Top Shelf in September: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Reviewed by Julie
“The war tried to kill us in the spring.”
From the novel’s opening line, I knew The Yellow Birds would be a different reading experience from the nonfiction accounts I’ve read of the Iraq War. Closer. Harder to stomach, in some ways. Fiction always hits me deeper, somewhere much closer to my gut than my brain, which swallowed news of the war every day for a decade and cannot always be trusted to remember the emotional resonance of all of those facts. Kevin Powers served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Afterwards, he became a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas. And so it is with a deft poetic voice and firsthand experience that Powers drops us in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the confusion of a vague mission, in the middle of a soldier’s heart and mind, and it is a mighty important thing he has done.
The novel is told from the perspective of twenty-one year old Private John Bartle. His story moves back and forth between Al Tafar, Iraq in 2004 and Richmond, Virginia after he’s finished his tour. In an early chapter set in Fort Dix, NJ, we get to know Bartle and eighteen year old Daniel Murphy, his buddy in the war, before they ship out. Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he’ll watch out for her son, and he does. He watches as the war changes Murph. He watches the slow disintegration of Murph’s resolve in the face of so much death that the dead become unremarkable. He watches himself leave and not be able to leave behind what happened to him or to Murph.
After years of skimming headlines and half-reading articles about Iraq, I canceled dinner plans two nights in a row to stay home and read The Yellow Birds. Why? Because sometimes it takes the imaginative power of a novel to open up the slow hours standing in a desert in full gear and feel the shock when the mortars come whizzing through the bored heat. It takes a novel to express the subtle shift in the psyche of a soldier who surrenders to the war. It takes a novel to unwind the truth of death, how the dead seem destined to be dead and the dead will never be you. It takes a novel – and here is where Powers really soars in his telling – to not only describe the desert vistas, which are beautiful, and the bodies littering the ground, which are horrible, but to pinpoint those moments when the war breaks a soldier down, when he loses his tether to humanity and gives in to the truth that he, too, may be one of the ones to die, that he is part of the death that is always all around him.
Powers makes this long, huge, hotly debated fight in Iraq human. It is that simple. He does it with visceral, permeating detail. The Yellow Birds belongs on your shelf alongside The Things They Carried. It is vital reading for those of us who want to understand what happened in Iraq and what happened to the men and women who were there. And all of us should want to understand.