Full of raw emotion, Powers’ The Yellow Birds refuses to back off
from war’s details or sugarcoat the high cost of battle. Narrated by John Bartle, a twenty-one-year-old soldier who is about to be posted to his first tour of duty in the Iraq War, what might
initially seem melodramatic from a less talented writer soon becomes more honest and forthright. Through John’s eyes, we see up close and personal the results of the specific kinds of horrors of war.
Spinning a dark literary metaphor for survival, Powers’ gift for poetic description is on considerable display as he drops us into the Iraqi city of Al Tafar, where his soldiers must have nerves of steel and a willingness to expose themselves to constant danger and tension. Al Tafar is a decimated mess--broken, shattered and bent, bodies scattered about “in white shifts dark with blood.” From the scattered dwellings comes a heady
drift of carbon and bolt oil as Bartle’s platoon moves in the gray streaks of predawn, jostling with the flickering half-light as the thin fog slowly dissipates off the Tigris.
In a story rich in language and in action, the reader is forced to think seriously about the choices Bartle and his best mate, Daniel “Murph” Murphy, must make on a daily basis. Revealing the hints of a life, Bartle becomes an observer who is honest only in his wistful acknowledgment of his home life in Virginia as he recalls his promise to Murph’s mother to bring her precious son home to her. From the time Murph appears in formation in New Jersey, the snow high over his boots, their friendship becomes a fulcrum
on which Bartle teeters back and forth in time, showing us how the Iraq war broke everything apart.
Just as these memories impact Bartle’s life without warning, this story impacts the reader's perception of the frustration and horror of living with memories that superimpose
themselves over the mundane tasks of civilian life, from the tracers and the bullets “with your name on it" to an IED “buried just for you.”
Eighteen soldiers watch the alleys and streets of Al Tafar through the night while many of their enemies lay dead in a dusty field. Bartle recollects these events from his position of safety in a warm cabin above a clear stream in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, layering his strands of memory into a delicate mosaic of the past and present.
The book appears to be largely Powers' cathartic and therapeutic attempt to understand and to cope with war’s presence in a life populated by something more substantial than “dirt roads and dead dreams.” Pale minarets are dominated by black smoke; Murph comes to resemble a “half-ghost,” while Bartle finds it hard to remember if he saw any hint of what is to come. Powers contrasts the two men: Murph, the young and tempestuous war adventurer whose tales of heroism are clearly more troubled and ambiguous than he suggests; and Bartle, whose measured ache falls woefully short of what he truly desires.
The dust covers everything in Al Tafar, the days passing into other days in sharp disquiet. Bartle is just one uniform in a sea of numbers and “a number in a sea of dust.” Exploring the notion of life and death, Powers pulls no punches as his main protagonist comes to the realization that each death is an affirmation of all of our lives. Back from Al Tafar, everything Bartle can recall about the war flashes kaleidoscopically: death in its many forms; the slick mess of a suicide bomber; a headless body sprawled upon a bridge; and fierce Lt. Sterling,
who lives for danger and adrenalin and who excels in death, brutality and
domination but seems averse to the more mundane but muddier details of commitment and family life. In gritty, artful tones, The Yellow Birds addresses the notion that war is about self-sacrifice.
Like the dust and smoke from the last of the mortars that dissipates and floats away toward sparse clouds, Bartle’s experiences are both heart-wrenching and riveting: from the brotherhood, to the horror, to his responsibility and guilt over his best friend, Powers uses his hero to posit the notions of choice and how our search for freewill is perhaps just an illusion.