Kevin Powers: "When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause."

The winner of the Guardian First Book Award interviewed.

Last night, the American writer and former soldier Kevin Powers won the Guardian First Book Award for his novel "The Yellow Birds", set during the Iraq war. I spoke to Powers about his service in Iraq and the tradition of the war novel.

Like the narrator of your novel The Yellow Birds, John Bartle, you went straight into the army from high school, rather than going to university. Was that always the plan? Or did you fall into military service by accident, like Bartle does?

I suppose I share that trajectory with him – it wasn’t something I planned to do from a young age. At the time I made the decision to sign up, it did seem like a practical choice, for a number of reasons. There’s an unofficial tradition of serving in the military in my family – my father, my uncle and my grandfather had all served. I did want to go to college, but for financial and other reasons it didn’t seem like I had all that many options. So knowing that the army would pay for that after my service … and I did believe that it was an honourable choice to make. I suppose in a way I was attracted by the sense of adventure.

Did it also have something to do with where you’re from, with Virginia and a particular tradition of military service there?

Not only Virginia, but throughout the south and the rural and semi-rural areas of America. It’s often the case that a significant portion of soldiers would come from those areas. It’s probably more common in places like where I grew up to go into the military than it may be in, let’s say, New York or Boston.

This is not just a novel about war is it? In a way, it’s also a book about Virginia isn’t it?

That’s true. Home, and the idea of home, figured prominently in the writing of it. So it seemed appropriate for the characters to have that shared geographical history.

What was it like going to college as a veteran, being alongside students who hadn’t had that experience?

Well, of course I was several years older than most of the other students. I probably didn’t take things for granted that I might have had I gone right after high school. I was aware of my own sense of being separate.

There’s a connection between what you’ve just said and one of the themes of the novel - that war is a kind of laboratory of solipsism in which soldiers care principally about saving their own skins.

That’s true. Bartle has to comes terms with his own survival and his responsibility for the people around him – particularly Murph. And when he comes home, the direct challenge he has to face is coming to terms with his individual experience. He has to fight that battle on his own too.

Bartle says early in the novel that “war is the great maker of solipsists” yet the book is also about relationships – between Bartle and Murph, and between him and Sterling. One of the organising tensions in the novel seems to be between solipsism and comradeship.

Yes, I think so. Obviously, the survival instinct, the instinct for self-preservation, is probably the strongest instinct we have in common. But it does also bump up against loyalty and the sense of responsibility for one another.

Did your commitment to the ideas of comradeship and loyalty survive your own experiences in Iraq?

You know, it certainly affected the way I determined what it is I am loyal to. When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause. I focused on the fact that I’d made a commitment to the people around me that we’d watch out for each other. So for me that was what drove me to do the job, to stay alert. It was all rooted in the fact that I felt I had an obligation to the people in my unit.

It’s interesting that you mention the idea of just cause. Was it the very idea of war being pursued in a just cause that you gave up or the idea that that war in particular was being fought in pursuit of a just cause?

To some degree, it’s both. I am able to imagine a situation in which, if war was the last course of action available [it is just], but in the case I happened to serve in I find it harder to make the same claims.

This is a novel, not a political tract, but do you see it as having a political aspect? Or were your motivations in the first place literary?

I did try to avoid having any kind of explicit agenda. I simply want to leave a record of my own attempts to reckon with these question through the imagination. But it’s hard to talk about war honestly and not … My personal opinion is that if you’re talking about war honestly, it will naturally tend towards being anti-war. I can’t envision an honest war novel that left war in a positive light.

The Yellow of Birds has attracted comparisons with great war novels of the past, such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Were such novels on your mind when you were writing this? Is that a tradition you felt yourself writing your way into?

No. Sitting in the small apartment in which I wrote most of the book, I was only hopeful that one person might read it and feel some kind of connection. But obviously I’m flattered and grateful that people seem to have had a powerful reaction to it.

Are there war novels that you particularly admire?

There certainly are. There’s a spectacular Vietnam novel called Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright. Being someone who both reads and writes poetry, I think of Yusef Komunyakaa, an American poet who has written a great deal about his experiences of the Vietnam war. Those poems are singularly important to me.

There’s a remarkable density of description in the novel, and I guess that’s the poet in you. Do you see yourself as a poet first and novelist second, or the other way round?

I guess I find the boundaries between poetry and prose to be somewhat permeable. When I have an idea and sit down to write something, I trust my instincts that I’m taking the right form. Poetry and prose are of equal importance to me as a reader and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in my own writing.

Were you writing in Iraq or did you start writing when you got back from your tour of duty there?

I didn’t have much spare mental energy to write [over there]. I did jot some things down in a notebook, but nothing that was directed with any kind of order.

Have many of those you fought alongside read the book?

No. But I’ve talked to some of them about it and they say they’re looking forward to reading it.

Do you think there’s a kind of standard time-lag before a war gains its own literature? After all, it took a while for a Vietnam literature to emerge. Is it still quite early as far as the literature of the Iraq war is concerned?

It does seem to be the case. But Iraq books are beginning to emerge – Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for instance.

Kevin Powers, winner of the Guardian First Book Award (Photograph: Kelly Powers)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Dead cats and Ikea cabinets: Peter Wilby on Dan Hodges's One Minute to Ten

It is done. All done. The book. Written by him. Dan Hodges. Here is the review.

It is done. All done. The book. Written by him. Dan Hodges. About the 2015 election. Published by an established firm, founded in 1935. As an imprint of Gollancz. A left-wing publisher. Which is good. Or is it? He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB union, Ken Livingstone. The left is in his genes, his blood; it was in his mother’s breast milk. Glenda Jackson – or “Mum”, as he calls her – denounced Margaret Thatcher in the Commons the week she died. Thatcher, that is. She’s dead. Not his mum, the brickie’s daughter from Birkenhead who became an award-winning actress and Labour MP. She’s alive. But now he writes for the Telegraph and Spectator. He voted for Boris Johnson in 2012. And for the Lib Dems in 2014. He left Labour in 2013. He rejoined it in July 2015. He doesn’t know if he’s Labour or not. But he loves Tony Blair. Not Ed Miliband and certainly not Jeremy Corbyn.

The publisher? It is now owned by Penguin and publishes good books. It has published his book. So the book must be good. The book written by him. The son of a brickie’s daughter. But, of course, he knows that isn’t true. A book isn’t good just because the publisher is good. There have to be other things good about it.

Books have been written about elections before, usually with dreary titles such as The British General Election of 2010. They tell of what happened. Why people voted the way they did. When the party leaders became MPs. They are old-fashioned books, with facts, events in chronological order, sourced quotations. They have indexes, footnotes, un-split infinitives, sentences containing verbs. Fusty, backward-looking things.

Hodges’s is a modern, radical, cutting-edge book. Written the 21st-century way. Just. Like. This. He doesn’t tell people what the party leaders said or did. He gets inside their heads. Says what they feel. Reveals their innermost hopes and fears. Reports intimate conversations with their loved ones. Even though he can’t know what happens inside their heads. Or hear them talking to their mothers, wives, brothers.

He has some good stories, though, some really funny. Which he got from Those People Who Spoke to Him, some of whom were in the Salon That Was No Longer a Salon, which those fusty old books would call Ed Miliband’s advisers. Or they were in the League of Extraordinary Advisers, which the fusty ones would boringly call David Cameron’s advisers.

The sources are unnamed but the stories are good. How Cameron, who vowed to keep his family out of the limelight, sort of agrees to a ten-page Mail on Sunday magazine interview with Samantha. Then sort of persuades Samantha to sort of agree. And how Nick Clegg helps Cameron assemble an Ikea cabinet for his (Cameron’s) daughter’s bedroom. And how Labour’s five pledges become 3,250 pledges. And how Nick Clegg comes to be photographed stroking a hedgehog.

And how Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ Australian spin doctor, plans that Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, will commit a “gaffe”, accusing Ed Miliband of stabbing the UK in the back as he stabbed his brother in the back. The “gaffe” diverts attention from Labour’s popular proposal to strip non-doms of tax exemptions. Get people talking about something else, that’s the idea. It’s a dead cat, as in: “Look, everybody! There’s a dead cat!” And when they see a dead cat, people won’t talk about anything else. He can explain all that over ten pages because dead cats are funny. Better still, Lynton’s funny because he’s a Big Dog.

He has psychological insights, too. About how political leadership strips away a man’s personality until he doesn’t know who he is any more. How Ed stabbed David in the back because they grew up in such a political household and stabbing everybody in the back is what politics is about. How Marion, their mum, understands that.

And he has a clock. A clock that ticks on at the end of each chapter. To the election exit poll. He, the Labour man who may not be Labour any more, the son of a brickie’s daughter, can make readers laugh, tug at their heartstrings, ramp up the tension, tell the time. He knows about politics and can expose its cogs and wheels. As the dust jacket says, it’s the inside story. He’s done it. He looks back and asks: “Was it worth it?” And the readers, if they get through more than 380 pages of this, must answer.

Dan Hodges will be discussing “The Personality of Power” with Anthony Seldon and Owen Bennett at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November. Visit:

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror versus the State