 or 20 feet downstream, like an amusement park ride. They were beautiful. I had to resist the urge to hate them. I had become a kind of cripple. They were my friends, right? Why didn't I just wade out to them? What would I say? Hey, how are you, they'd say. And I'd answer, I feel like I'm being eaten from the inside out. And I can't tell anyone what's going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time.
POWERS"And I'll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like, I'll give away that I don't deserve anyone's gratitude. And really, they should all hate me for what I've done, but everyone loves me for it and it's driving me crazy."
GJELTENYou know, we see so often when soldiers are in uniform, flying on airplanes or something, you know, someone will say, thank you for your service. I mean, it's an easy thing to say, isn't it? Thank you for your service. And yet, you know, but that section of the book sort of suggested that constantly thanking soldiers for their service doesn't necessarily make them feel any better.
POWERSRight. That's true. And it's not to say that the gesture isn't appreciated, but what it does oftentimes, I think, it can, you know, when you're being thanked for your service you think about what that was. You think about what you had to do. You think about the kind of things that you saw, the kind of things that you participated in. And so there can be this kind of cognitive dissidence where you appreciate this gesture, but at the same time, you know, oftentimes what you're being thanked for is a really tragic experience. So there's just this disconnect where things don't seem to line up.
POWERSAnd it can be really challenging to confront that, you know, every time somebody expresses their gratitude. It's like it's renewing those memories in a way.
GJELTENYou know, Kevin, there's some little details in your book that seem to me to be really powerful. And I have to think they must have been important to you. You talk about Private Bartle, after he comes back, carries around what's called his Casualty Feeder Card and also carries around Murphy's Casualty Feeder Card. Can you explain what that was about?
POWERSYeah, well, I mean in the book there's, you know, for Bartle there's this attempt to come to terms with his survival, which I think is common for soldiers who have been in combat. And you're trying to figure out what it was that allowed you to live and perhaps other people not. And there's no easy answer for that. So he has this kind of reminder of the fragile nature of his life.
GJELTENAnd what is that card?
POWERSOh, the card itself is actually something you fill out and you keep in your helmet in case you're wounded or, you know, even killed. It's the first step in processing the casualty.
GJELTENAnd what kind of information do you put on there?
POWERSWell, you put, you know, you put your name, your unit. It has a place to mark where you're injured, the nature of the injury. So it's a kind of logistical recordkeeping type of thing.
GJELTENAnd for Bartle that was a memento of his time there and of Murphy's time there. And he kept those cards with him.
POWERSThat's right, yeah. Absolutely.
GJELTENLet's go now to Kathleen, who's been on the phone for a long time. Sorry you had to wait, Kathleen. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KATHLEENHey, it's a pleasure to be able to ask Kevin a question. And everything you're saying, Kevin, is so moving. And I've talked with a lot of Iraq and Afghani vets at several V.A.s in Ohio. And I hear a lot from them, that they really feel a lot of anger about the disconnect between what Americans know and what has really gone on on the ground in both those wars. So I want you to talk more about the disconnect. And then I also want to ask you to go further with what you just said a few minutes ago.
KATHLEENI'm a vet, Vietnam era. And then, of course, our soldiers were mistreated in many ways on their returns. And then yet, in both these wars, like you just expressed, so many people are thanking our soldiers without really thinking about what's really going on. So it just seems like we went from one extreme to another. So if you could address both those things, thanks.
GJELTENThank you, Kathleen.
POWERSYeah, thanks very much. Yeah, no. I mean I think that disconnect is, I mean, really profound. And you feel it very intensely. And I understand, I'm sympathetic to those people who have anger about that. I mean not only are you isolated by having this experience that really so few people in our country have, but I think because it's gone on so long, that people have become inured to that. And in a way I think some of us feel forgotten.
POWERSAnd I understand how that happens. I mean I came back in 2005 and the war has continued to go on. I'm not immune to that myself. I try to say engaged with what's happening. I care about the soldiers that are there, but when you see the same things over and over and you hear the same stories, it can be hard to not want to look away. The desire to look away is very strong and I understand that.
GJELTENThere was a section in your book where you talked about how often you went into that one town. And it was almost as you're just going through the motions over and over and over again, doing the same operation repeatedly.
POWERSYeah, that's absolutely right. And it can be difficult to understand what the end result is gonna look like or what it's supposed to look like. And how do you know? I mean, what measurement are we using to kind of judge success or failure? And, again, I mean, you know, it's hard to know what's in each person's heart when they're giving, you know, those gestures of thanks. I like to think that they're genuinely felt, but it can feel like an easy way to kind of make a gesture.
GJELTENKevin Powers. His book is, "The Yellow Birds." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Hugo, who is on the line from Miami, Fla. Good morning, Hugo. Thanks for calling, "The Diane Rehm Show."
HUGOYes. Good morning, Tom and Kevin.
HUGOGood morning. I just wanted to share an experience I had. I was an Airman with the reserves during the war. And I was tasked to serve at the morgue at Dover Air Force Base. And I just wanted to share that type of atmosphere that was going on in there. There was a great sense of respect, silence, pride and professionalism that happened in there. And also what was unique about it was the silence that was in there. It was a beautiful silence. It was a respectful silence. It was crisp, beautiful and it added a layer of beauty to, I don't know, to my spirit. And it was an honor to serve my country in such a personal way.
GJELTENHugo, what years were those, when you were working at the morgue at Dover?
HUGOWell, that was in the beginning. I served in 2003, right when it started. And then there was a period where we saw -- I think a little bit, like almost two months into it -- they somewhat considered the war over.
HUGOAnd a lot of us are just, you know, sent back.
HUGOAnd then there was like a skeleton crew left over. And then, later on, when it started to get a little heavier they started calling other people back. But I was there primarily during the beginning of it.
GJELTENSo actually probably the number of coffins arriving at Dover increased in later years, from what it was when you were there.
HUGOYeah, definitely by probably five or six times.
HUGOFive or six times the amount that I was there. I was there during a very, you know, I processed about a few hundred I believe.
GJELTENOkay. Well, Hugo, thanks very much for sharing that experience with us. I want to go now to Jeffrey, who's on the line from Cary, N.C. Thanks for the call.
JEFFREYHi, thanks for taking my call. I just had a quick couple comments. I heard earlier when you read, like, an email from a mother of a solider…
JEFFREY…about lack of information and being in the dark and how hard that is on the family. And one, I just wanted to encourage families to know that -- I'm active-duty military -- there's a huge amount of information available when families get plugged into what Kevin mentioned, the Family Readiness Groups. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, anybody can get involved in that, they just need the permission of the soldier. And my second comment ties into that most of the time the family members are in the dark because the soldiers kept them there. The availability of communication back from deployed areas is unprecedented.
JEFFREYTwitter, I mean, you can Facebook, you can call, you can video conference, you can Skype, you can do all of that from most foreign locations.
JEFFREYAnd so, you know, it's out there and so I would encourage soldiers to not leave their families in the dark. I think that the important part of this is that -- in this section of the book especially -- that soldiers realize how hard that is on their families when they don't communicate back home.
GJELTENThank you very much, Jeffrey. That's an important point to end on, Kevin. It's certainly true that that's one thing that really distinguishes this war from all previous wars is that you're there, you're disconnected and yet, you're connected.
POWERSYeah, that's absolutely right. And no, I agree that one of the really difficult things is knowing how to kind of say what you feel like needs to be said. So while the means of communication are absolutely there and available, it can still be a challenge to know kind of how to relate to your loved ones, how to sort of express what's happening to you, how to communicate your well being, you know.
GJELTENKevin Powers is the author of, "The Yellow Birds," a very powerful new novel, based on his experience in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq. Thanks so much for coming in, Kevin.
POWERSThank you for having me. I appreciate it.
GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show," is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program is a production of WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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