The innocuous title of Kevin Powers’ debut novel The Yellow Birds is a reference to a military marching cadence. In its lyrics, as anyone who served in the military in recent decades might know, a peaceful bird is lured into a room and wantonly killed. The cadence is off-putting because of its unusual mixture of poetry, vulgarity, and violence, and because there is no apparent explanation for the acts it describes. Powers’ novel, which is equally poetic, vulgar, and violent, begins to make sense of the obscure cadence it references for the first time.
The Yellow Birds is about Murph and Bartle, two young privates going off to war in Iraq. Murph is young, 18, from West Virginia, and new to the Army. Bartle is older, 21, from Virginia, and has been around the Army for a little longer when Murph arrives. They are different, but their impending deployment equalizes them.
From their southern homes, the areas common to so many of those who fought in these wars, they deploy to Al Tafar, an imaginary city similar to Tal Afar, the area Powers served in his real military experience. Although Tal Afar was the epicenter of the counterinsurgency successes before the so-called Surge, Powers wastes few pages on combat scenes, aimless patrols, or the mundane missions that can characterize so much of these deployments for conventional forces. He opts instead to focus on these two soldiers, the war they faced, and the crude existence they were able to scratch out for a time.
Powers captures his reader by telling his story like it’s a devastating riddle—the kind that forces you to follow his clues even though you are certain that you won’t like what you find. He taunts his reader in several ways, most notably through his chosen chronology. He begins his work in-country so that his readers can meet Murph, Bartle, and his other characters, including the war itself. Chapter two backtracks almost nine months to the conception of their friendship. By chapter three, which takes place after the deployment, the reader knows that something is desperately wrong, that there are deeds and shameful secrets that must be learned in the chapters ahead.
Like any good riddle, the raconteur’s control over the details and the rhythms results in a reveal that is nothing short of astonishing. Powers maximizes his control over these rhythms, over his story and how and when he wants his reader to hear it, through his poetic, lyrical style. He selects wisely from a literary inventory well beyond his years and develops his themes through images, sometimes fresh, sometimes recurring, that are perfect for what he is trying to convey. His images suggest a pursuit of knowledge of God, of higher meaning, of connection with nature, and of his war’s natural overlap with his understanding of all of these pursuits. And through his exploration, readers are treated to remarkable passages like this:
When we neared the orchard a flock of birds lit from its outer rows. They hadn’t been there long. The branches shook with their absent weight and the birds circled above in the ruddy mackerel sky, where they made an artless semaphore. I was afraid. I smelled copper and cheep wine. The sun was up, but a half-moon hung low on the opposite horizon, cutting through the morning sky like a figure from a child’s pull-tab book.
Through his beautiful language, though, Powers is also telling a story that challenges the narratives about the war that so often are enjoyed by his fellow countrymen and women. The Yellow Birds is a story that confronts conceptions of manhood, of course, but it is so much more than that. His story challenges the national understanding of the war, the people who fought and fight in it, and what it all might mean for our society as a whole.
In a time that views his generation’s service as being endured by a “band of brothers,” Powers introduces a complicated and conflicted camaraderie between his characters. Bartle respects his sergeant because he is competent, but loathes him for his inherent authority that could demand his death. He loves Murph, but he knows that he can only fail him. Both he and Murph feel sorry for the war dead, some of whom they selfishly mistreated the day before. These are not brothers in enduring the rigors of combat collectively, they are brothers in surviving individually.
The focus on individual survival makes for a dearth of heroes in Powers’ book, which seems to be his way of challenging society’s easy labeling of the tiny minority who serve as such. Time and time again, he shows his characters understanding the fundamental truth of his war: that the war cannot love those who it can kill, and it can kill everyone. In this work, heroism is nearly impossible because in war no one is special, no one is exempt.
Powers also challenges the sanitized version of the war that is presented back home. He is casual in his presentation of grotesque scenes—of death, of evisceration, of decapitation—as casual as an international correspondent would deliver a sterile evening news report from the balcony of her hotel in Baghdad. Their truths may be equal, but only when one considers their audience and what that audience is willing to hear, and more important, to believe. This is the smartest choice that Powers makes in his book, and one of many: he respects his reader enough to tell him or her a story that, although a work of fiction, comes closer to the truth than most stories that are presented as fact.
Powers backs up the truths he tells with the ultimate credibility: he lived it. This is not the story of a general or a journalist, but a soldier who served in one of the toughest parts of Iraq in one of the toughest times of the war. There have been tens of thousand of soldiers who have had experiences similar to his, but no one so far has even come close to telling the story as well as he has here in The Yellow Birds.
Powers’ riddle is unrelenting throughout, ending perfectly, if sickeningly, in the only way it possibly could. But knowing the truth behind the lives of Bartle and Murph is not enough for Powers, whose telling cannot help but also pass on deeply processed insights and revelations about war, about life, and about the meaning of it all. After reading it, you might even begin to understand the unusual mixture of poetry, vulgarity, and violence behind the cadence that inspired the title for his remarkable book.