America is often reminded by its elected leaders and government officials that War is Hell. This is not offered as a condemnation of the act, but as a valorized supporting argument: war’s totally bad but we do the totally bad thing because the alternative is way, way worse—trust us!—and it’s not like we want to do all the messy stuff that comes with war, we kinda have to, shrug. And it seems like every few weeks Americans are reminded—by way of violence on another continent or a report on our fleet of flying death robots—just how bad war is, while our leaders bluster about more more more war to the world.
It’s my generation’s great shame. As someone who studied history, I’m hesitant to cliche it up and say that history will not justify our carelessness and our cruelty and our killing—but what the hell, man, it’s true. We’re not coming out of this looking good.
In his gutpunch of a debut, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers doesn’t let your mind stray far from that shame for a moment. The story of two friends—Privates Bartle and Murphy—is not only a striking and seemingly flawless first novel but also a brutally and importantly honest account of America’s “shitty little war” in Iraq.
Our narrator, Bartle, is fighting over a “few acres of land” in the Nineveh Province of Iraq. He’s not the Rambo type—he seems to be a competent enough soldier, but neither bloodthirsty nor particularly drawn to combat—and his queasiness about opening fire, about killing, is reassuring. He’s a man who joined the army as a boy, yearning for respect the way 18-year-olds do, seeking it without consideration for the accompanying responsibility.
When Bartle needs to shoot the enemy, however, he looks to his superior, Sergeant Sterling, the book’s most heinous and awful character, but also a necessary figure: who thrives in war? Men like Sergeant Sterling. Take Bartle’s account, in chapter one, of Sterling’s effect:
I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me, how I felt like a coward until he screamed into my ear, “Shoot these hajji fucks!” I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire, seeing him shooting too, smiling the whole time, screaming, the whole rage and hate of these few acres, alive and spreading, in and through him.
And that’s really the principal concern of The Yellow Birds: what does war do to men and women? We see it when the men and women of Al Tafar move through their outdoor market at a snail’s pace—too terrified for their normal gait. We see it when Bartle returns to his home in Virginia and doesn’t leave his room for days at a time but for beer and frozen food.
And we see it in the demise of Murphy, Bartle’s fellow soldier, so stricken with fear and grief and shame that he wanders off base, AWOL, only to be murdered by (presumably) enemy forces. Bartle himself feels a responsibility for Murph because he promised the boy’s mother he’d take care of him, that he’d bring him home—a hokey and dumb thing to do, as Bartle realizes almost immediately after.
There are some moments in The Yellow Birds that are overwrought: an airport bartender is broadly Hannity-ish (“We ought to nuke those sand niggers back to the Stone Age.”), and some army investigators are particularly cruel about Bartle’s post-war jitters.
And of course the novel is brooding—long as hell at 240 pages—but it is, after all, a war novel: appropriately sloggy in pace, punishing and dark in tone. If you spend more than ten minutes at a time reading this, I guarantee you’ll feel yourself slouch further and further with each page. It has the physical presence to literally push you down.
Powers, a poet, writes remarkably: his prose so precise and so restrained, preserving emotional punch for the right moments. For a novel so tragic and heart-wrenching and important to have such measured prose, such an understanding of its pace and its flow and its reader, is remarkable. That it’s Powers’s debut is hard to fathom.
Terrible acts can inspire amazing works—works not resulting from those acts (I wouldn’t want to act like even one single goddamn good thing has come out of the “shitty little war”), but works that stand to show the profound effect those acts can have on a generation. And if the Iraq War, that “shitty little war,” is remembered as I imagine it will be, The Yellow Birds too should be remembered as a brutally accurate account of the horror exacted in the name of platitudes, fought over some few acres in some sleepy villages a world away.