“What’s it like over there?”
This was the question that prompted Kevin Powers to write The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown and Company, 2012) after serving as a machine gunner in Iraq. People wanted to know more than what the news was showing and the journalists were writing, they wanted to know “what it felt like; physically, emotionally and psychologically,” Powers said in a recent interview in The Guardian. Powers responded by digging down into the meat of his experience and writing an emotionally raw, lyrically beautiful, unflinching account of one young man’s tour of duty. The Yellow Birds gets right to the heart of issue: the conflict between what soldiers are told to do by their superiors and what their conscience tells them to do. The three main characters in the story all find different ways to resolve this conflict, and all three face different consequences.
The Yellow Birds is as fearlessly written as anything I’ve read. It’s a mad scramble of words that burn and smoke in piles of terrifying and beautiful images. Powers writes with freewheeling desperation, digging in and staying down for long periods of time, immersing the reader in the textures, sounds, and sights of the Iraq of his memory. Like memory itself, the book layers images on top of one another until things that are hard to look at directly come into a hazy focus. It’s as close to the truth as most of us can stand.
While many of the servicemen and women returning from Iraq may not be able to tell us what it was like ‘over there’, Kevin Powers can. I like to think that Kevin Powers made the decision to try to process his experience with the Iraq war into something positive, something life affirming, when he wrote this novel. The Yellow Birds is not an easy book to read, but it is necessary, if we want to know (and we should all want to know) what is really happening to our young men and women when they fight for this county. Please read it.