I chose to read this particular novel because of the endorsements of some of my favorite authors. Anthony Swofford, who wrote the compelling book Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, called the book “a powerful work of art that captures the complexity and life-altering realities of combat service.” Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the stark novel Winter’s Bone, described the book as “a story for today and tomorrow and the next.” Philip Caputo who wrote his own memoir about war A Rumor of War, called this new novel “enduring and truthful about war itself.” I knew that if those writers considered the book to be an important one, then I, too, would gain something from it.
And so I began reading Kevin Powers’ first novel, The Yellow Birds. Powers, a veteran of the war in Iraq, wrote one of those first sentences that simply compels the reader to keep going. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” he wrote, beginning his tale of friendship and death in the Gulf War. This powerful story expertly handles the nature of friendship and betrayal, of death and guilt.
In the year 2004 in Al Tafar, Ninevah Province, Iraq, two young soldiers, Bartle and Murphy, are on a mission. In the opening chapter, Bartle, who is telling the story, recounts the shooting death of an old woman. Neither young man is surprised by the violence of her demise; Bartle notes, for example, that Murphy discusses her death in the same tone used for discussing the day of the week. It’s obvious that the two are exhausted both by the violence of what they have witnessed on a daily basis, and by their ongoing lack of sleep and recuperation.
The friendship between the two is an uneasy one. Bartle seems to have adjusted to the nature of the service, but Murphy, whose mother asked Bartle to look after her son, begins to lose touch with reality. When he witnesses the death of a young medic during a mortar attack, he becomes completely unmoored and wanders off by himself. What follows is tragic.
Why be drawn to a novel such as this? For one thing, it’s a valid examination of the contemporary horrors of war and the discipline of the men involved. Bartle describes his sergeant as a man who “didn’t care if we hated him. He knew what was necessary.” The sergeant knows his troops must obey his every order if they want to survive. He is crude and he is violent, but his young charges heed his every word.
For another, the story is incredibly well-written. In passages that echo with Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Powers handles the immediacy of combat so well. In the aftermath of a vicious attack, for example, Powers describes the landscape as follows:
“The empty city smoldered. We wore it to the bone with our modern instruments. Walls crumbled. Blocks composed of halves of shelled buildings allowed warm breezes to sweep up trash and dust and send them swirling in little cyclones as we walked.”
Finally, there is a timelessness that makes Bartle’s experiences those of any warrior at any time. He admits that his involvement in combat was a decision based on rebellion. He struggles with the demands of coping with an ethical void. He does what is asked of him and struggles with the entailing responsibility. And in the end, he comes to some kind of acceptance, if not peace, for what he has seen and done.
I didn’t like this book. It was a struggle to read of the carnage that took place, and identifying with the main character would place any reader in a very uncomfortable role. And yet I felt I had a better understanding of the difficulties of those who serve. It is clear to me exactly why “The New York Times” recognized The Yellow Birds as one of the ten best books of the year. This is tale is destined to become a classic.