A doubly significant title
The poetic title of the book is explained in two different places, once at the start, as a US Army marching song – which rather mirrors how stylistically Powers will deploy his writing style, and the other, far into the book, in an account which has some strong metaphorical subtext.
And I’m explaining neither, as the reader needs to make their own discoveries.
Kevin Powers was a GI, from Richmond Virginia who enlisted in the army, aged 17, and served as a machine gunner in Iraq.
This is not autobiography, but it is the story of 3 young soldiers, aged 18, 21 and 24, and their experience in combat in Iraq. Its, if you like, a distillation of what war does to young men and women. In the end, to prove yourself a man in these situations, you must become less than humane. Aggression may be barely buried in us, but the act of killing another violates many taboos.
The particular conflict is not the subject of the book, rather it is the darkness of conflict itself.
Powers juggles timescales, a particular chapter and time of the 3 central characters, the unfolding story of ‘what happened’ to them, which we know is a cataclysm, intercut with various before and after sections.
The story is seen through the lens of one of the three, who is clearly a distillation of Powers, a young man with a tough, poetic view, and a relationship of some mysticism with the physicality of the natural world.
I found the juxtaposition of intense lyricism and visceral horror worked well – it rather reinforced the sense that, faced at any point with a pointless death, the senses must sharpen to stay alert to try and survive. Being as intensely aware of the moment as possible, fully present is of course what disciplines like meditation are about. Its about being absolutely with the present. So it doesn’t seem in any way a contradiction that at one and the same moment the intensity of being aware of trees in a citrus orchard, and their beauty, and the horror of spilled viscera, should not collide.
This is absolutely not a novel about the beauty or nobility of war – it is a novel about the beauty and nobility of life. Which war destroys.
Do we need more anti-war books? Yes, until wars stop.
I lost a final star on this excellent book because I felt some paring back, some cutting of the beautiful, lyrical writing would have made the power of its punch more intense.
An example of Powers’ intense writing :
We traveled with the sun, uncoupled from the dictates of light and dark for a little while. I watched the broad ocean spread out beneath me after the clouds thinned. I focused for what seemed like hours on crests becoming troughs, troughs tilting to become whitecaps, all of it seeming like the breaking of some ancient treaty between all those things that stand in opposition to one another
I very much appreciated the way in which meditations on the landscape serve to reveal that ever present sense of foreboding, of the central conflict between living and arbitrary dying