The best war novels come from those who’ve participated in the conflicts. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried immediately comes to mind as does Karl Marlantes’ more recent Matterhorn, both about the Vietnam War. And then there’s Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about World War I and considered to be one of the greatest war novels ever written. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds about the 21st Century’s Iraq conflict is likely to join this canon of bests. He gives us a deeply affecting story about two soldiers who become friends during basic training and fight alongside in Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. (I’m assuming Al Tafar is a fictional reference for the real city, Tal Afar.)
Lead by a steely Sgt. Sterling, who tolerates nothing less than an unfeeling approach to fulfilling their duty, 21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy follow him and keep going despite their overwhelming shock, fear and uncertainty. They take cues from him to be calloused and indifferent so as to stay sane, while they patrol and clear the streets of the city under siege and witness gruesome deaths. Private Bartle is the narrator, now almost 30 years old and looking back, speaking to us with an engaging, sorrowful voice about the experience in Al Tafar and a promise he made Murph’s mother to bring her son home safely — a promise that became a responsiblity, then a burden and finally a compassionate crime. A promise, Bartle tells us, he couldn’t keep.
The book is divided into chapters that alternate between Bartle and Murph’s time in Al Tafar and Bartle’s end-of-tour homecoming to Virginia. It’s a slick means of creating vivid emotional understanding of the effect of war on a soldier while engaged in combat as well as after, let alone creating a murmuring intrigue about what happens to Murph. Halfway through the book, we still don’t know the answer, but we know it is destroying Bartle at home, when he’s no longer a soldier, where he isolates himself, quietly tormented by his guilt and everyone who says “thank you” and calls him a hero. His spill of inner thoughts both in Al Tafar and at home is reflective, unforgettable prose poetry that so lost me in the beauty of the writing I had to reread passages to know what they had said.
Bartle’s inner life and perceptions are the real story here, interpreting what it’s like to be a soldier with visceral truth that transcends the literalness of non-fiction. I will warn that a few times what he witnesses is unbearable — a body bomb, a soldier killed in action with gunfire to his gut, let alone what’s visited upon his friend Murph — and yet Powers carefully measures the level of detail so the horrors of war don’t overwhelm and drive us away but build the story about how they can destroy one soldier and not another. When Bartle’s mother asks him what happened to him in Iraq, Bartle, in this beautiful passage, tells us:
“That’s not even the question, I thought. How is that the question? How do you answer the unanswerable? To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery. The dominoes of moments, lined up symmetrically, then tumbling backward against the hazy and unsure push of cause, showed only that a fall is every object’s destiny. It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.”
The Yellow Birds was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in fiction, won by Louise Erdrich for The Round House. Kevin Powers served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, as a machine gunner. He earned an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry.