The Yellow Birds

Book by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 226 pages)

The year 2012 saw the publication of a trio of outstanding Iraq War novels.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (which made my 2012 Favorites list) is a wildly funny account of one combat squad’s experience as somewhat bewildered guests of the Dallas Cowboys at their Thanksgiving Day game in 2004.

In Fobbit, Iraq War veteran David Abrams offers a biting satire that’s been compared favorably to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 about life at a forward operating base.

The third book, Kevin Powers’ acute debut novel, The Yellow Birds, couldn’t be more different in tone from these works. It’s a grim, and at times heartbreaking, story of one young soldier’s experience of war and the challenge he faces adjusting to civilian life when he returns home.

The Yellow Birds tells the story of two foot soldiers, John Bartle and Daniel Murphy.

Twenty-one-year-old Bartle, the novel’s narrator, hails from Richmond, Va., while his fellow private, three years his junior, grew up in a coal mining town in the Appalachian Mountains of that state. They seem mystified about the circumstances that have led them to combat service in Iraq, an attitude that finds its opposite in their squad’s sergeant, a man named Sterling, whose bravery “was a kind of elemental self-sacrifice, free of ideology, free of logic.” Before the two Virginia boys deploy, Bartle promises Murphy’s mother that he will see to her son’s safe return, a promise he knows he’s unable to keep as soon as it’s uttered and one whose folly will be revealed tragically by the novel’s end.

Powers makes no attempt to glorify the terror and incomprehensibility that is the experience of battle as seen through the eyes of ordinary combatants. There are no stirring clashes waged with trumpets blaring and banners waving. Instead, the life of these soldiers consists of long stretches of tense boredom punctuated by harrowing patrols where the squad trudges through an orchard or tries to oust stubborn resistance from a bombed-out town. “We stayed awake on amphetamines and fear,” Bartle recalls. And he and Murph agree on one thing: “We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed. If we died later, then we died. But let that number be someone else’s milestone.”
These soldiers don’t believe they’re fighting to defeat the scourge of international terrorism or defend American freedom. Instead, they fight because to do otherwise would be to commit the worst sin imaginable – abandoning the men fighting next to them. Bartle puts it simply:

“I kept going. I kept going because Murph kept going and Sterling and the LT kept going and the other squads would keep going and I was terrified that I would be the one who did not.”

The Yellow Birds is suffused with acutely recalled details that could only be supplied by someone who has seen war at first hand.

The Yellow Birds is suffused with acutely recalled details that could only be supplied by someone who has seen war at first hand. The portion of the novel that takes place in the fictional town of Al Tafar, in the real Nineveh Province (where Powers served as a machine gunner in 2004 and 2005), obviously draws on his experiences there, though he told a TIME magazine interviewer last year that, “The things that happen to the characters in the book didn’t happen to me directly.”

If less dramatic, Bartle’s life is no less challenging or threatening when he returns home. Haunted by an unwise decision he makes when his comrade dies, he takes “long, aimless walks to fill the days,” and muses on his predicament: “You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space.”
Powers, who earned an MFA in poetry after he returned from the war, has a facility with prose that at times evokes the spirit of Ernest Hemingway (“the river was calm and flat, and it bent out of sight and trailed gently off toward its beginning in the mountains”) and his writing often hints at overlooked beauty amid the ugliness of war. When the orchard fight looms, the trees’ “branches shook with their absent weight and the birds circled above in the ruddy mackerel sky, where they made an artless semaphore.”

By the novel’s end, when Bartle has paid the price for his terrible misjudgment, he understands, painfully, that “the dull world that ignored our little pest of a war rolled on.” The Yellow Birds is a vivid testament to that sad truth; one that will exist as long as old men in quiet rooms send young men off to fight and die on distant battlefields.

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