The world often chooses to tell the narrative of the wholeheartedness of people, when evidence poses a very different reality. Often we think of mothers who transform into heroes for their children, lifting cars off of their kids and saving their lives; many mothers, however, are guilty of leaving their children in cars during sweltering summer days. We exalt the good Samaritans of the ASPCA, but fail to analyze those who cause a need for the organization’s work in the first place. The symbiosis between one person and the changing world can be a volatile one when the world tells a story that does not correspond with how that individual sees themselves. The Yellow Birds, a novel by ex-soldier and poet Kevin Powers paints the picture of a man who goes through the tug-of-war of being a picturesque soldier as described by the Marines and being a man battling with the psychological conflict that stems from trying to live up to that narrative.
The Yellow Birds seems full of open-ended statements and unfinished prose, but many of those statements are often some of the most profound within the book. Those short, small pieces of thought from Bartle make the book that much more personal. One quote that stuck out during reading was “I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.” The obvious follow-up question is drowning in what? Drowning in that unequivocally difficult mental battle between the self and the world. On that page, Bartle describes the bloody murder of a helpless man by him and two of his fellow marines. A gruesome picture was painted of that murder, ruthless and unmerciful. That page is not one of the stories often told of American troops. Troops return home with invisible capes as heroes, their backs embellished with a bold-face “H.” However, Bartle seems to consistently and truly understand not only that what he’s going is a problem, but that finding one’s place in the world could often lead to the generation of confused young men driven by trying to stay afloat with their morals, but being weighted down and drowned by an unwanted paradigm that has been drilled into them. This is also seen when Bartle and his closest friend during the war, Murph, review some mail sent from back home. The war seems to have rendered Murph slightly numb to circumstances that may be troubling for other men.
“We spoke like children. We looked at each other as if into a dim mirror.” “Her other hand on the small of his back. Alive. There was an expression on his face that I have been seen before or since.’ (pp.80-81) In these excerpts, Murph has just read the letter his girlfriend sent him from the States saying they should break up because she’s going to be attending college and moving to one to what she wants to do with their relationship. Bartle says Murph to the letter well. Sterling tried to contest his nonchalant attitude, Murph seemed to just be okay with everything, mentioning that there’s nothing he could do. That short conversation between Murph and Bartle brought about a new sense of camaraderie between the two of them. Again, those military relationships between soldier and civilian is another strong example of how stories about war are misconstrued and how the hero doesn’t always come home to the treasures they left behind. At this point, Murph’s world is the war that he’s immersed and saturated in wartime and war feelings (or lack thereof) have crowded hs judgement into the world that lies in wait for him outside of the war. He, at this point, finds that there are more important things for him to worry about other than having someone to call “baby” when he got back to the US. Throughout all of this, Murph is unperturbed to the extent where he almost seems careless and unconcerned with the situation as a whole. The aura of these pages conveys a very raw sense of disconnection between war and everything that surrounds it, but poetry and prose still shine through the writing. This was no accident on the author’s end. In an interview with Foyles, Powers was asked if the “deeply lyrical quality” of his writing was “intended in counterpoint to the rawness of the dialogue.” Powers answered,
“I intended it not just as counterpoint to the rawness of the dialogue, but also to the rawness of the experience. In that respect it is more point than counterpoint. In trying to demonstrate Bartle's mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent” Perhaps this is not a comparison between the self and the changing world and the stern differences therein, but more of an explanation of the symbiosis between those two. The Yellow Birds is a novel entrenched in the idea of the world’s perception of a specific entity- whether that entity is one man, one group, one population, or one idea. Powers found it of the utmost importance that he made the schism between those two things evident in his writing; no book can be classified as just one thing- not just the words on the page, not just the cover illustration, and not the structure of the writing alone- The Yellow Birds is no exception to that rule.
Powers, Kevin. 4: September 2004 - Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. The Yellow Birds. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. 80-81. Print.
“Can anyone tell me what a Credo is?” Mr. Kunkle bellowed from the back of the classroom. People were still dribbling in from lunch, from orchestra practice- from whatever was more important than 8th grade Theology. I was in my seat, pen and paper ready 4 minutes before class even began.
I shot my hand up. Theology wasn’t just Theology. to me- it was Philosophy 101; it seemed I was always playing devil’s advocate for some reason, and that made it all the more tantalizing. Since I’ve been in 8th grade, that position of “table-turner” has always been attractive to me, especially in terms of religion and personal credo. About 3 years ago, my ideas about things that I’d been taught day-in and day-out completely shifted and it was one of the most important shifts of my life.
“Stephanie, wanna tell everyone what a credo is?” Kunkle asked, only half listening to me while preparing his class notes for the day.
“A credo is like a...like a truth. Maybe not fact, but something that you hold to be true for yourself. It’s a statement of your beliefs.”
“Right! Yes, a statement of your beliefs. Like the Apostle’s Creed. Credo is latin for ‘I believe’; it’s what keeps you grounded, where your morals come from, what you go back to when you’re at a crossroads- it’s a creed.”
I knew all this- at this point, it was old gold mumbo jumbo- the same things I’d been hearing for the past two years. This year, however, I hadn’t grown tired of it. In eighth grade I found myself looking past the orthodox teachings of my school; ‘faith’ wasn’t something that could help me hold fast to the ideals that’d been drilled into my head, no matter how many years I’d been getting spoon-fed. However, that didn’t stop me from doing further research on religion and theology and how my perception of the world was- and is- drastically different from many of my Christian peers.
“So,” Kunkle bellowed out after chatter buzzed amongst the classroom. “It’s time to figure out what you believe. This is not a testimonial, this is an outlined description of your beliefs and why you believe them. It’s important to make this objective and universal, but make sure that it is your own.”
That was my cue. My Credo was 5 pages of a religious potluck. If anything, it was more of a history paper than a statement of my religious beliefs. Above all, it contested every Christian belief that I’d been spoonfed. It included the teachings of Jesus in tandem with those of Mohammed, refuted the entire Old Testament, and upheld Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, and Buddhist deities. It exalted the unity in Islam and contested the morality of Catholicism throughout history in conjunction (or disjunction) with the religion.
When proofreading others’ documents, I saw four or five pages of praise to God accompanied by few facts and little actual knowledge. I saw four or five pages of what our teacher asked for the opposite of. While editing their pieces, I realized that few of them put any actual thought and offered them some enlightenment, but the “education” that we’d been receiving forced any opposing thought out of their minds. I was disgusted by my classmates at first, but realized that the assignment had been titled your “Personal Credo,” and found myself rinsed of my disdain. In 8th grade, I fully understood that, in order to understand someone’s personal truth, I didn’t have to accept it. I turned my assignment in on time, final draft pristine.
“Stephanie, we may need to have a talk about your assignment,” my teacher wrote in red ink on my paper. I got a fantastic grade- 98 and only two points off for a few grammatical errors. Yet, the “talk” we had was about the sacrilegious content. A small talk was conducted in the office with the dean, who was concerned about my “spiritual well being” and I found that he was doing the complete opposite of what I’d learned- he was not understanding what I was saying, nor was he accepting my beliefs. For the rest of my eighth grade year I found side eyes from every student and faculty member, I was kicked off the praise band for what my music teacher essentially saw as blasphemy, and comments made on my report card for the final semester of the year were generally along the lines of “Stephanie is such a wonderful student, but I often find that her mind wandered a bit too much during this marking period,” when my work and work ethic was virtually identical if not improved from the beginning of the year.
During my 8th grade year, I found a personal conviction that was a moshing of convictions from other beliefs and very few of the ones I grew up with. My morals and personal beliefs were untainted in my opinion, but because they varied so drastically from those of my school, I was at fault. Despite this divergence between my personal ideals and those of the school, and despite the backlash I received from it, I didn’t drown under the pressure of a different narrative being more popular than my own.