War has always been a strange and distant endeavor, brought home from the battlefields in letters, photographs and stories after the guns fell silent. Then beginning with the war in Vietnam, images of battlefield violence were beamed into our homes; you’d be hard pressed to find an American with a television who hasn’t seen images of troops battling in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after 11 years of war, the challenge is to make people truly understand that experience.
In his review of The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers’ powerful new novel, TIME International editor Jim Frederick wrote, “No satirical romp, The Yellow Birds is an elegaic, sober and haunting coming-of-age war story.” Powers, a poet by training who served as a machine gunner in Tal Afar, Iraq in 2004-2005, writes in evocative passages that capture the inner turmoil of his narrator, Private Bartle. Briefly AWOL in Germany on the way home from Iraq, Bartle, stops in a church and looks up at a statue of Saint Sebastian:
“There was beautiful Sebastian, the arrows dangling from his chest. The blood from his injuries appeared like spattered candle-wax, hardened and congealed in a way that might allow a man to hang from a church wall unchanged and perpetually dying for a thousand years.”
A some of his strongest observations come from the battlefield itself:
…”I realized with great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn’t stop until I was sure he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that is was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it.”
When you went into the Army, was becoming a writer your ultimate goal?
I think I had that aspiration, but it was almost a secret, even from myself. I didn’t really have any idea how somebody would go about doing that. I’ve been writing since I was 12 or 13, writing poems and stories. But becoming a “professional writer,” it never occurred to me that would be an option.
By the time you shipped out to Iraq in 2004, did you know you might want to use that experience as the background for a novel?
About a year after I got back I started working on a novel. Before that I was writing poems about the war. But the idea for the novel and the first stabs at it were in 2007, when I’d been back about a year and a half.
The novel captures very well the experiences of soldiers in Iraq, and also the challenges coming home. Did you start with the goals of capturing that experience or did you start with a story and work those themes in late?
The story emerged from the questions I had about my own experience. But it made sense to use a story as lens through which I could think about my own experience and the larger questions about what it meant to be a soldier in that particular conflict. And more generally, what is the effect of having had that experience and how you return to something resembling normalcy.
You’ve said that you wanted to answer the question you were often asked, “What is it like over there?” What aspects of fiction better serve that goal that can’t be captured in non-fiction?
For me the thrust of that question was what does it feel like? It made sense to take the approach of exploring what it feels like on a deep, emotional level, to be in those situations and feel dislocated in that way–the whole gamut of emotions: the fear, the shame, the anger and confusion. I thought that would be a way people can connect. Everybody has experienced those to some degree or another in their normal lives and that would provide an opportunity to connect on that level.
How true did you have to be to your own experience versus that of the book’s narrator John Bartle?
I felt an obligation to be true to the character. The things that happen to the characters in the book didn’t happen to me directly. I served in an area of Iraq that bears a resemblance to the invented city that I set the book in, and I was in the combat arms. But it was more of a function of trying to imbue his experience with some sort of emotional truth that I had felt from my own experience.
Bartle, the narrator, is aware of the larger picture of the war as he’s in it. How do you think he would view the fact that the Iraq War went on and on after his time in it was over?
One of the areas of tension is that he doesn’t have anywhere he feels like he fits. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not an unusual reaction. In my own experience, I left Iraq in the spring of 2005. It kept going and I was still very aware of it. Some of that dislocation I experienced myself. I think that informs the difficulty of his transition, being between a war, which he didn’t understand but was certainly inside, and being home where you’re kind of on the outside.
You’re completing a collection of poetry and started a new novel. When you attack these large writing projects, does your military experience give you more confidence and impact the approach you take to those challenges.
You asked earlier when did I know I wanted to be a writer? It was something I’d always known, but when I got back, it had removed that fear of failure. I had been through this experience, and the fear of regret became much more prominent than the fear of failure. I certainly wasn’t special as a soldier, but the level of discipline required to work day after day and start over when you need to, write late into the night and start over early in the morning, that certainly rubbed off from my experience.