Sunday, December 9, 2012

Page 57: The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is a powerful novel about the Iraq War written by a soldier who has been there.  Tom Wolfe considers this book "The All Quiet on the Western Front of Ameria's Arab wars."  This is a story about friendship and loss involving Privates Bartle and Murphy.  Private Bartle promises Murphy's mother he will protect her son and bring him home alive, a promise their hardened Sergeant Sterling never ceases berating Bartle for making.

As their war unfolds in Al Tafar, Iraq we are witnesses to their story as narrated by Private Bartle.  Even though the story is primarily about the relationship between Bartle and Murphy the other themes of this war become part of the narrative.  These include the proponents of going to war, the neocons and their supporters, sending young soldiers into battle when they themselves managed to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.  There is the colonel who visits their unit accompanied by the media so he has a record of his war.  He leaves with an apology that although he will not be able to lead them into action the next morning, he will be monitoring the battle from his position in the rear.

The war is not glorious, heroic, or even being fought for a good reason.  The professional military personnel fighting the war are there to survive and protect each other while doing the job they have been trained to perform.  They do it well, but many of them pay the ultimate price.  The opening sentence of the book sets the tone.  "The war tried to kill us in the spring."  The next paragraph opens with "Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains."  In a prophetic note this paragraph began with "We hardly noticed a change when September came.  But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then."

This is one of the finest first novels you will read.  Not only is the writing top notch, it should be award winning.  Whatever our feeling about war and especially about our Arab wars in Iraq and Afganistan, this book must be read.  It captures not only the horror of war and its effect on those who fight it, but also on families and loved ones back home.

Here are some comments from other writers:

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

"The minute I read Kevin Powers's marvelous first sentence, I knew I was in the hands of an exceptional writer.  That line is right up there with 'Call me Ishmael.'  The best books transcend their time and circumstances to say something enduring and truthful about war itself.  The Yellow Birds belongs in that category." (Philip Caputo)

"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)

I can't imagine any thoughtful person reading this book and finding it lacking.  This is a classic!

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