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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

“The war tried to kill us in the spring,” begins this breathtaking account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. Bound together since basic training when their tough-as-nails Sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes impossible actions.
With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, THE YELLOW BIRDS is a groundbreaking novel about the costs of war that is destined to become a classic.

“The All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab wars.” (Tom Wolfe )

“The Yellow Birds is harrowing, inexplicably beautiful, and utterly, urgently necessary.” (Ann Patchett )

“A remarkable first novel…The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined bildungsroman about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing story about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory…Extraordinary.” (The New York Times Michiko Kakutani )

“This is a novel I’ve been waiting for. The Yellow Birds is born from experience and rendered with compassion and intelligence.” (Alice Sebold )

“Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds is written with an intensity which is deeply compelling; every moment, every memory, every object, every move, are conjured up with a fierce and exact concentration and sense of truth.” (Colm Toibin )

“Compelling, brilliantly written, and heart-breakingly true, The Yellow Birds belongs in the same category as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Thus far the definitive novel of our long wars in the Middle East; this book is certain to be read and taught for generations to come.” (Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust )

“A novel about the poetry and the pity of war…Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader.” (Kirkus )

“Reading The Yellow Birds I became certain that I was in the presence of a text that will win plaudits, become a classic, and hold future narratives of the war to a higher standard….a superb literary achievement.” (Chris Cleave )

“Kevin Powers has delivered an exceptional novel from the war in Iraq, written in clean, evocative prose, lyric and graphic, in assured rhythms, a story for today and tomorrow and the next.” (Daniel Woodrell )

“Powers has created a powerful work of art that captures the complexity and life altering realities of combat service. This book will endure. Read it and then put it way up on that high rare shelf alongside Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien.” (Anthony Swofford )

“We haven’t just been waiting for a great novel to come out of the Iraq War, our 21st century Vietnam; we have also been waiting for something more important, a work of art that illuminates our flawed and complex and striving humanity behind all such wars. At last we have both in Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.” (Robert Olen Butler )

“Thoughtful and analytical, the novel resonates as an accurate and deeply felt portrayal of the effects of post-combat syndrome as experienced by soldiers in the disorienting war in Iraq. ” (Library Journal, starred review )

“This moving debut from Powers (a former Army machine gunner) is a study of combat, guilt, and friendship forged under fire….Powers’s style and story are haunting.” (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review )

My Review

The inundated reports of wars and turmoil in the middle-east have created blind eyes and death ears to many as the death toll ever increases and people have lost count on the fallen.
Death seems to not be noticed as much as it should, except that is, for those that have lost loved ones of kin, love, and friendship in these wars plaguing the earth.
This story could possibly win the attention of those guilty of this and make the dead count for those readers in the alien region of understanding this dilemma, you feel the loss the confusion and the betrayal of this unending war in this wonderful stringed together story of fiction that could not be far from truths of the occurrences in the Iraq of recent years. This writer knows the battlefield as he served as a gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, you feel the terrain  in the unrelenting unforgiving desert and the human emotion coupled with the bloody reality of the task the main protagonist had before him.
The author writes of the main protagonist in chapters that alternate from being in Iraq serving with a close buddy Murphy and being in Virginia out of the army. The main protagonist reflections are heart felt and thought provoking and you can’t avoid thinking that the authors actual real experiences and feelings have some play in the content that is categorised as fiction.
Just the right number of pages and chapters sizes made this a one seating read that just hooks you in from its beginning to its end.
His sentences describe the environment eloquently and exactly like you are there in his shoes which immerses you in the whole story.
A memorable story with two key memorable men that will linger in your mind and hopeful not be forgotten as a tragedy and a story of many peoples struggle with war.
Thanks to a very capable writer whose survived a world no one would wish to return to or wish upon your enemy or any another soul to partake in.

“While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. 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. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.”

“War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation with cause and saw a special significance in the portraits of the dead, arranged neatly next to the number corresponding to their place on the growing list of casualties we read in the newspapers, as indications of an ordered war.”

“It was far too dark to see into it, but the images were there like an etching through the night. The stench of the dead had cut itself free from the odors coming from Al Tafar. The trash fires and sewage, the heavy scent of cured lamb, the river; above all this was the stink of decay from the bodies themselves. A shudder ran through my shoulders, a quick shake, as I hoped not to step into the slick mess of one of them as we marched to the fight.”

“When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling. The sunlight fell absently through the spaces in the treetops, here and there glistening as if on water from smudges of bird blood and citrus.”

“Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill then and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you foiled at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead, and you have seen all things die in more manners than you’d like to recall and for a while the whole thing fucking ravaged your spirit like some deep-down shit, man, that you didn’t even realise you had until only the animals made you sad, the husks of dogs filled with explosives and old arty shells and the f****** guts and everything stinking like metal and burning garbage and you walk around and the smell is deep down into you now and you say, How can metal be so on fire? and Where is all this ******* trash coming from? and even back home you’re getting whiffs of it and then that thing you started to notice slipping away is gone and now it’s becoming inverted, like you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so f****** happy to see you, the murderer, the ******* accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some ******* responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can’t explain it but its just, like, Fu** you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on a purpose, so you are in the end doubly f*****, so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and lets make it as painless as possible because you are a coward and, really, cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you a fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now and you’re too much of a coward to be a man and get it over with so why not find a clean, dry place and wait it out with it hurting as little as possible and just wait to go to sleep and not wake up and f***’em all.”

” The dominoes of moments, lined up symmetrically, then tumbling backward against the hazy and unsure push of cause, showed only that a fall is every objects destiny. It is not enough to say what happened.
Everything happened. Everything fell.”

“I took my woobie out of my pack and covered him. I couldn’t look anymore. Most of us had seen death in many forms: the slick mess after a suicide bomber, headless bodies gathered in a ditch like a collection of broken dolls on a child’s shelf, even our own boys sometimes, bleeding and crying as it became apparent that the sound of a casevac was thirty seconds too far in the distance. But none of us had seen this.”


Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 14 September 2012

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