Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna
“We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages”. Then “they’d come back, and we’d start all over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts… while drinking tea in front of their shops… We’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.” This is how 21-year-old Private John Bartle, the narrator of the critically acclaimed The Yellow Birds, describes the theatre of war.
Shortlisted this month for the Guardian First Book Award, Kevin Powers’ debut has been called “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars” by Tom Wofle. Author and Iraq war veteran, Powers’ compact but philosophically complex work investigates how conflict dictates and destroys the lives of soldiers on the modern frontlines. Deployed as a machine gunner in the US army, Powers served in Iraq in 2004-2005, when he was just seventeen. Here, he is able to lend Bartle an intensely lyrical voice as he travels with a platoon navigating insurgent attacks, bombings, death, and general mayhem in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Capturing the life-changing realities of combat service, the novel details how modern warfare can destroy the emotional state of young men and women mostly unprepared to face an elusive enemy that never tires or retreats. Explaining why such storytelling is essential, Powers says it helped him understand the nature and aftermath of the conflict.
The Yellow Birds opens in September 2004 in the village of Al Tafar where “The war tried to kill us in the spring… While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer”. When leaving for Iraq, Bartle promises the mother of 18-year-old Private Murphy that he would bring her son back alive. It’s a promise that isn’t just difficult but impossible to keep. “It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our lives. That each one of those deaths belonged to a time and that therefore that time was not ours… I used to think that maybe living under that contradiction had guided my actions and that one decision made or unmade in adherence to this philosophy could have put me or kept me off the list of the dead,” he says. After witnessing intense street fighting, with rooftops strewn with bullet casings, bodies mangled on streets, civilians used as human shields and gunned down mercilessly, Bartle becomes jaded. Under the command of the battle-hardened Sergeant Sterling ordering his platoon to face the enemy and death stoically lest they be sent home in a body bag, these young men fail to grasp the enemy or even why they are battling “ordinary” people, often mistaken for insurgents. Bartle reflects on his relationship with Sterling and the latter’s control over his platoon: “I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me… I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire”.
What becomes more apparent through the narration is how the military is unable to differentiate — as has been reported from combat zones — local civilians from insurgents hiding among villagers as the fast-moving pace of urban warfare categorises every moving target as the enemy. These observations are weaved into the narrative with lyrical ease and truth, describing encounters with the unidentifiable bodies of enemy “hajji” fighters, civilian women and anonymous men whose corpses have been dismembered and transformed into bombs. He describes an orchard where the platoon, seemingly ill-prepared to face the enemy, are lined up along a ditch in “soupy muck”, like a “poorly designed experiment in inevitability”, terrified of dying when the mortars fall. There’s a feeling of cowardly silence that envelopes a peaceful orchard of fruits and birds that lie in “scattered piles” when the mortars struck.
Justifying their actions while shooting at anything that moved, Bartle notes resignedly, “What kind of men are we?” He must watch defenceless women and children as they are hit by a volley of bullets from a rooftop, watch them slump, watch as a young girl emerges towards the dead woman lying on the street “her face contorted with effort as she pulled the old woman by her one complete arm… The path they made was marked in blood”. There is an underlying sense of confusion and agony when it comes to the cruelties inflicted on combatants and civilians. Bartle becomes the ruthless “killer” who is besieged with guilt when unable to protect his friend Murphy. “We only grieved those we knew,” he explains, wondering how he can keep his promise to Murphy’s mother, knowing his young friend is unable to process the atrocities of war. “All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth, in the dirt or up through the pavement like flowers after a frost,” he says. Murphy disappears and dies under strange circumstances, emotionally wrecked after witnessing the death of a young female medic in an explosion.
The narrative alternates between 2003 and 2009 in Iraq, Virginia, Germany and New Jersey, with a fractured structure to the storyline. As a reader one is disturbed as much by the harrowing reflections on war and violence as by what this conflict can do to soldiers psychologically and physically.
The pressure to hold villages and capture insurgents intensifies as Powers records the “colonel’s voice”: “We’re gonna drop mortars in that rathole for two hours before dawn …We’re counting on you, boys. The people of the United States are counting on you. You may never do anything this important again in your entire lives”. Just like war, when nothing is certain, the novel doesn’t focus on an evolving plot, nor does it bring in more than two or three main protagonists and has no predictable epilogue. Yet it answers the question many often asked of Iraq (and Afghanistan): what it was like over there.
The focus of the novel is personal and it paints a portrait of war from the perspective of a soldier who goes with the flow, barely realising the consequences. Bartle’s platoon battles on the Iraqi frontlines with Powers interspersing periods from his life post-Iraq; the consequences of his promise to Private Murphy’s mother and the reaction of the upper echelons of the army when he is identified as the fall-guy punished for the events that autumn.
The title of the novel comes from a traditional US army marching cadence: “A yellow bird/With a yellow bill/Was perched upon my windowsill/ I lured him in/ With a piece of bread/ And then I smashed his f…ing head/”. The novel provides a picture of war in its entirety, taking the reader away from the frontlines by portraying the deep recesses and psychological trauma of soldiers when they return home. A CNN report states that more than 7,700 coalition troops have died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; 6,400 are US troops. At least 3,171 troops have died in IED attacks in both wars. However, earlier this year some shocking US army data showed that more army personnel are believed to have taken their own lives than killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The stress of wanting and having to stay alive is something that most returning servicemen and women rarely talk about. Memory not only distracts but haunts and angers when they’ve watched others die. That’s when the futility of wars that have no winners or losers begins to expose damaged and wounded veterans, say military analysts.
When Bartle is discharged from the army, he remembers Murphy losing his mind to war, his brain filled with memories that fail to disengage. There is no sequence or timing to these thoughts which makes it challenging for the reader. They could be attributed to Powers exploring his own inner conflict and perhaps creating the novel as a cathartic process. “The trees outside the window of the taxi made a silver blur, but I could clearly see the green buds of spring … It reminded me of war … my memories would seem closer the farther I got from the circumstances that gave birth to them,” he narrates in the epilogue.
The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald
By Kevin Powers