“The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onwards through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”
The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers
While serving in the army in Iraq, Bartle and Murph told each other that the important thing is to avoid being the thousandth American military death of the conflict. If they died before or after, fine, they’d accept it, but neither of them wanted to claim the milestone for themselves. But war is about more than numbers, and when Bartle returns home without Murph, he is haunted by the promise he made Murph’s mother, and the actions he took in the wake of her son’s death.
Written by an Iraq veteran, The Yellow Birds is a different kind of war novel. Though the language used is often figurative to the point of flowery, the plot is pared back so that small moments expand beyond the moment they occupied in time, much like memories to create a realistic representation of lingering post-traumatic stress. The narrative is erratic, slightly disjointed so that through words of the introspective Bartle with his meandering descriptions of the bloodless, ghostlike Murph and seemingly sociopathic Sergeant Sterling, Kevin Powers creates a convincing portrait of three men bound and broken by a war beyond their control.
I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, because enjoyed is too light a word. It was both too realistic and too consciously stylised for that. Reading felt like an act of voyeurism, as though the book was an effort by the author to define and accept his experiences of war and I was spying on someone’s private nightmare. But it is a novel that lingers in its honesty, and, being about as far removed as it’s possible to be from the offerings of Chris Ryan and the like, is a powerful contrast to the vast swathes of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour narratives of modern warfare.