Soldiering Amid Hyacinths and Horror
‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers
Published: September 6, 2012
Kevin Powers joined the Army when he was 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Drawing upon those experiences, he has written a remarkable first novel, one that stands with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, “The Things They Carried,” as a classic of contemporary war fiction.
Patricia Wall/The New York Times
THE YELLOW BIRDS
By Kevin Powers
230 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.
“The Yellow Birds” is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory. Its depiction of war has the surreal kick of Mr. O’Brien’s 1978 novel, “Going After Cacciato,” and a poetic pointillism distinctly its own; they combine to sear images into the reader’s mind with unusual power.
Glimpses of ordinary life — a hyacinth garden, a swallow tracing the shape of an alley, an orchard on the edge of the city — alternate with scenes of horror that feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell: medics trying to stuff a young soldier’s insides back into his body; a corpse bomb exploding on a bridge; a castrated body, missing its ears and nose, thrown from a tower.
Bartle, the novel’s narrator, remembers that he and his fellow soldiers “stayed awake on amphetamines and fear,” trying to “stay alert” to “stay alive.” He talks about being taught to “get small” when there are incoming mortars, and about the “noise and light discipline” that the platoon employs on a march, putting black electrical tape over shiny, metallic gear and making sure nothing makes a sound.
Most memorably, he talks about how pointless the war in Iraq often seems to men on the ground — a perverse Groundhog Day loop (so unlike his grandfather’s war) in which there is no destination, no progress: “We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children, with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.”
Mr. Powers has given his narrator a name that recalls the title character of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and “The Yellow Birds” is filled with echoes of that tale’s inquiries into the nature of freedom and free will. Bartle, we learn, is a 21-year-old soldier, who has been asked by the platoon’s sergeant to keep an eye on Murph, a naïve and emotionally fragile 18-year-old private. On the eve of their departure for the war, Murph’s mother asks Bartle to make sure that nothing happens to her son, and Bartle promises that he will “bring him home to you.”
Murph and Bartle are small-town boys from Virginia, boys with “small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.” So they joined the Army, Bartle says, “where life needed no elaboration, and others would tell us who to be. When we finished our work we went to sleep, calm and free of regret.” That is before the realities of Iraq. The war there will not only give them lasting nightmares, but will also challenge every certainty they’d once held — about themselves, about human nature, about fate and the randomness of life.
In conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to “return to ordinary.” He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them — and, in Bartle’s case, its psychological aftermath — with enormous emotional precision. The recruits quickly learn the art of detachment as a survival mechanism in the face of constant violence and loss. They become aware of their “own savagery” — “the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence.”
Bartle also learns the role that luck and chance play in war, the existential realization that there are “no bombs made just for us”: “Any of them would have killed us just as well as they’d killed the owners of those names. We didn’t have a time laid out for us, or a place. I have stopped wondering about those inches to the left or right of my head, the three-miles-an-hour difference that would have put us directly over an I.E.D.”
Though he’d been trained “to think war was the great unifier,” Bartle thinks it was actually “the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust.”
This extraordinary novel shows that Bartle is wrong — that war, in fact, is about sacrifice, that it can bring “people closer together than any other activity on earth,” that those who risk their lives in the service of their country “in an unknown corner of the world” are not numbers, but unforgettable individuals forever linked to their battlefield comrades in life and in death.