Machine gunner and poet? Two absurdly contradictory roles. Kevin Powers is both, as well as an extremely talented author. A Michener Fellow of Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin, Powers served as a machine gunner in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005. His novel The Yellow Birds, inspired by his own experiences of war, is a superb book, heart wrenching, moving and beautifully written.
The story is told from the perspective of John Bartle, a twenty-one year old army recruit from Virginia whose motivation for signing up is to become ‘a man’. He is partnered up with Daniel Murphy, a somewhat naive eighteen-year old. As they are about to leave for Iraq, Bartle promises Murphy’s distraught mother ‘to bring Murphy back’. Later, Sergeant Sterling, their team leader, tells Murphy to get into Bartle’s back pocket and stay there.
It doesn’t bode well for Bartle.
Off he goes to Iraq where his mission to become a man becomes a mission to survive and stay sane. Powers brilliantly portrays military life, the lack of a clear purpose, the cynicism of the superiors, the senseless brutality and graphic violence. Didn’t know what a body bomb was? Well, you will after reading this book.
We knew the muezzin’s song would soon warble its eerie fabric of minor notes out from the minarets, calling the faithful to prayer. It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns and dusks with which it came.
Who survives and who dies is, of course, random, but Murphy and Bartle seeks to rationalise it, to make it a known entity, which can somehow be understood and predicted. The exhaustion, disillusion and fear make them increasingly cynical.
I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.
Murphy dies, of course, as we learn early on in the novel, but the exact circumstances around his death are not revealed until the end and are not exactly flattering to Bartle. He returns to America, guilt ridden and haunted by memories of the battlefield, to be met by his mother at the airport. Their quiet, emotional reunion, beautifully described, will bring a tear to every mother’s eye:
I don’t know how long we stood there like that, with me hunching down to be embraced, but I forgot the sounds of the motor and the people walking past, I forgot the travellers who called out their thanks to me. I was aware of my mother and of her alone. I felt as if I’d somehow been returned to the singular safety of the womb, untouched and untouchable to the world outside her arms around my slouching neck.
As much as war itself, The Yellow Birds deals with the aftermath. Adjusting to civilian life proves almost impossible for Bartle and, as he embarks on an emotional roller coaster, the reader clings on behind him.
You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for lack of will, but lack of space.
Bartle is puzzled by the gratitude of his countrymen. Strangers come up to him on the street to thank him. Thank me for what, Bartle wonders, for shooting old Iraqi ladies?
The Yellow Birds is about war and what it is really like, about the consequences of lies, friendship and loyalty. Powers’ talent for poetry is evident in his sparse, concise writing; his imagery is crystal clear and stays with you for a long time. It is a tough book, but it is an extraordinarily good tough book. There have been few books dealing with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; this book is a timely reminder of what actually goes on. Powers, a modern day war novelist on par with Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Heller, should be read by all.