I haven’t had time or energy to post much recently as work has been crazy-busy, and we’re putting in a lot of hours. But something recently came to my attention that I could not let rest only in my head, or in my tortured soul: Kevin Powers. For those of you who do not know, Powers is an Iraq War veteran and author of a few books, including the very popular The Yellow Birds.
I read Powers’ book The Yellow Birds in 2013.
I think I read about it in a magazine while I was either on a plane or in a waiting room somewhere. I was interested to learn that Powers was also in Tal’Afar and Mosul at the same time as I was. I asked around to some of my buddies in 2-14 Cav and in A Co. 1-5 Infantry. Then I asked some of my friends in 1-24 Infantry. Some guys thought they remembered him as being in the 73rd Engineer Company (our organic engineer support). Now, the engineers are fine folks, and I escorted them out to sites a number of times to install protective measures like barbed wire and HESCO barriers. Hell, there is a pretty good chance that if he was, then Powers and I met on more than one occasion and have no recollection of each other. But his bio says he was in Iraq Feb 04 to March 05 – those were not the dates that 1-25 served. 2-25 was in Iraq February 2004, but at that time, Mosul and Tal’Afar were occupied by 3rd Brigade, 2nd ID [our sister-brigade at Ft. Lewis; 2nd Bde 25th IN was in Kirkuk]. So, who was this Powers, and who was he with? I became very intrigued about this machine gunner and his tale to tell, so I had to read the book.
I bought the soft cover and I knocked it out in about two nights. There were parts of the book where he described areas in Tal’Afar that I could still see in my mind. And indeed he does have a way with words and captures some of the disparity and duality we often find in combat, such as the breathtaking courtyard with its flowers and trees, occasionally accented by an overhead bullet. There were aspects about redeployment and how you felt, carrying around the things that you do while multitudes of people with little understanding of what you did pat you on the back and give you lots of atta-boy’s. And in a way I was able to connect with part of what Powers had put in the book. And then again, I was sooo not.
My Tal’Afar, as viewed from Al Sarai – our hell on Earth
The story line I found to be too contrived. The plot felt to me like one of the multitude of poorly done Vietnam movies that came out in the late 70’s where clichéd maniacal sergeants impose their war-lust on young, impressionable recruits, wantonly disregarding the laws of war in a war that law and life had seemingly forgot. Paint in an aura of counterculture and PTSD, plop these characters down in modern uniforms and equipment in Iraq and we have The Yellow Birds painted as “the All Quiet on the Western Front” of the GWOT, and holding Powers almost in a Rudyard Kipling-like esteem.
I am not a hater, and I also am not a famous, accredited, and published author like Kevin Powers. I have a day job. I write to express my inner demons and tortures, as well as try to reflect on my time in Iraq for veterans and non-veterans alike. But I have a little bit of a grudge when it comes to this one, and I will tell you why.
I found out they are making The Yellow Birds into a movie, to debut in 2017.
Now, this is my unit we are talking about here. 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division – OIF III. The Lancer Brigade. And we are talking about my town – Tal’Afar. I call it my town because I lost soldiers and friends there, and I spilled blood there. My boots beat those streets and my body and soul took a beating in return – my right hip still hurts from what I can only imagine was one too many doors kicked-in by that right boot. I have absolutely no idea where Powers was or what he did, and the little that I can find on the internet about him doesn’t shed any further light on this topic. But when you want to write about Tal’Afar in 2004 and 2005 – then to have it portrayed as a major motion picture – I insert myself and my concern because I take it personally.
I have concerns that, as a work of historical fiction, viewers following the story line may make some uninformed conclusions about the 25th Infantry Division, as well as those of us who served in Mosul and Tal’Afar with them. Will the film feature Strykers? If so, to the best of my knowledge that would be the first film to feature the Stryker or the Stryker Brigade – another concern of mine, as I and many, many others look back at our time it the Stryker Brigade with honor and pride. Every unit has a tough-nut or problem child or two; some are officers and some are NCOs. But to marry this fictional story with the battle record of the 25th Infantry Division in OIF III – on the silver screen – makes me very, very unsure about how I feel.
I am inclined to think that I do not like it…
Something eats at me inside when I think about this book, and now this movie. There are so many good stories that need told about those who served in Tal’Afar and Mosul. Hell, Bruce Willis was interested in making a movie about 1-24 Infantry’s time in Mosul after they redeployed from OIF III. There have been so many documentaries filmed and accounts written. And when I think about the fictional aspect of The Yellow Birds, and how it now will reach millions via the theaters, I am angry. Sure, I’ll admit it – I’m angry.
I’m not jealous of Powers’ successes or status; I’m not in envy of his body of written works that are popular and selling; I am angry that this story will be told, and that for this one work of fiction there are hundreds of real, true accounts from soldiers who spent their time trolling Tal’Afar’s wadis, roaming its back alleys and mean streets – and yet those accounts might be lost or simply overlooked. There are so many moments, reflections, memories, and emotions associated with our time in Tal’Afar; every single one of them could be a box office film or great book because they have already been written in some soldier’s mind, book-bound in sweat and blood, replayed in the theater in their head, and in their dreams.
CPT ‘Jimbo’ Hayes, Charger 6, leading his men in combat, after clearing a rooftop
I tend to be critical of most of the movies that are about modern day conflict in Iraq (sometimes Hollywood tries but just gets it so wrong). But I am not even sure I have the capacity to be critical of this work and film because it is too close to my own experiences and time in Iraq. I am too burned by it to even want to watch it. I was so angry when I finished reading the book that I kept in on my bookshelf to remind me that there were real stories from my unit that needed telling. Which is why I write this blog. And why I am adamant that other should do so, too.