Every war, it seems, spawns an author or two who capture its spirit in literature. Crane, Remarque, Trumbo, Hemingway, Mailer, O’Brien.Critics are suggesting Kevin Powers’ name be added to that list for the Iraq war. I wouldn’t disagree for a moment.
At once poetic and bloody, the story of 20-year-old Pvt. John Bartle and his 18-year-old buddy, Pvt. Murphy, evokes the hideous consequences of a war that consists of continuous battle with no target, objective, beginning or end. The Bartle-Murphy unit takes and retakes the same area, never knowing when or how they will be attacked. At one point there is a booby-trapped corpse to contend with–guts scraped out to make room for explosives. Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored, and Bartle’s stateside promise to look after him increasingly difficult to keep.
All fine and good, but what lifts The Yellow Birdsabove the generic war novel is that it recounts not only the battlefield combat, but the mental and emotional fight of the returning veteran.
Private Bartle returns to his mother’s Virginia home and tries to become once again the part of the world that he left. Nothing doing:
. . .Everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to explain it, but it’s just , like, Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault , really,because you went on purpose, so you are in the end doubly fucked, so why not just find a spot and curl upand die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward and, really cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man.
And in a more poetic vein:
I didn’t want to broaden the evidence of my existence wider than brief footprints of moisture on the floor of my mother’s . . .kitchen. I looked out the window. . .beyond the woods, the county of which they were a part, until it all dissolved into the larger thing” my mother’s house becoming every other house as I once had seen it, sitting atop the southern end of a broad river valley. . .and close enough to ocean that those early English settlers took it as the farthest point they’d go upriver. . .”We are lost; therefore we will call this home.”
We learn only gradually of the incident that evokes Bartles’ depression, and by the time we finally know, it’s become not just an event in itself, but emblematic of the physical and psychological destruction that characterizes the whole iraq enterprise, both over there and over here.
The predicament in Yellow Birds recalls the situation in the superb film The Valley of Elah, in which the excruciating circumstances surrounding the death of a child (also revealed bit by bit) haunts the returningveterans involved to the point of insanity.
The Yellow Birds is an intensely personal, yet intensely universal account of what was, till Afghanistan overtook it, our longest and perhaps least honorable war. You will not forget this book, and, though this is not its primary intent, it will not make you proud to be an American.