“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers / Tuesday, September 11, 2012 / Reviewed by Clay Stafford

Today’s featured book is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.

Why Clay Stafford chose this book:

This is a book that will change the way you look at war and what an appropriate book to release on 9/11. It is the fictional story of Private John Bartle who enlisted in the U.S. Army with the patriotic goal of fighting the war in Iraq. It is a novel written from experience by Iraq veteran Kevin Powers. When I opened the book, I did not know exactly what to expect. A traditional U.S. Army marching song immediately set the tone for “The Yellow Birds.” I can’t repeat the words here, but for those who have never served in the military suffice it to say it would shock your mother and, in the case of this novel, the words are prophetic as the novel unfolds in two concurrent storylines telling us what happened to one character and what another character did that was so bad. It is a beautifully written book and the comparison between home (as the main character knew it before the war), the war itself, and the main character’s view of home after the war is pure poetry. It encompasses a surreality of war that those of us who have never been can never know. Powerful. Emotional. Real. Disturbing. Phrases such as “Murph’s always going to be eighteen, and he’s always going to be dead” and “We were grooms before a marriage” stick in your head once you see the context. I felt the fear and confusion in the prose as 18-year-old idealistic kids dressed as U.S. soldiers were expected to handle atrocities with no preparation led by other kids while the commanders stayed behind in their control centers talking to the press about patriotism. There is a parental toll and the concerned requests of a parent (“Promise that you’ll bring him home to me”) becomes a death sentence. Having lived through the Vietnam War before this current incarnation, I would have to agree that “the world makes liars of us all,” that “there is a sharp distinction between what we remembered, what was told, and what was true.” Each line is poetry, the passion of life, the inevitability of death. As the kid soldiers are losing their minds, I could not help but grow angry at the posturing and attitude of those safely behind the lines of fire, the brass shows for the press, and the duplicitousness hidden behind the ruse of nationalism. Having had family members and close friends who have fought and served, I recognized those returning home, coming back to civilian life, constantly grabbing for the rifle between their legs that was no longer there, the isolation of coming home, the guilt of being alive. At times, the novel became unpleasant and I wanted to stop reading and spare myself, yet I could not, as my mind filled with the mental picture of the barbaric animals we were sent to fight and the impulsive, lost animals we created in our own jingoistic zeal. “I could not tell what was true and what I had invented but I wanted it to stop,” the main character says. I could not agree more. It is not about doing what is honorable or right, for even the best intentions in this novel do not go unpunished. I’ve heard it claimed that the wars in my lifetime have been about freedom and I know there are past wars that have, but I challenge anyone to read this book and tell me where freedom fits into this narrative. For those writers who wish to write honestly about war, this is the first book in some time that gives an honest portrayal. For those political loyalists, warhawks, and La-Z-Boy commanders ardent on sending other people’s kids off to war, this should be required reading. Like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Red Badge of Courage” before it, I predict a long-life for this book for it is one that is not easily forgotten.

From Amazon:

“A novel written by a veteran of the war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds is the harrowing story of two young soldiers trying to stay alive.

“The war tried to kill us in the spring.” So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.

In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined.

With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds is a groundbreaking novel that is destined to become a classic.”

If you want to make your own comments on this selection, we would love to hear from you. Join ourFacebook Killer Nashville group page or our blog and join in the discussion.

Remember that these books are listed at a discount through Amazon. You also don’t have to purchase the version that is featured here. Many of these books are available in multiple formats: e–book, hardcover, softcover, and audio. Enjoy!

– Clay Stafford, Founder of Killer Nashville