WAR: THE ULTIMATE CRIME NOVEL

There’s a lot of great writing about war, but there’s never been a good war.

For yesterday’s post I wrote about Kevin Powers and the signing event at Lambert’s for Kevin and his new war novel, The Yellow Birds. I bought the book based on the laudatory reviews, the association with Jim Magnuson and the Michener Center, and the quickest perusal before purchase, just picking out a phrase or two here and there. I figured it would be pretty good.

And last night before bed, I picked it up and read the first page and was totally hooked. Man, this guy can write. He’s not only a very lyrical writer, but has a great eye for meaningful detail. I’m glad I have a print copy instead of just an eBook, too, because this is a keeper.

The book opens September 2004, at Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. That was eight years ago, in case you weren’t counting.

THE WAR TRIED to kill us in the spring. As grass green 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 the 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.
Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings…

So the book, narrated by a soldier named Bartle, begins. A few pages later, at daybreak, the platoon has just cleared a building when the interpreter, Malik, steps out on the roof:

I’d often asked him to help me with my sparse Arabic,trying to get my pronunciation of this or that word right. “Shukran.” “Afwan.” “Qumbula.” Thank you. You’re welcome. Bomb. He’d help, but he always ended our exchanges by saying, “My friend, I need to speak English. For the practice.” He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature. When the university closed, he came to us. he wore a hood over his face, worn khaki slacks and a faded dress shirt that appeared to be ironed freshly every day. He never took his mask off. The one time Murph and I had asked him about it, he took his index finger and traced the fringe of the hood that hung around his neck. “They’ll kill me for helping you. They’ll kill my whole family.”

It turns out that the patrol is in Malik’s old neighborhood.

“Mrs. Al-Sharifi used to plant her hyacinth in this field.” He spread his hands out wide and moved his arms in a sweeping motion that reminded me of a convocation.
Murph reached for the cuff of Malik’s pressed shirt. “Careful, big guy. You’re gonna get silhouetted.”
“She was this crazy old widow.” He had his hands on his hips…

Malik goes on, oblivious to the warning by Murph and the others. “It’s a shame you didn’t see those hyacinths,” says Malik, and those are his last words.

And then it started. It seemed as if the movement of one moment to the next had its own trajectory, a thing both finite and expansive, like the endless divisibility of numbers strung out on a line. The tracers reached out from all the dark spaces in the buildings across the field, and there were many more bullets than streaks of phosphorescence. We heard them tear at the air around our ears and smack into the clay brick and concrete. We did not see Malik get killed, but Murph and I had his blood on both of our uniforms. When we got the order to cease fire we looked over the low wall and he was lying there and there was a lot of blood around him.

I didn’t think about Malik much after that. He was an incidental figure in my continuing life. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust.

Like I said, this guy can write.

Here’s a clip of “The Cannon Song” from the 1931 film adaptation of “Threepenny Opera.” Just to remind you that war is gruesome and when you’re in the middle of one, the gruesome becomes normal. Yes, a jaunty German tune by Kurt Weill about being on the front lines and eating human hamburgers. Lyrics follow.

Cannon Song, from the Pabst version of Threepenny Opera
PS, here’s a clip of Stan Ridgeway performing “The Cannon Song” from Three Penny Opera.
"The Cannon Song" from Threepenny Opera

Cannon Song (aka Army Song)

(Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein)
As performed by Stan Ridgway and the Fowler Brothers
John was all present and Jim was all there
And Georgie was up for promotion
Not that the Army gave a bugger who they were
When confronting some heathen commotion

    CHORUS

The troops live under the cannon’s thunder
From Sind to Cooch Behar
Moving from place to place
When they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
Whose skin is black or yellow
they quick as winking chop them into beefsteak tartar

Johnny found his whiskey too warm
And Jimmy found the weather too balmy
But Georgie took them both by the arm and said,
“Don’t ever disappoint the Army!”

The troops live under the cannon’s thunder
From Sind to Cooch Behar
Moving from place to place
When they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
Whose skin is black or yellow
they quick as winking chop them into beefsteak tartar

John is a write-off and Jimmy is dead
And Georgie was shot for looting
And young men’s blood goes on being red
While the Army just goes on ahead recruiting

The troops live under the cannon’s thunder
From Sind to Cooch Behar
Moving from place to place
When they come face to face
With a different breed of fellow
Whose skin is black or yellow
they quick as winking chop them into beefsteak tartar

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