The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers – Book Review

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette

The war tried to kill us in the spring…. Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all the color from the plains…. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. -p. 3-4

Private John Bartle is physically back from Iraq, but his experiences there have left him missing something, a piece of his humanity. Private Bartle was stationed with his platoon in Ninevah province, an area where gains and losses seem almost cyclical, taking a step forward now only to take a step back in six months. While in Iraq, Bartle made it a mission to watch over a younger soldier, Private Daniel Murphy, a mission that will haunt him more than perhaps anything else he witnessed there.

I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed…. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare. -p. 11

The Yellow Birds is an incredibly affecting novel of the war in Iraq. Powers is himself an Iraqi war veteran, and the emotions he describes both of the time during the war and the time after coming home.

What would I say? “Hey, how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “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 loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.” Right. -p. 144

Although it is a physically slight novel, The Yellow Birds is hugely powerful. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how war affects our soldiers and I would not be surprised to find it as required reading by the time my children are in high school, despite some strong language., perhaps even replacing All Quiet on the Western Front.

Very highly recommended.

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