The Yellow Birds is Bartle’s story of being a soldier, of being in the middle of a small number of events, a handful of days in the desert city of Al Tafar, and then of coming home, of being haunted by his experiences and his actions, of never really being able to come home at all.
The opening quote of this book, before the first chapter begins, is a U.S. Marching Cadence:
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head...
I don’t think Kevin Powers could have chosen anything more apt, summing up as it does both his book and warfare in general in a few simply chosen words. Not that a single word of The Yellow Birds could be described as simply chosen; not one single word or syllable is out of place this book, each one having a point and a meaning and a beauty behind it. It is incredibly powerful and incredibly moving. It is sad and it made me cry, and it made me think and wonder, and yet, somehow, it did not make me feel lost at the end, as some books of this ilk are like to do. It is Powers' attempt to answer the question I suspect he himself, as an Iraq veteran, has been asked many times: what was it like over there?
I could try to tell the bones of the story, of Bartle’s promise to Murphy’s mother to keep him safe and all that ensues, but the real story is that of a lost man and the undoing of war. According to his bio, Powers joined the army when he was just 17, serving in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, then gaining a university degree and poetry fellowship after leaving. Although a work of fiction, while reading The Yellow Birds I had to wonder how much of Powers is in Bartle, and how much of Powers’ own experiences are in the things Bartle sees and feels.
The tension is mixed with passages of descriptive writing that offset each other all in one small instance. It is both calm and horrifying all at the same time. When he is in Iraq, Bartle sees things that bring memories of home, and when he is home, everything he sees brings memories of Iraq. There is a blurring of real and unreal, of memories and experiences and emotions that are vivid in their detail and their telling. Powers writes of war as a living thing that consumes and rages without boundaries, eating away everything in its path, and left me asking the question, not what was it like over there?, but how do you find yourself again?
And, as Bartle struggles with both the war and its aftermath, I found myself thinking about the people that are abroad now, fighting. I see their images on TV, their bravado and their bravery, their interactions with the locals and their comrades, and I take it at face value. Reading his book, Powers made me ask, what goes on underneath the picture on TV or the story in the newspaper? This is part of the power and the importance of The Yellow Birds - it brings to the forefront not questions so much, but the concept that there is more out there than what we may chose to see on any given day, more than a soldier may chose to reveal. The Yellow Birds is, undoubtedly, the war book of the year.