When a poet writes about war, the result is a mix of terror and beauty. Kevin Powers, a poet, served in Iraq for two years and in prose that is precise and eloquent he tells the ugly truth of war and what it does to people. The Yellow Birds is the story of two men who become friends in basic and then go on to serve together. Little more than boys, they are dropped into a world where the horrors inflicted by humans are matched only by the harshness of the environment.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring” declares the opening line, establishing a basic theme. War is as much the enemy as the shadowy, sometimes hooded figures that Murph and the narrator Bartle are fighting. “The war would take what it could get. It was patient.” There is no room for romanticism – no name on a bullet – in this rendering of war; only bad luck, bad timing and a tough-edged sergeant who tells the men the only way to survive is to stay deviant and be thorough, by which he means pumping bullets into an already dead body to ensure that it becomes even more dead.
The evils of war cannot be escaped. Not there and not here. We learn very early on that Murph doesn’t make it home. Bartle, the one who returns, brings the war with him; it’s in his blood and his memories, in his guilt and shame, in his relentless pain. Reading this debut novel is like witnessing the collapse of a soul.
Through the fighting and atrocities, the world goes about its business, blithely ignoring the “little pest of a war.” Perhaps it’s long past time the world started paying attention to what happens to the boys and the girls who do the dirty work of war.