Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds (2012) Literature and War Readalong January 2013
Kevin Power’s book The Yellow Birds is oddly lyrical and beautiful. Why oddly? Because it is a book about war, about killing people, about young recruits facing their own and their country’s demons, about torture and killing of innocent people, old men, women and children, animals, a book about a young man losing his best friend, about guilt, mistakes and trauma but still it is lyrical and beautiful and that is odd.
The Yellow Birds is a first person narrative. Private Bartle tells his story in chapters alternating between 2004, Al Tafar, Iraq and 2005, Richmond, Virginia, interrupted by the one or the other chapter set in other places in 2003, 2005 and 2009.
The 21 year-old Bartle joins up in 2003. He meets Murph who is only 18 then. They are trained and led by the hardened tough-guy Sgt Sterling. In 2004 they are shipped to Al Tafar, Iraq. The two young men, become attached to each other from the beginning, and once they are in Iraq, that friendship intensifies.
At the beginning of the story, the young Privates are detached. They kill because they have to kill. They are constantly under attack but that’s how it is. The heat bothers them more than the killing as such. However, the longer they stay, the more the war gets to them and finally a tragedy happens.
We know from the beginning that Murph dies but we don’t know how, we only know the circumstances must have been terrible and that Bartle feels guilty. The truth is unveiled slowly.
There is a lot I liked in this novel and a lot I didn’t. The descriptions are wonderful; we are there and see the landscape, we feel what it must have been like to fight in this terrain, the dry orchards, the city, a place swarming with soldiers and civilians, being attacked constantly without ever knowing where the enemy will come from. The horror of killing civilians and animals. I thought Powers captured this very well.
There are lyrical scenes like this
I try so hard now to remember if I saw hint of what was coming, if there was some shadow over him, some way I could have known he was so close to being killed. In my memory of those days on the rooftop, he is half a ghost. But I didn’t see it then, and couldn’t. No one can see that, I guess I’m glad I didn’t k now, because we were happy that morning in Al Tafar, in September. Our relief was coming. The day was full of light and warm. We slept. (p. 24/25)
I had a problem with the fact that the book was much more about a friendship than about the war as such. Bartle returns traumatized. It could appear that what is traumatizing about a war is that you lose your best friends. That’s a crude simplification. It certainly makes matters worse but it’s not the only reason for PTSD.
I’ve read a lot of articles about the high suicide rates among US troops and veterans of this war, much higher, it seems, than in any other war. I would have wished that this was addressed. I would also have liked that we learned more about the war in Iraq. Surely it’s not only the terrain that makes this war different from others.
Despite my reservations, this is a beautiful book, with a surprisingly gentle atmosphere, pervaded by a floating mood. There are graphic scenes and they are hard to stomach. Each country has a predilection for certain types of torture and unfortunately we get a descriptive sample of what that is in this region.
All in all I would say, this novel is far more a moving, even heart-breaking story of a friendship under exceptional circumstances – namely during a war – than a novel about the war in Iraq. If you come to the book with these expectations, you will find a well crafted novel with many beautiful scenes and a powerful story about loss.
The Yellow Birds was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is The Flowers of War aka Jingling Shisan Chai by Chinsese writer Geling Yan. Discussion starts on Thursday 28 February, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.