It’s a war that, like many wars, seems to be stripped of any meaning. Pvt. Bartle’s unit sweeps into Al Tafar every year, only to see the enemy take it back. On this next mission, as on others, “People are going to die,” Sgt. Sterling warns Pvt. Bartle. “It’s statistics.”
Early on we learn that one of the men in the unit is fated to die, as Bartle shifts his narrative back and forth between the battles in Al Tafar and a post-deployment reckoning in which he mourns a comrade’s death and is called to answer for the way that young man died.
In Virginia everyone calls Pvt. Bartle a hero, but the honorific feels like a joke, because all he’s done is survive — and the man he promised to protect did not. As time passes, Bartle feels more like a “murderer” and an “accomplice.”
Finally, the lies are just too much to live with, leading Powers to write a startling and angry rant against a country that celebrates its soldiers without understanding the viciousness of the war they went to fight: “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 …”
Powers has the courage to take his readers back to such angry and empty psychic states again and again. The Yellow Birds leaves both its protagonist and its readers in an unsettled, confusing place. Writing from the point of view of a deeply damaged narrator is tricky work, however, and there are passages, including the novel’s final chapter, that feel unpolished and not entirely satisfying.
Still, The Yellow Birds might just be the first American literary masterpiece produced by the Iraq war, even if an imperfect one. It is, without a doubt, a powerful and disturbing statement about the brutality of that conflict, and of the deep wounds inflicted on thousands of our citizen-soldiers.
Hector Tobar reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.