“What was it like over there?” That was the question Kevin Powers fielded most on his return from serving in the US army in Mosul and Tal Afar, iraq in 2004 and 2005. The Yellow Birds (named after a violent army marching chant) is his attempt “to create the cartography of one man’s consciousness, to let it stand, however briefly, as my reminder.”
Like Powers, central character John Bartle is a private in the US army and serving in Iraq. Bartle befriends naive Daniel “Murph” Murphy and, under the eye of an irascible, emotionally scarred sergeant called Sterling, they go to war. The horrifying moments of war are described with scary detachment. When their translator is shot dead, Bartle reflects: “i didn’t think about Malik much after that. He was an incidental figure who only seemed to exist in his relation to my continuing life.” These scenes of war are broken by Bartle’s home visits, which he waits for impatiently while in iraq, only to feel disconnected and isolated when he arrives.
The sadness and desperation of war is everywhere: dawn raids carried out by exhausted, terrified soldiers; civilians shot dead; a decapitated body that turns out to be a bomb. All the while, the soldiers remain fearless: “We only pay attention to rare things. And death was not rare.” it’s an uncomfortable, sad and deftly written story – and one that can stand tall with the great war novels that preceded it.