The Yellow Birds

The question Kevin Powers got most often after his tour of duty in Iraq was “What’s it like over there?” In his first novel, The Yellow Birds, he answers from inside the war with an intimate book that’s as powerful as it is heartbreaking.

Pvt. John Bartle, an Army machine gunner, has returned home from “our little pest of a war” crippled by hidden wounds. He’s twenty-one, just a kid, and after the things he saw and did in the deserts of Al Tafar, he’s shell-shocked. Daniel Murphy, the eighteen-year-old fellow Virginian he was paired with in boot camp, has been killed. In a splintered narrative that shifts back and forth in time — mirroring the disintegration of Bartle’s own mind and soul – the young man fights both to tell and to remember the truth about his friend’s death.

Unlike the Second World War fought by his grandfather, an experience made manageable by its “destination and purpose,” the conflict in Iraq is circular and seemingly unending. Here’s Bartle as he waits on the eve of yet another battle in the same city, describing his war:  “We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of the season. We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.”

Powers himself, who was seventeen when he joined the Army and twenty-three when he shipped off to Iraq, came home restless and adrift. He eventually found his way to the poetry program at the University of Texas, and it shows up in his prose. Though the plot in The Yellow Birds is slight, the sustained and merciless close-up that the novel presents has an unsettling power: sun and heat and sand and shade and — just as you’re lulled — the bullets come. So does death, and for the survivors, numbness.

With such a small portion of the nation shouldering such a large burden of this war, it has become easy to turn a blind eye to the fates of those who crumble under the burden. In flashes, Powers ensures that we, too, are properly haunted, as when Bartles and his fellow soldiers read the name of a fallen comrade and feel the chill of his sudden, permanent absence: “[W]e were sure that he’d walked as a ghost for years through South Texas…. We thought that he was already dead on the flight over, that if he was scared when the C 141 bringing him to Iraq had pitched and yawed through the sky over Baghdad there had been no need. He had nothing to fear. He’d been invincible, absolutely, until the day he was not.”