Within 3 pages of the start of Kevin Powers’ debut novel – a stunning, haunting book that just floored me with its erudition, honesty, and raw emotion – I thought, “The President should be reading this.” Every member of Congress, especially those that signed off on the War in Iraq, should be reading it. Every potential armed forces recruit should be reading it. Every American, even? Maybe.
The war tried to kill us in the spring.
How can you turn your back on an opening line like that?
The 21st year on the planet for John Bartle was spent trying desperately not to get killed as an Army private in Al Tafar, Iraq. Before his deployment, he hastily made a promise to the mother of his friend and fellow soldier, Daniel Murphy, to not let Murph get killed in the war. Of course, an impossible, unreasonable request – and one that tears Bartle to pieces. As the two are dropped into an ever-escalating war, Murph soon reaches his inevitable emotional breaking point and his descent into madness is heartbreaking if for nothing but its grim reality. There’s not a lot Bartle can do to help Murph come up from the dark depths he finds himself in.
“I feel fucking crazy right now.” He had his head in his hands. He kept rubbing his eyes with the base of his palms. “I was really happy it wasn’t me. That’s crazy, right?”
“Naw. You know what’s crazy? Not thinking that shit.”
I had thought the same thing, how glad I was not to be shot, how much it would have hurt to be there dying, watching all of us watch him die. And I too, though sad now, had said to myself, Thank God he died and I did not. Thank you, God.
It was a shitty little war.
The plot of Yellow Birds isn’t all that complicated – Bartle goes to war, some bad things happen to him, and he comes back – and, in fact, it is that endless loop of days spent by this soldier that is the pulse of this novel. Every day is the same in the desert of wartorn Al Tafar, yet these dudes literally cannot let their guard down for a second. Talk about tension headaches. The emotional toll exacted on Bartle in those 18 months he spent involved sets the course for the rest of his waking days – and Birds is as much about the kind of man he is upon his return home as it is about his time in the war. How he handles his own shattered life in the shadow of that promise is the true heart of the book.
An even more powerful component of Yellow Birds is author Kevin Powers’ own story, which mirrors that of his character in undeniable ways and lends this fiction a degree of weight and sobriety. Powers joined the Army at 17 and spent the better part of 2 years at war in Iraq as a machine gunner in much the same area that The Yellow Birds is set. As the book proves, Kevin has the heart of a poet – and, in fact, earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin when he returned home. I mean, Jesus, think about this for a second: Powers was literally just a kid – he couldn’t even vote yet – when he went over there with his rifle and helmet, the desert hot as hell, mortars exploding all around him, people dying everywhere – and he somehow managed to soak the experience in in such a way that he was able to convert it to this electrifying prose when he came home. Damn.
The bottom line is, this is an absolutely essential novel for anyone (especially our elected officials) who has a vested interest in America’s place in the world and concerns of where armed conflicts leave our young service members when they return home. Bartle’s story isn’t something that has never happened to anyone – quite the opposite, in fact, as more American soldiers fighting in our current double whammy of shitty little wars end up coming home more psychologically damaged than physically wounded. There are dozens of classics about the Vietnam War (The Things They Carried, A Rumor of War, Tree of Smoke, Dispatches, Matterhorn) but I haven’t seen a novel as yet that lays all of our current conflict out there like this one does – which is why I think it’s so important that everyone read it. Besides, the writing is heartbreaking and pretty damn poetic throughout – shockingly so at times. If that’s not enough, it was named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2012, as well as being a National Book Award finalist. Not too shabby.