“My personal opinion is that if someone writes honestly about war, it will inherently be anti-war,” says Kevin Powers, with the authority of experience. “I can’t think of any situation in which you could write a pro-war book that would be intellectually or emotionally honest. It doesn’t seem possible.”
Powers’ experience didn’t come cheap. He served as a machine gunner and in bomb disposal squads with the American Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. After leaving with an honorable discharge, he wrote his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which deals with the bond between soldiers on the battlefield and takes its title from an old military marching song. Compared favourably to the work of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, the book won him an armload of prizes and fans including Damian Lewis, who described the book as “a poetic and devastating account of war’s effect on the individual”, and Tom Wolfe who called it “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab wars.”
Over coffee in London’s Marylebone, a world away from conflict in the Middle East, Powers discusses the unlikely music that takes him back there, why he wrote in secret and the politics of the war in Iraq from a soldier’s vantage point.
GQ: When you joined the army did you already feel like a writer, or was it a case of coming back with a story to tell?
Kevin Powers: Writing was always an aspiration, but I’d kept it a secret even from myself. As a teenager I started thinking about poetry and novels seriously. I started writing, but never thinking it would be anything other than a hobby. It wasn’t until after I came back that I felt that I didn’t have anything to lose. Failure was no longer the biggest fear that I had faced in my life.
How old were you when you enrolled in the army?
I signed up when I was 17 and went overseas when I was 23. I’d been in the army for a little while before I saw any kind of action. There were a number of reasons for joining up. The male role models I had all seemed to have been in the military. My father served in the army. My uncle was in the Marine Corps. Both of my Grandfathers served in WWII. There weren’t any career soldiers in my family, but when I was young it seemed like a way of arriving at adulthood. I wasn’t a particularly good student but I wanted to go to college. It can be really expensive to go to college in the States, so the financial aspect made military service very attractive. Also the other obvious reasons: I was young and I wanted to see the world and experience some kind of adventure.
If The Yellow Birds had a soundtrack, what would be on it?
About once every month we’d get to go to this little airfield where they had a PX, which is basically a little store. As you’d imagine, they have a very limited selection of music. I remember getting Weezer’s Blue Album, and I discovered this guy called Graham Lindsey who I don’t think is well-known at all. He’s this folk Americana guy who sounds like Justin Vernon would if he lived in a ditch. It’s really raw and beautiful. He has this album called Famous Anonymous Wildernes that I listened to all the time when I was over there.
What’s the best book about war?
Probably the book that really consciously influenced me is a really amazing Vietnam novel called Meditations In Greenby Stephen Wright. That book is so strange and beautiful and unlike any other war narrative that I’ve ever read. It made me feel that I was free to follow my imagination and write the story that makes sense to me. I’ve read a lot of novels and poetry about Vietnam written by veterans. As important as those were to read as both a veteran and a human being in the world, just seeing the variety of different stories that are out there just gave me the sense that I was free to approach it whatever way I wanted to.
How did serving in Iraq change you?
I think the long-term effect, unsurprisingly, is that it’s made me really appreciative of how lucky I am to have survived. I think I have a sense of gratitude for things I may not have appreciated otherwise. You naturally mature during those years anyway, and I like to think I would have arrived at those kinds of things on my own, but that experience concentrates everything. You see things with a sharper focus than you might otherwise. You also learn that what you thought were your limits are not your limits. You endure more than you thought you could.
Were you writing while you were in the army?
I was writing – secretly. I didn’t really want to announce to my platoon mates that I was a wannabe poet. When I got overseas I would jot things down in a journal but not real attempts at poetry or stories. I didn’t have the mental energy for that.
What were you reading in Iraq?
I read a lot more than I wrote. My mother would send me care packages. She sent me Graham Greene’s The Quiet American which was sort of strange – but that’s my mother! On a few occasions I’d have a book in my pocket while we were out on patrol. Not that I was reading then, but maybe it operated as a kind of talisman. It made me feel a little more comfortable: “This is insane, but at least I understand what’s happening here in my book.”
Did you learn much about Iraq itself or was it an insular barracks existence?
There’s a very high degree of isolation, just for security reasons. There were some occasions where I thought I was getting a window into the experiences of the people for whom we were allegedly fighting, but oftentimes “going outside the wire” meant adopting a totally different mindset. You’re on a small base not really coming into contact with locals at all. The way that my unit operated, because of the job we had, was that we’d spend 48 hours outside the wire then come back for 24 hours. When you go off the base it’s like flicking a switch and all of sudden all you’re thinking about is making sure that you come back. You need to make sure that you’re looking out for your friends. There was one instance when we stopped on patrol and I looked over at this mound and thought: “Oh s***, those are the walls of ancient Nineveh.” It was a surreal experience to be in the land where civilisation was born and be engaged in the kind of violence that we were engaged in. There’s a dissonance which is unavoidable.
How close is the book to your own experience?
The specifics of the story aren’t necessarily actual events that I experienced. Really what I was trying to get at was some sort of emotional core. In terms of survivor’s guilt, even though I never lost anybody as close to me as the character in the book, when I came home there was definitely a period, particularly with the war still going on and with people still dying, the question become unavoidable: Why did I survive? Why didn’t these other people? I’m clearly no more worthy of surviving as these people, perhaps in some cases less so. Who knows if one of those guys might have cured cancer? You absolutely start to wonder if it’s purely chance. How does it work? Having survived, what is your responsibility going forward? Those are all things that I tried to put into the process that he goes through of coming to terms with what he’s experienced.
When you were writing the book were you conscious of making a political statement?
I’m aware that it’s unlikely anyone will read the book without thinking about the political ramifications of our time in Iraq and what it means. I tried to avoid having a political agenda. I wanted to tell one guy’s story, so that no matter what you think about the war itself perhaps by narrowly focusing on this guy’s story somebody could connect on an emotional level. Obviously this is a subject that I’ve thought some about. As much as I wonder what we accomplished, there were instances when I was able to see some good. I spent some time in a predominantly Kurdish area and those people perhaps were better off than they had been under Saddam, but when you think about what the military action entailed and the reasons that were given to justify it there is a disconnect that I haven’t been able to make much sense of.
As soldiers were you aware of the public debate and the protests about going into Iraq?
It’s probably different for each person, but I don’t think it would have come as a great surprise to anybody. When I went to Iraq we as an army had been there for a little less than a year and no weapons of mass destruction were turning up, nor would they. That was no secret to the soldiers. They weren’t asking us to keep our gas masks on, if you know what I mean? At the same time, your primary focus is: “Alright, we’re here, this may be bullshit but the fact that it’s bulls*** isn’t getting us home, so we have to look out for each other.” That becomes the only thing that you really focus on. My process of sorting through my culpability, my participation in that, was something that I had to do the real hard work on after I got back. Only when I came back and was safe did I start trying to come to terms with what it meant to have fought in a war that we may not have needed to fight at all. I’m not sure what we’ve accomplished. To be perfectly honest I haven’t arrived at any sort of answer that gives me great comfort.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I’ve thought about that a lot. I wonder if my younger self would listen. I feel like I had all the information available to me to make the right choices but when you’re 17 you hear what you hear. I would probably say the same things that were said to me by the people that cared about me. That this is a serious thing you’re doing. Joining the military is not to be taken lightly. You’re putting every part of yourself at risk, not just your body but your moral and spiritual centre. That can be injured grievously as well. Even if you think you’re physically invincible, as many 17-year-olds do, there are other ways to become wounded. That’s probably what I’d say, but who knows if I would have listened?
Originally published by British GQ.