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.

Other reviews

A Fiction Habit

Danielle – A Work in Progress

Exurbanis

Judith – Reader in the Wilderness

Uncertain Somewhere

Savvy Verse and Wit

TBM (50 Year Project)

Tony’s Book World

*******

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.

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65 thoughts on “Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds (2012) Literature and War Readalong January 2013

  1. Sounds great.

    Indeed I think that many worthwhile “War Stories” are more then just about war.

    This is a good point about suicide rates of both Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. It is through the roof.

    • I think it is a good book but like Tony wrote in his review, not the definite one on Iraq.
      Yes, it is through the roof. I find that very disturbing. There is a suicide in this book too, maybe even two, depending on how you want to look at it but it’s not properly dealt with.
      I would like to read a novel on that aspect. What is going wrong?

  2. Pingback: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers | 50 Year Project

  3. I really enjoyed reading this novel. Like you, I was surprised by the beautiful writing. I expected grit and harshness since it’s a war novel, not poetry. Goes to show all types of people are sent to war, hardened people like Sterling, innocent like Murph, and poets. It’s a shame really. None of these kids should have to live through such a horrific event, on both sides. I’m fascinated by war, but I never understand them either. They always seem like such a waste.

    • I agree with you but I also understand that leroy couldn’t finish it. Powers doesn’t really do war justice, it’s too perosnal maybe, as you say, as a poet he experienced it that way? I must admit, I liked reading it, I found the descriptions lovely but again and again I told myself– this is a book about war, should it be so beautiful?

      • For me the beauty made me appreciate the horror more. Here are young men and women in a new world that I imagine is quite beautiful with a whole different culture and yet they have to kill when ordered to. It showed me the stark reality of the situation.

        • I guess that’s part of what he wanted to achieve. But there is always the discussion how beautiful a novel on war should be. It reminded me a bit of two novels we read last year and which had a similar approach, Coventry and Peace.

          • I only read Coventry last year and the beautiful language bothered me more in that one and not as much in this one. However, I can’t put my finger on the reason. Maybe because I enjoyed this one more. Coventry started off promising, but I think she missed a key component by not building the friendship between the women more.

            • That’s true, and I alos liked this one better. At least he got the friendship right. My father has experienced almost the same thing. His best friend ended pretty much like Murph (worse even). Only the way my father talks about it , when he does isn’t glossed over.

  4. I very rarely abandon books, and as far as I can remember I’ve never abandoned a book twice – until this one. I’m surprised at the gap between the praise this has received and how it appeared to me. I thouight almost every aspect of it was poorly done – the writing, the characters, the structure. Very disappointing.

    • It doesn’t deserve the praise, I fully agree but it works better as a whole, the end makes sense. Still, it is obvious it’s a novel coming from someone with a MFA. The first lines irked me retrospectively as the writing is very different from then on. I expected somethig more powerful. I wonder if what TBM says that it shows that all sorts of people go to war, poets too, is how to read this. I was torn.

      • Your comment on poets going to war made me remember this, Caroline. There was an English poet called Edmund Blunden who fought in the first world war. His memoir of the war ‘Undertones of War’ is poetic and lyrical. Have you heard of him?

      • I don’t want to go on about it, or be too negative. It’s just one opinion after all. But I think people who see this compared to eg Remarque and pick it up as a result are being done a disservice.

        • Absolutely, the blurbs on this book are some of the worst I’ve ever seen. I’ve also seen it compared to Tim O’Brien and that’s very misleading too. The Things They Carried is one of the best books I’ve ever read and so is All Quiet on the Western Front.

    • I finished it and I was very disappointed as well. There are moments of beautifully lyrical writing, but the book felt most honest when Powers was using fewer adjectives. The characters felt more like archetypes than real people, particularly Murph, the wide-eyed innocent whose nearly inevitable fate will change the protagonist’s life forever.

  5. On the one hand I’m dying to read this. On the other I’m avoiding it like the plague! War stories tend to make me depressed, sad, and angry. So it’s always good to see a few negative comments about a book that could serve to justify my avoidance! :–)

    • It has a horrific scene at the end and a few that are overall hard to stomach. Don’t let the comments about the beautiful writing misguide you. But without those scenes it wouldn’t make sense.
      It’s not as hard as most oter books but that’s why I had a problem. Bit too beautul for its own good. It must sound weird

  6. Wonderful review, Caroline! Glad to know that the descriptions in the book are beautiful and lyrical. It must be quite a unique book on war. The cover is breathtakingly beautiful. It is tempting to read the book just for that :) I think ‘Literature and War Readlong’ this year is off to a roaring start :) Thanks for this beautiful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy. The cover is beautiful and it captures the mood in a way. I found the descriptions almost soothing but don’t get me wrong, there are a few extremely graphic scenees towards the end and I have the impression, the beautiful language and lyrical descriptions wer meant to make the contrats even more striking. It’s an excellent start despite some reservations but I hope there will be some more reviews and comments from other regular readers.

  7. We’re going to see a lot of books about Iraq and Afghanistan over the next decade. I won’t read this A) I’m furious about the loss of life & the stupid waste this war has entailed. B) too close to home. Not saying it’s not a good book, but I am unable to read on the subject without becoming very angry.

    I’m saving my participation for another book or two.

  8. This book is on the whole beautifully written, or more to the point, there are beautifully observed passages. Sometimes it does feel like a collection of those passages held together with other narrative. Looked at in isolation, I thought it was a good book and has gone some way to highlight the terror young men and women face when at war and how often they find it difficult to deal with their experience afterwards.
    I think the procedural thing hanging over Bartle went some way to explain his state of mind and I found myself wondering whether the war itself had messed up his head or whether it was more the unfinished business to do with Murph’s demise and his part in it. I understand that what happened to Murph can be taken as a microcosm of the whole war and therefore a metaphor for the horrors of war fullstop, but I still had this nagging doubt about the way Power’s depicted Bartle’s post war self. I’ve not written any of this in the review I wrote, because I’ve only really thought about it after the fact…
    The blurbs on the jacket really annoyed me. The book stands up on it’s own merit and many of the quotes are misleading. The comparison with Ramarque most of all. I read Im Westen Nichts Neues in my late teens and it lives with me still. Unfortunately, although The Yellow Birds is a good book, with some accomplished writing, I’m not sure it will have such a lasting effect.
    I think we will see more writing about the Iraq war in the coming years, for balance I would like to read something from the Iraqi viewpoint as I suspect their experiences are equally as harrowing.

    • It certainly has a lot of beautiful passages.
      What you just wrote is a big problem. While many suffer terribly due to the loss of a friend, that procedural thing adds another dimension and does take away from depiction of the effect the war would have had.
      That and other things make it clear that this is no new “All Quiet…”. It has its merits anyway and the blurbs didn’t do it any favours.
      I wonder if there are already IRaqi books on the war. We might not even know, they might not have been translated yet. I seem to remember Yasmina Khadra wrote about the war in Iraq. He is (it’s a pseudonyme) an Algerian author and his view could be interesting as well.

  9. I liked the book a lot although, for me, the definitive book (so far) on our current wars is “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk” by Ben Winters which takes place mostly in a football stadium.

    Flowers’ story is in the past, happened and we read what happened and the horrific effects. In Winters’ book, Billy Lynn is moving through the story, we don’t know what’s ahead; he’s fought some of his war but there is more to come because after the week off, he and the squad are headed in country again.

    Another good one is “FOBBIT” by David Abrams. All the sarcasm, irony, sick humor and nastiness that this American likes in a war story. “Yellow Birds” has its moments of humor and sarcasm but it can be too pretty, war stories, for me, should be noir humor. Soldiers doing a grim job; loving it and laughing about it.

    Now that women are allowed in combat, who knows how war stories will develop.

    • I agree with you 100%. You nailed it. It’s not dark enough. I was actually thinking, that he must have been left relatively untouched by war- When my father tells his stories, they are full of dark humour and sarcasm.
      Still, like you, I liked it, as a book, not as a book on war.
      The titles you mention sound very interesting, thanks a lot for mentioning them. Why was it said that The Yellow Birds was the first book o the war in Iraq.

    • There is no description of the torture here but of the result which is pretty bad.
      I don’t know how you felt about Zero Dark Thirty – I can just say I really hope this will not get an Award. I couldn’t stand it. And the torture scenes were quite shocking. I really believed the US didn’t do it.

      • I saw the movie last night and wasn’t prepared for the torture scenes. I should have been since I knew it happened. I would like to believe that the Obama administration put a stop to it completely but it’s hard to know for sure. I know war is hell, but I don’t think torture should play any part.

        • No, I don’t think so either, still I wouldn’t go as far as saying the movie endorses torture. That’s not true at all.
          On the other hand those who defend the movie say that it shows that he was caught when they weren^’t using torture anymore. That’s a bit misleading as the crucial information was still obtained through those means.
          I was totally not prepared for those scenes.
          I’m also annoyed meanhwile because I found out that the female charcater was fabricated. the perosn we see in the movie didn’t exist.

          • Last night after the movie we went to dinner and I was trying to figure out how they wrote the film. As far as I know, and I am not involved in politics at all so I don’t know much, all of the information regarding the hunt for UBL is classified. I’m a little relieved that the female character was made up–for some reason it made me even more uncomfortable that a female was so heavily involved in the torture. I know that’s sexist and I’m sure I’m wrong, but I hate thinking anyone, especially women would take part. I’m not saying women shouldn’t be in the army and I think if they want to fight on the front lines go for it. But torturing people. Can’t get my head around that.

            • There was a female agent involved in the hunt but she wasn’t as importnat as the movie made us belive. There is an interesting discussion on my movie blog, if you are interested. It got a bit heated. :)

              • Wow that did get heated, but it seems like apologies were made at the end and I’m afraid to add my opinion since I don’t want to restart the battle and reopen any wounds. I’m glad apologies were made and accepted. This topic is difficult. As for me, the first thing I said when I left the theater was “I hope the intel they gathered at the house was worth the expense and time spent chasing the guy down.” I remember hearing about his death and I felt conflicted, I obviously had no respect for the man and wanted him captured, but I can’t celebrate the killing of him either. War is a terrible thing, full of awful events, and it’s hard to celebrate. Also, killing him may have wounded AQ’s efforts, but as far as I can see, the war on terror is not over so I didn’t feel a lot of closure. Of course I wasn’t in NY in 2011 and I didn’t know anyone in the towers. This event may have provided closure for those directly affected. I understand that.

                • Peopel felt very differently about it but I alos had a problem with calling the agent a hero, I don’t find her heroic. Many other things yes. The recption of Bin Laden’s death was a bit anticlimatic in Europe, many probably thought he’d been dead for a long time already. It was important to catch him but closure, not so sure.
                  These are difficult topics. I don’t have to make decisions about anything and I’m sort of glad I can weasel out.

                  • I didn’t see her as a hero. A committed spy yes, but hero, not sure about. Maybe if she stood up against torture and still gathered the info she needed. I really can’t put my finger on how the film was portraying torture–ambivalent I guess. Just stating the facts, not analyzing.

                    I would hate to have to make decisions like this. probably why I never pursued this line of work. That’s not the type of life I want to lead–their jobs consume every aspect of their lives. How do you take a two week vacation and relax on a beach knowing what’s going on back at the office.

  10. I hate critiquing a veteran’s work because I feel so awkwardly aware that I don’t want to be dismissive of how he perceived the war and his service.

    I had so many issues with this book. The one that sticks with me most: I couldn’t buy Murph’s mother’s visit to Bartle in prison, especially the fact that she brings him a map of Iraq. That’s a character in a scene that’s been designed to Mean Things, something that’s meant to be discussed and dissected in an in-depth literary analysis . . . not a realistic scene of a grieving mother visiting one of the men who denied her the chance to bury her child’s body.

      • I’m undergoing various phases regarding this book. at first I liked it, then I started to find it trite, after having finished I liked it again and now, a few days later, I notice I’m forgetting it already.
        The question really is, what has Powers seen? What has he experienced? Having grown up with a veteran, I’m used to another type of story telling about war. Cruder, darker, raw. Black humour instead of poetry.
        I have no idea whether the scene with the mother is plausible. It didn’t bother me.
        Murph was quite clichéd, that’s true as well.
        It’s certainly not the powerful work i had expected and looking back on all the books on war I’ve read so far…

  11. Very disappointing.
    1. His writing style exhausted me. It felt like he crafted every sentence. It did not flow. There were few breaks in the importance of every sentence. Pretentious! Check out this sentence, I’m brilliant!
    2. I did not like any of the characters. I know there were real cases of PTSD in Iraq. but I found myself feeling that Bartle was a wimp. I hated feeling that way because soldiers are affected the way he was, but I found that Powers did not make a strong case for why Bartle was so unhinged by his experiences. The book described events that were pale in comparison to what a WWII veteran would have gone through. The book made it seem that the soldiers we sent to Iraq are weaker than previous generations. I wonder what your father would think about why Bartle almost drowned himself.
    3. I kept telling myself to stick around for the big payoff of how Murph died and what war crime Bartle committed. What a fizzle! And unrealistic! The two of them go alone to the minaret! They decide not to bring the body back because it is mangled? Sterling shoots the cart guy – give me a break!
    4. I also did not get the impression that Bartle and Murphy were that close.
    5. As usual, you found the book much more graphic than I did.

    Blah.

    • I was disappointed too, you know. I liked the writing, the way it was crafted but I felt the topic was badly chosen for this type of writing.
      I didn’t like the way he treated PTSD. Bartle doesn’t have PTSD because of the war but because of Murphs death. Now I know for a fact that my father wouldn’t have let Murph alone for one second after seeing him act as strange and I find that doesn’t come out well. Bartle should feel guilty that he let him wander off.
      I thought the whole time Bartle had committed a serious crime but they really haven’t. What they did is understandable, although a bit questionable. Murphi is not the first to return like that and I gues in cases ,like this, they will make sure the mother isn’t going to open the casket and see this.
      I did think they were c,llose but I think I came to see it that way because I was told to see it that way.
      I didn’t think the book was graphic, there is only on scene but I felt I owed it to my readers to know as many have a lower tolerance level and it wouldn’t be fair to write as if this was a purely lyrical account-
      My father, as traumatized as he is from the war – pretty much for similar reasons as Bartle is rather the old school veteran. He doesn’t really underatnd this type of sentimentality and feels it is not decent to take yourself so seriously and make a big fuss. He would say “War is hell. Deal with it. Try not to start one in the first place.” Not sure I agree on all the points.

  12. It looks like this was a good book for discussion! I think I got on with it better than most readers, though I had very few expectations going into the story. I’m probably not a very critical reader really either. For me I tried to keep in mind that while Powers served in Iraq and must have seen the things of which he writes, this is still a work of fiction–so one view of the war–one man’s experiences which will be different than another man’s (or woman’s!)–and everyone’s perception of reality is going to be different. Also I try and keep in mind when I feel like something wasn’t handled quite the way I liked that maybe I shouldn’t be as critical of an author for failing to write the book I wanted him to write–if that makes sense. There’s always this narrow line that I am never sure how or where to cross–when a book doesn’t fulfill a reader’s/my expectations. It’s something I think about, but it’s one of those hazy things when I am trying to decide whether a book works or not since it is always so subjective. This is only the first book I’ve even read about Iraq, so I’ll be curious to see how other author’s handle writing about the war. I’m not sure I would have picked it up otherwise and now I am hoping to read more–so thanks for choosing it!

    • While I know it will not make the end year Best of List, I’m still glad I’ve read it. I very rarely find a book I love 100% and for every element but it’s equally rare that I absolutely hate a book. There are always elements which I like.
      I also find that it’s interesting to try to put into words why something didn’t work. But I know what you mean, we have our expectations and would like authors to meet them.
      I find it was a good start to the year and, frankly, I thought we had a few books last year which were too hard to read and I tried to avoid picking those. Maybe that’s wrong.

  13. I’m glad I stayed away from it. Like Guy, I’m not tempted to read about the Iraq war, we don’t have enough hindsight to write about it. I wonder how historians will look back on this in 20 or 50 years.

    And even if the book doesn’t cover much of the actual war, I’m still not tempted.

    Isn’t the friendship-on-the-battle field topic a bit worn out now when it comes to war novels? It seems the obvious way to write a book about a war.

  14. I come a little late to these discussions as I have been lingering over this book for the last couple of days, not wanting to get to the end and especially not wanting to discover what happened to Murph. I had no doubt that was going to be as horrific as it was.
    So unlike many of the other commentators I experienced a large attachment to this novel. I could almost say that I loved it except that ‘love’ isn’t quite the right word. It felt honest. It felt like the only sort of book that Kevin Powers who came to the writing of it through poetry could have written. And I did feel as if I was walking through Iraq with those soldiers, I could taste it, smell it, feel it. So I wasn’t sure what you meant Caroline when you commented that it didn’t deal enough with the war.
    And I completely understood why Murph’s mother went to see Bartle in prison. He’s the last link to her son and possibly the last person (as she would regard it) to see him alive so of course she’d go to visit him. I would too.

    • Thanks for joining. I’m glad you mention that you found the end horrific. I did so, too. I didn’t think the book was very graphic but that end was.
      I liked the writing very much, and felt I was there too.
      But I found it’s not specific about the Iraq war, more about what war does to people in general. We don’t know any specifics about the missions. I found it vague and that the emotional and friendship part overshadowed the war.
      My father fought in Algeria and what he told, including the way Murph was tortured, it could have taken place there. Maybe that’s why I felt it was unspecific.
      I thought it was believable Murph’s mother came. After all, what he did was not that bad. The letter was not such a good idea. But it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be forgiven, and one would certainly want to talk to the last friend of a son.

  15. I had a problem with the fact that the book
    was much more about a friendship than
    about the war as such. <<< I think I would enjoy the book more than you. I like books about friendship more than about war. That's why I really like Napola.

    • I like book about friendships but this one is marketed as a novel about war. Te friendship as such was never mentioned. It was misleading.
      But I could acutally imagine that you would like this.

  16. I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I enjoyed the novel overall and like the interesting back and forth that seemed to go on about the notions of freedom and free will. I also liked the idea that things just happen and that there are no over-riding reason for them unless you give them one…I thought that was interesting as a way for Bartle and Murph to cope with the war.

    However, the shifting between time periods didn’t work for me overly much, though I can see how it could be a way for the author to tie the book into the final chapter with the markings on the prison wall and how those were not in chronological order — perhaps the narrative structure came out of that and the hard time soldiers have thinking linearly about their past war experiences.

    My review will be up on March 19. Thanks for the discussion.

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