I have absolutely no concept of what a war zone is like or how serving in a conflict might affect a soldier. I suspect many of those who read The Yellow Birds would be the same. I have listened to stories from ex-servicemen about their experiences in past conflicts, and although I feel better informed about specific events, their remembrances make me no better acquainted with how their minds were affected by what they witnessed. How can anyone truly appreciate the emotions such an experience elicits without going through it themselves? Upon his return from the middle east, Iraq veteran Kevin Powers was apparently constantly asked “what’s it like over there.” Possibly like many soldiers he struggled to describe what he felt. In his début novel he has created an emotionally powerful story that sheds some light on what can happen when human experiences are stretched to extremes.
John Bartle is a young soldier heading for Iraq. A new recruit, Murph, even younger than John, attaches himself to our narrator for safety and friendship. They are led by the slightly older, more experienced, confident and seemingly invincible Stirling, who gives them constant advice on survival in the hell to come.
Remember your fundamentals and you’ll be able to do what needs to be done. It’s hard at first, but it’s simple. Anyone can do it. Get a steady position and a good sight picture… and squeeze. For some people it’s tough after, but most people do it when the time comes…Just gotta dig deep, find that nasty streak.
Stirling is very specific about self-discipline and focus being the answer to survival, but he also offers the reminder that
People are going to die…it’s statistics
At the beginning of the book Bartle and Murph have a poignant conversation about the number of US Army casualties in their war edging closer to the number 1000. They pray that neither of them will become the thousandth casualty, an early indication that they feel their demise is inevitable rather than avoidable and a sad reality that the statistics Stirling speaks of are not necessarily in their favour.
The action tracks back and forth between Iraq and Bartle’s experiences once home after his tour of duty. We witness various assaults on enemy positions when adrenaline is pumping, the soldiers are on autopilot and all sympathy for anyone in their sight has been burnt away in the heat of the desert. We then witness Bartle’s inability to cope with being back home and facing family and friends.
I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loved me for it and it’s driving me crazy.
Murph’s fate in this war also weighs heavy on Bartle and he tries to avoid the consequences, but they eventually catch up with him. In a way this procedural element of the story interested me less than Bartle’s slide into breakdown while trying to make sense of how things have ended up the way they have.
Powers’ descriptions of the fear, agitation and horrors felt by these men is the sort of writing that makes those emotions almost palpable to the reader. At the same time Bartle notices details around him whilst in the thick of fighting that you feel he should not even be aware of, and this combination of abhorrence and normality gives his account an authenticity.
His descriptions of the land- and town-scapes around Al Tafar, Iraq are vivid, as are those of Bartle’s surroundings once home. Bartle feels safety and peace in the forests near his home and heads there for sanctuary. There are many references to water in The Yellow Birds; rivers, lakes and ponds all feature heavily. Water has the power to cleanse, rivers are always in motion, moving ahead to their destination and not going back, and this is ultimately what Bartle is seeking; to wash away his memories of Al Tafar. The imagery is obvious to me, but I don’t know if it’s intentional!
The only thing that put me off this book slightly, is nothing to do with the content itself, more to do with the number of blurbs on the jacket. There are some serious literary heavyweights who have made quite lofty comments. This book doesn’t need that sort of support, it stands up perfectly well on its own. I might not have bought this book for myself due to the blurbs, however it was a Christmas gift and I’m glad I’ve read it. I suspect The Yellow Birds heralds the beginning of many more post Iraq books on the horizon and there will be other amazing stories among those to come, but for the time being Powers has set the standard and the bar is high.
Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat will be discussing this book as part of her Literature and War Readalong on 28th Jan