THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers

Although this novel is set during the ongoing war in Iraq, Kevin Powers does not attempt to document U.S. military strategies or examine the political objectives behind this controversial campaign.

Instead, it is a study of the psychological impact of the horror of warfare on one soldier, John Bartle, and, in the author’s words, it aims “to create the cartography of one man’s consciousness”.

As a result, the tension derives from the trauma Bartle experiences rather than from the logistics of battle.

This narrative device enables us to see inside his tortured mind when asked the simple question : What happened over there? :
“What happened? What fucking happened? That’s not even the question, I thought. How is that the question? How do you answer the unanswerable? To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery. 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 object’s destiny. It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell”.

The story covers a period from December 2003 to April 2009, though is not told in a linear fashion. The key events take place in Al Tafar, Noneveh Province, Iraq in September and October 2004, but we are also taken back to an army training camp in Fort Dix, New Jersey and forward to Bartle’s return from duty to Richmond, Virginia where he is hailed as a conquering hero but feels like a fraud.

Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers

The expression of his sorrow for the past events and the loss of a close companion are what drive the novel. This is not really a spoiler since we learn early on that this friend, Daniel Murphy (Murph), is destined not to return from the front line.

The elegiac prose places a deliberate emphasis on language so that the hideous poses of decaying corpses are viewed as “an echo of some morbid geometry”. Climatic conditions are frequently rendered in similarly poetic terms as in a description that “the sun set like a clot of blood on the horizon”.

Lines like this are highly evocative but also mean there is very little space given to factual information or scene setting.

If Bartle has any inkling of what he is fighting for, we are not privy to these thoughts although the fact that he describes America as “the land of the free, of reality television, outlet malls and deep vein thrombosis” hardly makes it sound like his homeland is worth dying for.

He is merely a soldier carrying out orders “to do great violence in the cause of good” and the Iraqi people are depicted as anonymous enemies in an “unknown corner of the world”.

Ultimately, Powers achieves his modest aim to tell “a small part of the truth about the war” but, through his flawed anti-hero, also recognises that the memory can play tricks.

Standing in a church in Germany away from the thick of the action, John Bartle reflects: “there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told and what was true. And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which”.