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Kevin Powers said that he wrote his novel The Yellow Birds in response to the question he so often receives from others about his time in Iraq—“what was it like over there?” This question and the impossibility of its answer reveal the vast chasm between the experiences of American soldiers and civilians in the last decade. How would a soldier even begin to describe the experience to someone so very far removed from the extremes of war? Despite our information-saturated society and the proliferation of embedded journalists, most civilians are almost hermitically sealed off from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At most, we might understand the war’s financial cost, yet understand little about the physical, psychological, and spiritual losses experienced by soldiers and their families.
The Yellow Birds is one of a handful of recently published novels on the Iraq and Afghan wars. It tells of a friendship between two men—21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy. Bartle makes an impetuous promise to Murphy’s mother that he will bring him home—one of so many promises that he cannot truthfully make. The two are sent into Al Tafar in Nineveh Province, Iraq, where an intense and bloody battle leaves both men unhinged. While the descriptions of battle are present, they are not the heart of this novel. Rather it is the poetic, lyrical language and the juxtaposition of such beauty against such unimaginable carnage that grips the reader. The novel’s non-linear structure mirrors the dissociation and fragmentation of Private Bartle. When he learns he is to return home, his thoughts are hazy abstractions: “I was going home. But home, too, was hard to get an image of, harder still to think beyond the last curved enclosure of the desert, where it seemed I had left the better portion of myself as one among innumerable grains of sand…” (99).
While on the edges of the narrative, mothers are everywhere. Their voices reveal the full measure of the war’s losses. Mrs. Murphy, in particular, is a harrowing, resonating voice. While not easy to read, The Yellow Birds remains hard to put down. It is an important work that successfully captures the contradictions of American life during the last decade. It deserves a place among what will hopefully become an increasingly diverse group of artistic responses to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.