In The Things They Carried, his collection of interrelated stories about the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien said this about a true war story:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue…If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie”(68-69).By this definition, Kevin Powers, with his novel The Yellow Birds, has written a true war story. If you are looking for uplift, look elsewhere. If you are looking for beautiful writing and a sense of a soldier’s experience in Iraq, and for the thin line between heroism and cowardice (to steal another theme from O’Brien), inquire within.
John Bartle and Daniel Murphy find themselves thrown together at Fort Dix, and not long after in Al Tafar, fighting in Iraq. They joined for the same reasons so many others did: “Being from a place where a few facts are enough to define you, where a few habits can fill a life, causes a unique kind of shame. We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be” (37).
Circumstance creates in Bartle a sense of responsibility for “Murph,” as everyone calls him. Murph is younger, smaller, and more naïve, and he too comes from Virginia. Yet later other, more gruesome, circumstances create in Bartle a moral quandary, a dilemma between doing what seems the decent thing to do and what the military protocol demands. A reality where being told who to be is deemed insufficient:
“How do you answer the unanswerable? To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery. The dominoes of moments, lined up symmetrically, then tumbling backward against the hazy and unsure path of cause, showed only that a fall is every objects destiny. It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.” (148)Powers, a veteran who served in Iraq, shifts us skillfully between the before and the after, building inexorably to the moment, the discovery, the decision. Stories may not be true, but that does not mean they are not truth. And you know The Yellow Birds is truth because, as O’Brien said, “it makes the stomach believe”(78).
Dulce et decorum est…