*The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012)

What strikes me most about Powers’ writing is that it’s poetic and yet raw and real.  It includes as many f-bombs as most Vietnam books, but the anger and disillusionment are handled more subtly.  They’re always there–seething, hiding, boiling—but we get them in a less brutal fashion.  Yet no less painful.  Perhaps that’s because we see this war through the eyes of two boys.  At 18 and 21 they’re so innocent they can hardly fathom the complexity and the ugliness of this war they’re fighting but do not understand.  And Murph, the younger of the two, simply comes undone.  He’s only a year older than my son.  How could someone that age have any idea how to handle the confusion and stress of witnessing so much death?


In the first chapter, Powers pulls us in with a number of descriptions of the seasons: “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 cities and towns…Then, in summer the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains…The war had killed thousands by September.  Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals.”  Thus starts his story of two boys who look at other people’s deaths as some sort of false affirmation for their own safety.  If it was someone else’s time, then it was not theirs.  But they discovered that death in war is limitless.  It does not matter who comes before you.  Your time can still be next.


This story shifts back and forth in time.  From 2004 when Bartle and Murph are out of patrol with their platoon to 2003 when they’re in boot camp together to 2005 when Bartle comes home to 2009 when he’s looking back on his days in Iraq and the fallout from his actions and from the war itself.  The damage permeates his world both during the war and long after. This is a somber and reflective story.  We don’t see the boredom or the fatigue or even the crazy humor of so many other war stories.  We see mostly emptiness.  Excellent writing.  (fiction)

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