The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown; 240 pages; $24.99).
Few fiction authors have tackled the subject of the Iraq War; most of those have been published only within the past year: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Fobbit by David Abrams, and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. All are written from a soldier’s perspective. While Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Fobbit are satirical, The Yellow Birds is intense and somber. Perhaps there is a reason for that; Powers was the only one to see real combat in Iraq.
Powers enlisted in the army when he was only 17, later serving as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. He knows firsthand the horrors of war, and that knowledge is what makes his book stand apart from the rest. The Yellow Birds is achingly real and passionate.
“The [Iraq] war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, [and] child,” Powers writes in his powerful debut, The Yellow Birds. “But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph. Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began…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.”
The Yellow Birds is written from the perspective of 21-year-old Private John Bartle. Powers structures the novel back and forth through time in alternating chapters from 2003 to 2009. He tells us early on that a main character dies and dies shockingly. The many plot twists Powers employs makes this a truly compelling and intense read.
Bartle represents the countless numbers of American youth sent to far-flung places whose names they cannot even spell or pronounce correctly. Far from home, these young men and women form bonds quickly. Such is the case for Bartle and 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy.
The two young recruits meet during basic training and quickly become friends. Sergeant Sterling, barely older than Bartle at 24, tells Murph to stick close to Bartle. “All right, little man,” he says, “I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there.” The bond is further sealed when Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he will look out for her son. This vow will weigh heavily on Bartle as they fight in Iraq.
When Powers shifts the action once again to Iraq, he illustrates the deep emotional toll that the war has inflicted on the soldiers. Bartle and Murph are brothers in arms, praying not to get killed, praying it is someone else. They keep track of the casualty list as it slowly creeps upward toward 1,000: “We didn’t know the list was limitless. We didn’t think beyond a thousand. We never considered that we could be among the walking dead as well.”
There are two warzones in The Yellow Birds: the war in Iraq and the war at home, a fight just as tough as the real conflict. When a soldier leaves Iraq, he truly trades one battle for another. With Bartle, Powers explores the difficulty of readjusting to life as a civilian: “What now?” and “Instead of a slug, give her a hug.”
Even seemingly small things take Bartle back to Iraq. “The yelp of dogs echoing out from where they rolled in wet garbage in the shadow of the Shamash Gate,” Powers writes. “If I heard the caw of ugly crows swing down from the power line that they adorned in black simplicity, the caw might strike in perfect harmony with the memory of the sound of falling mortars, and I, at home now, might brace for the impact….”
How to turn off that kill-or-be-killed mentality that all soldiers must have to survive is a recurring theme in The Yellow Birds. The things Bartle saw and did haunt him. Through his character, Powers allows us to see the high cost of war for both combat veterans and their families. Because they think no one else understands, many vets turn to violence, alcohol, and even suicide. In Powers’ hands, the many struggles of vets come to life.
With The Yellow Birds, Powers does something Abrams and Fountain could not. He turns the brutal language of war into something lyrical. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” the author writes. “As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.” While Bartle and his fellow soldiers slept, “the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”
Powers was nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction for The Yellow Birds; however, Louise Erdrich took home the award for The Round House. The Yellow Birds is unlike other Iraq War novels. Powers actually fought in combat so he knows his stuff. This is fiction, but there are kernels of truth within these pages. He drives home the point that the War in Iraq has irrevocably changed a whole generation and our country will not ever be the same.
The Yellow Birds is penetrating, poignant, and deeply personal for Powers. I can’t stop thinking about Bartle and Murph. This is the debut of the year.