Before shipping out to Iraq, John Bartle, the 21-year-old U.S. private who narrates Kevin Powers’ new novel, “The Yellow Birds,” promises a worried mother he will bring Murphy, his eighteen-year-old comrade in arms, home alive. He fails.
Powers, who is both a veteran of the war and an MFA student at the University of Texas, sets up a deceptively simple plot. On its face, “The Yellow Birds” follows Bartle and Murphy through a month long siege of Al Tafar, a city in northern Iraq, in order to explain the circumstances of Murphy’s death. But Bartle’s narration, which loops from episodes in Iraq back to basic training and forward into his postwar depression, is less an explanation for his actions than a heartrending plea for absolution, an aching compendium of moments that he refuses to forget.
Bartle’s stream of consciousness narration is carried by Powers, who has an ability to render even the most mundane moments into prose poetry. The most powerful images are drawn with graceful attention: the perforated body of an Iraqi translator, the blue in field of hyacinth, a field of debris eddying in the Tigris; while others are side notes, mere moments of distraction: the sounds children playing between gunshots, women’s eyes behind burkas, the way a nurse’s body twists in on itself as she is hit by a gunshot.
With only three major characters, Bartle, Murphy, and their lieutenant, Powers leaves room for the conflict itself to become a character. As Bartle announces in the opening lines “The war tried to kill us in the Spring.” in its hellish playground at Al Tafar, the war twists safety into danger, shelter into vulnerability, and within years, young boys into enemy insurgents.
People have said that war is beautiful ever since Achilles first picked up a sword, and given its profusion of pretty words, it’s easy to write off The Yellow Birds as another in a long line of clichés — “Men at War: Iraq Version”: same themes of honor, camaraderie, and noble sacrifice, updated with new locations, new weapons, and new enemies.
Power’s work, however, is at once more visceral and more intellectual than the average war book — those who expect a retread of Hemingway or Homer will just as disappointed as readers looking for a Tom Clancy gorefest. Much of this is due to the nature of Bartle’s war, which, as he notes, is not the same as his grandfather’s war. Cities are retaken as soon as they are lost. Civilians are allies one day and enemies another. And, worst of all, there is no sure route to victory.
Murphy and Bartle spend most of their time hoping to last long enough not be on the list of the first 1,000 dead, as if cutting ahead of a statistic is the only viable road to heroism. In Iraq, there are no individuals that stand above the rest, only those slightly above the bell curve. Much of this is owed to America’s refusal to pay attention to the war. Iraq movies flop at the box office (you didn’t see The Hurt Locker, you saw Avatar, be honest). Coverage on the ground is always politically charged. For me at least, it’s impossible to name a single individual who has been widely celebrated as a hero.
What is there, then, for the soldiers who return? Not absolution. Bartle can’t explain himself to his mother (who he ran away from to join the army), his friends and superior officers, or even at confession. He was surrounded by battle for days, months and even years, but Al Tafar is only a indistinct patch of desert to people back home.
Bartle can’t escape from his supersaturated weeks in the Nineveh Province. On one hand, Bartle’s inability to recover is post-traumatic stress, but it also his sacrifice for Murphy. No one at home will remember the eighteen-year-old and the hell he fought in, but Bartle will.
Memory becomes Bartle’s attempt at humanity, a way to at least preserve his friend’s history, good or bad. “The Yellow Birds” doesn’t beg sympathy for the soldiers or for policy changes. It only asks whether Bartle’s memorial is enough, whether, in any situation, memory, poetry, or even art itself can make up for all that was not done. The answer, in Bartle’s case, is hard to divine. But, by asking such an essential question, Powers guarantees that his work will be remembered as a great war novel, even if the war he wrote about was anything but.