Title: The Yellow Birds
Author: Kevin Powers
Publisher: Little, Brown and Co. (Sept 2012)
Rating: 3 stars
The Yellow Birds is a first person narration of the Iraq war. The protagonist, Bartle, is a young man, 21, who has made friends with a man in his unit named Murphy, 18. He was sort of coerced into saying he’d look after Murphy by Murphy’s mother before they shipped out. That promise begins to haunt him as he realizes that there is no way he can keep it and how unfair it was of her to ask him to do something so impossible. The story covers the horrors of the war—the smells, the blood, the terror—as two boys are thrown together in a desperate fight for their lives.
The chapters alternate from Al Tafar during the fighting to the States after the fighting. We follow Murhpy and Bartle through battles, heartfelt chats, close-calls, and ultimately insanity. Why did they join the war effort in the first place? Perhaps it was to prove masculinity, because they had no other direction in life, or some other reason. Is the greatest enemy in war your own mind? How can you protect someone from their thoughts? Especially in such a high stress environment.
When Bartle returns to the States and is faced with “normal” things like friends, family, etc.; he hates all of it and feels excluded. He no longer has a home. Not because home has changed but because he has. He feels guilty and angry. Home has become an unreachable ideal. So he turns to alcohol and isolation.
Kevin Powers is a poet and that really comes through in this novel. The book seems like one long poem at times. Its dreamlike quality can be confusing and frustrating, especially since the plot is not that strong. The Yellow Birds is more of a poetic, tragic portrait of life for a soldier—not a story. The prose definitely comes before the plot. That said, I think the dreamlike quality is very true to memory, and especially Bartle’s memory. No one ever remembers exactly how something happened. There are always pieces missing or ones that don’t quite fit together, especially with traumatic events.
This book has come under some criticism for having archetypal characters. I think this is definitely true of the borderline psychopath Sargent, who is relentless, crude, and violent. However, he was the only character that I thought was a little over-the-top.
This is one of the first novels about being a soldier in Iraq told by a soldier. The Yellow Birds had a similar (but less intense) effect on me as The Things They Carried, one of my favorite books of all time (and definitely my favorite war book). O’Brien was a soldier in Vietnam and has written fictional stories about the war his entire life. The situations that soldier’s find themselves in are inhuman and so awful that the darkest part of the human psyche is revealed.
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. ” – Tim O’Brien
A true war story is never moral. That is something that really sticks out to me. I don’t think The Yellow Birds is moral by any means. But I do think that Bartle was redeemed in the end—the thing he was hiding from everyone wasn’t actually that bad and he doesn’t find forgiveness, but he does find some kind of understanding from Murphy’s mother. This is why The Yellow Birds didn’t make it to 4 stars. The ending wasn’t heart breaking enough. (What does that say about me?!)