Since being released last fall this debut novel by Kevin Powers has been the book of the moment. Powers, himself an Iraq War veteran, has written his generations “War” book. Like his predecessors in the list of authors who have written about the war experience that have, at various times, caught the attention and praise of a specific moment in the culture, Power’s has written a book that hits you right between the eyes. This year my son, who is a Senior, has read Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam epic The Things They Carried. Since it’s release in 1990 that book has been the preeminent war literature of the last twenty years. After reading The Yellow Birds I have told my son to suggest to his teacher that she might want to consider changing to this book when reviewing the subject of war writing. It is, simply put, with the possible exception of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, the greatest piece of writing on the subject of the war experience that I have ever read. It should be noted that this is a rich vein in literature, from Stephen Crane to Norman Mailer to the aforementioned O’Brien and Hemingway, it often seems that to be considered one of the greats you must write a war book. Powers, like those who have most successfully written about war, knows the experience first hand. When he recently was awarded the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/ PEN award it, while being a great honor for any author, felt like the most anticlimactic presentation of a writing award one could remember. From the moment this book was released, from the moment as a reader you pick it up, it instantly becomes that book that you cannot stop talking about. It is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The narrator of the book is John Bartle, who writing the book looking back at his experiences in the Iraq War, tells of his twenty-two year old self. With his experience, the world weary, four years out of high school, Bartle has been asked by his Sergeant to look after an eighteen year old private named Daniel Murphy. This is more of a burden than should be placed on him, a burden increased more by Daniel’s Mother who, before they ship out, at family day, makes a point of also asking John to watch after her son.
Just a boy himself, nowhere else in our culture is twenty two considered so mature, we hear Bartle’s internal dialogue as he ventures into war. Portraying the feelings of the soldier on the ground, the passages stand up as memorably as Hemingway’s in For Whom The Bell Tolls.
The contrast however is staggering. While Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s book felt a sense of duty and volunteered for his service, and would do so again, Bartle and Murphy in Iraq feel a sense of helplessness and desperation as they advance and fall back, constantly fighting over the same ground, on what becomes almost like a schedule. The constant savagery of their actions, the inability to determine friend or foe, the constant guilt build up.
Murphy like most of the soldiers becomes disillusioned, his struggles however become more open than those of his counterparts. At eighteen, a young eighteen at that, he becomes somber and disengaged. He tells Bartle that he cannot let the war define him, that in fact he no longer wants to be his friend as the only thing they have in common is the war and he wants nothing of the war in his soul. Bartle, telling the story in the future, looking back, is torn up with regret. We learn early in the book, in the second chapter, that Murphy does not make it home, that he dies. We see his fall into a pit of despair. At one point Murphy takes to sitting outside a small field hospital so that he ” can see hope in action” or watch a young female medic ” that offers a glimpse of something beautiful” where everything is else in the war zone is ugly.
Late in the book we learn what happened to Murphy and how his friend Bartle reacted to it. The repercussions of their actions reach, in the surviving Bartle’s case, far into his civilian future. Upon discharge, having manipulated his answers on his exit stress test to seem like he had no concerns or issues about his war, Bartle attempts to make himself be “OK.” Later, we learn more, when Bartle goes into a long soliloquy about his true feelings about the war, his actions, their meaninglessness, and perhaps most enlightening, his feelings about the new American way of appreciating and thanking American soldiers on their return. The contrast over the treatment of the American public for our veterans of the Persian Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with what shamefully transpired in the Vietnam era is something we all have seen firsthand. It seems that we, as a nation, are determined never to make that mistake again. In The Yellow Birds, Powers writes from his own experience portraying through his characters that, for the returning soldier, a thank you from a well meaning civilian, who has not experienced the war, can be as hurtful and confusing as being rebuked or ignored was for those soldiers were forty years ago.
For the great proportion of the population, those who do not think about the wars we get involved in or, who rationalize our lack of concern over the soldiers with the knowledge that they all volunteered, this is an eye opener. An understanding has to be had that wars of occupation and nation building are much different than wars where one’s own country has been attacked, that psychologically the difference for the soldiers is greater than we as laypeople understand. Bartle goes on to illustrate the need to understand that volunteering for the military is, for many who do so, done due to a lack of opportunities state side. It is not as if he had a great desire to join the fight, he simply felt it was his best way out of the economic trap he was in.
This book will make you think. If you are like me one of those folks who does not think a great deal about the personal experiences of our soldiers it can be troubling. Certainly the pictures we see of returning soldiers embracing loved ones, of octogenarian veterans saluting their younger counterparts make for an easier picture than the whirl of confusion and heartache that these men have to deal with after the celebrations are over. Before you thank another soldier for his service it would be wise to read this book, to get a slight glimpse on the profane and dark life experience he has just experienced, to know exactly what you are thanking him for.
Powers has written the defining book of America’s Middle East war’s. It is a book beyond praise. A book that anyone wanting to have an idea of the experience of the modern, boots on the ground soldier, must read.