Review of Kevin Powers' Yellow Birds
Since September 11, 2001 as a nation, America has developed the mentality of romanticizing the military soldier and protecting our citizens from the ugly realities of war. Our media rarely shows the photos or footage of the dead bodies in bombed cities, the innocent victims like the women, children, elderly and instead seems to focus more on the heroic acts of squad leaders protecting their men or the heartwarming welcome home videos of dads surprising their children in schools or the tear stained face of a young wife as her husband gets on a bus to leave for parts unknown. When atrocities do come to light such as waterboarding or mass photos of US soldiers urinating on POW’s, instead of outrage at the inhumanity of the actions, our society now responds with “but they took down or towers” and even go so far as to use the events of September 11, 2001 as a reason to hate an entire group of people based solely on their looks or religious practices and it is accepted without argument most times. While we seem to have learned our lessons from Vietnam and how not to treat our returning military, it feels as if we’ve gone overboard in refusing to acknowledge war is ugly, it leaves behind a trail of blood, and it changes a man sometimes not for the better. Powers uses his experiences as a backdrop for fictionalizing Yellow Birds and in doing so shows the readers the reality and the ugliness of war that we seem so eager to avoid.
Powers uses narrative prose that is almost poetic at times to describe the events taking place in Al Tafar between US military and Iraq. He introduces us to characters who are battle weary, who have grown unaffected by the death that surrounds them, and who are broken. Although we see these characters and their flaws from the very beginning, Powers skillfully takes us back in time when these men weren’t so emotionless. Murph, Bartle, and Sterling they all change as a result of the war and none of them for the better. While it takes Powers a bit before flashing back to the first time Murph and Bartle meet and become comrades, it is in those instances we see the men they used to be, before they were men. They still carried their youth on their faces and their naivety in their words. They had yet to meet death head on and still viewed it as something that was not part of their future, not something they would experience. Sterling on the other hand, he has seen the brutality, smelled the death, had the blood on his hands and he knew what was going on. It is in Sterling we see what will soon become of Murph and Bartle, the coldness and the almost cruelty that has overtaken him will also soon overtake the young soldiers preparing for the battle, literally of their lives.
It is because of the cluelessness, for lack of a better word, of the young Murph and Bartle that Bartle makes the promise to Murph’s mother to take care of her son and keep him safe during their deployment. It is a promise you don’t make to the mother of a solider because it is not a promise that can be kept. Only someone who has never been in war would believe you can keep someone safe in a battle zone. These are still teenagers, 19 years old, and young adults in their very early twenties whose closest experience with a bombing is in maneuvers during training where precautions are in place and the explosions are expected.
Although we, as readers, have been given glimpses of who they were before war later in the novel, Powers strongly delivers early on just what has become of these soldiers. The complete lack of feeling at the death of their guide Malik, the fact that they only view death as a thing that happens rather than a loss of human life shows just how far they have gone from the back roads of rural Virginia in just a matter of months. But, Powers saves the best (or worst) for last when rather than allow Murph to be buried with some dignity having been a sacrifice for his country, they choose instead to dump his body in a river and just walk away. That is the reality of what war has done to these men. It has desensitized them and in a sense taken their souls. That is the ugly reality of war, the reality that the American society doesn’t want to acknowledge because to acknowledge it would mean we have to do something about it. War isn’t humane. It is cruel, it is ugly, it is nasty and that is what Murph’s death represents. It doesn’t matter at whose hands his death occurred, the fact that his disposal was done by the hands he trusted is the cruelest thing of all.
If we want to look deeper at what Powers has done with this novel, it could be said it is an attempt to get the public to realize just what war does to the mental health of those who go into battle and when they come home they are denied proper mental health care. Powers show readers exactly what is laying on the battlefields—the bodies, the burned flesh, the gouged eyeballs, the wounded children dragging dead grandparents from bullet ridden vehicles. It isn’t huge welcome home parades full of waving flags, lemonade, and apple pie. It isn’t the dad surprising his daughter at an assembly. This is the reality and we have to make sure these men and women are taken care of when they come home for the horrors they see, the horrors they experience, and the loss of themselves because they leave who they were on the fields of enemy territory with every bullet fired, with ever grenade launched, and ever building burned. The souls of American soldiers are left on the fields in some foreign land even through their bodies step off planes to patriotic playing bands.