April 14, 2015
"The war tried to kill us in the spring." From the first sentence of The Yellow Birds, we know that we are in capable hands. Kevin Powers is the well-named author who uses his formidable talent with understated power.
Private Bartle and his buddy Private Murphy do all they can to keep from becoming the one thousandth American death in Iraq. Yet thinking only of staying alive, they descend into deadness. The killing and destruction around them make them numb to life. They become increasingly incapable of experiencing joy or sorrow, hope or fear, love or hate.
Ten or twenty pages into this short novel, I thought, this is like an updated All Quiet on the Western Front. Like that classic, this is a first-person tale of a soldier caught in a war he doesn't quite understand, though the setting here is recent-day Iraq instead of early twentieth-century Europe. In both books the humanity of the main character fades away as each shocking, gruesome and agonizing experience loses its potency and becomes just one more event in a string of unremarkable events.
One of the ironies of my own reading was that halfway through the book I noticed the blurb on the front cover from Tom Wolfe: "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars." And so it is.
Powers effectively uses the technique of shifting back and forth between the war and Private Bartle's time back home afterward. It's a good thing too. We could not take the unrelenting grimness of his war experiences. We as readers need to go on leave ourselves.
Without a doubt this is the best-written book I've read in the past year. Certainly one of the most potent in many a year.