The Yellow Birds by Kevin Anderson (2012) 226 p.

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel from Kevin Powers, a former American soldier who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Like many first novels, it’s partly autobiographical, and writing it clearly served as a healing process for some of the things Powers did and saw while at war. It can sometimes be hard to tell where the autobiography ends and the novel begins, until it starts to go down some dark places towards the end.

The novel is narrated by John Bartle, a stand-in for Powers, and features a back-and-forth chronology that jumps between the Bartle’s time in Nineveh Province and his home back in Virginia (with a brief interlude on the way home, in Germany). Bartle’s best friend in Iraq – or maybe they were just forced together by circumstance – is Murph, a 19-year-old private. We learn early on that Murph will not survive, which is a problem for Bartle, since he promised Murph’s mother he’d bring him back safe. At first it appears that this is all that haunts Bartle back home, until it’s gradually implied that there’s more to it than that – specifically, about halfway through the book, when Bartle’s mother mentions that the military’s Criminal Investigation Division is looking for him.

The Yellow Birds has been critically acclaimed, and it deserves to be. Anderson is a gifted writer with a talent for beautiful prose, and the novel is littered with insights that could only come from somebody who has genuinely been through hell and lived to talk about it. That’s what The Yellow Birds is ultimately about – survival, not death. After all, more American soldiers in Iraq lived than died, but the people who came back certainly weren’t the same ones who went there. (In some years, more US troops have died from suicide than combat.) Throughout much of the book, Bartle expects to die, and seems bewildered when he doesn’t. He comes back to America a scarred and broken man with a terrible secret.

Some have called it the definitive Iraq War novel, which I disagree with. It’s too early for there to be one, for a start, but in any case The Yellow Birds isn’t really a novel about war – it’s a novel about coming home after being at war. In that category, at least, it’s a brilliant accomplishment, and I’ll be very interested to see what Kevin Powers writes next.

I would leave it at that, but there’s one more thing I want to discuss. Since it involves the ending of the plot, I’m placing it below a spoiler warning, and I do strongly recommend you read this book, so don’t peek:

 

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, AVERT YOUR EYES

 

What bothered me about the ending was that Bartle is far, far more wracked with guilt about what he and Sterling did with Murph’s body than he is about the fact that Sterling casually murdered the cartwright to cover it up. Robbing a mother of the closure of her son’s corpse is a dreadful thing, but killing somebody who didn’t have to die is far worse. What about his mother? What about his family?

This would be understandable if Bartle had been portrayed as a gung-ho fuck-em-up GI Joe figure who only cares about Americans and doesn’t give a flying fuck about “hajjis,” but he wasn’t. There are multiple points in the book where he expresses guilt and remorse about killing Iraqi insurgents in the heat of battle – yet he expresses no qualms about being accessory to the murder of an Iraqi civilian in cold blood. Even if he is understandably more upset about an action which affected those he personally knew, and which he had a slightly more direct hand in, and which he had to suffer through the ramifications of, I still found it odd and out of character for not a single sentence to be expressed in remorse about the killing of the cartwright. The fact that the scene easily could have been written without the cartwright only adds to my confusion. Powers deliberately included this casual shooting, but I can’t figure out why; it seems to be at odds with the rest of the novel.

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