Books: On The Yellow Birds

Nominated for the National Book Award and written by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds is a work of fiction that shares its lineage with books like Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried. Just as Kurt Vonnegut served in Dresden during WWII and Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam, Powers served in Iraq. Vonnegut and O’Brien used their experiences to write what are arguably the defining fictional accounts of their respective conflicts. There’s a good chance Powers has done the same for the Iraq War.

Powers’ personal history is interesting. He enlisted at 17, served in 2004 and 2005, and eventually earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear his love of language often in the book, though his writing is not at all flowery. It’s taut and moves quickly.

The story’s one of survival, both physical and mental, following two soldiers as they try to keep it together while serving in Al Tafar, Iraq. The book hopscotches back and forth in time, from scenes set in Iraq to scenes after the narrator has returned home to Richmond, Va., with one early chapter set in Fort Dix, N.J., pre-deployment. That’s where the two main characters, John Bartle (age 21) and Daniel Murphy (age 18) meet. That’s also where the protagonist, Bartle, makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that you realize very early on, despite not knowing the details, he has been unable to keep.

The uncovering of this mystery stretches out over the entire book, unfolding piece by piece. The foreshadowing and suspense is masterful. You simply have to find out what happened, and why, and who was right and who was wrong. The answers are eventually revealed, but the “why” and the question of “right or wrong” are left murkier, and up to your own interpretation.

This was a tough book to read at times, not because of the writing style but just because of the content. But that’s to be expected when you’re writing honestly and brutally about war and death, mayhem and madness. And Powers certainly did that. It made me uncomfortable and even sad. But it also made me empathize, perhaps more than any other war book or movie I’ve encountered, with our soldiers, the dangers they face, and the horrors of war.

The Yellow Birds was well worth any uncomfortable feelings it stirred up. That’s what literature should do. It should make you think, make you re-examine things, and make you feel something. This unforgettable book did that.

(Originally published here: