The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
(Little, Brown , $24.99) ISBN 978-0-31621936-5
*****
"The war tried to kill us in the spring" is the opening line of The Yellow Birds, a book that has been likened to All Quiet on the Western Front" for America's Iraq War.

Told from the perspective of Private John Bartle, the novel skips from Al Tafar, Nineveh Province in Iraq to Fort Dix, New Jersey, Germany, Richmond, Virginia and Kentucky almost on an alternating basis covering the time period 2003-2009. One presumes this disjointedness is deliberate as it serves to emphasize the dissociation †Bartle is undergoing as the days pass in Iraq.

In Al Tafar they are fighting to control the city. The reader never learns why this is an important task. Rather we are treated to the futility of the chore, as the soldiers seem to take one step forward and one step backward for the entire time, leaving plenty of time to dwell on the cruelty and futility and often stupidity of the participant's actions.

The retreats to the non-Iraq locations are not truly flashbacks but contribute to the building or piecing together of the story of Bartle and his young friend Private Murphy. Before shipping out Bartle makes a promise to Murphy's mother that he will take care of Murphy and this becomes Bartle's mantra. It is a promise that the reader learns early was not kept. The reader thus focuses early on the obvious endpoint; that is to say Murphy's death - the how, the why and where the blame should be laid.

The chapters covering the time spent in Iraq are bleak, painfully graphic and brutal set within the background of the sameness of the desert, the sameness of the battles, the sameness of the days and the sameness of the results.

The non-Iraq chapters begin to paint a portrait of a very young man who gradually begins to disconnect from the world as a result of the horror of the war. While in Iraq he had spent his entire time wanting nothing more than to stay alive and return home. Once that happened he did not know how to handle it.

Upon returning to the US, Bartlesí condition in many ways becomes more desperate than the days spent waiting for an incoming mortar attack to kill him. As he sinks to his lowest point, his efforts at rebuilding the pieces of the war highlight his desperate need to find an acceptable pattern to it.

This book is an eye opener. Those of us who are not soldiers are unable to comprehend what they go through; that said - this book demands that we acknowledge the reality that often the mind fractures before the body. So often that splintering is harder or more impossible to cure.

--Thea Davis


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