The title of the book is derived from a traditional U.S. Army marching cadence or call-and-response marching song sung by military personnel when preparing for combat. In Kevin Powers’ powerful and touching novel, “The Yellow Birds,” the finality and futility of war comes to life. Innocence is lost, one way or another, and no one escapes.
In exquisite prose, Powers’ story is told through the eyes of 21-year-old Pvt. John Bartle, whose platoon is fighting a bloody battle to control the Iraq city of Al Tafar. Fighting next to him is Pvt. Daniel Murphy, an 18-year-old with little mental capacity to comprehend the violent world around him. In a careless moment, Bartle had made an impossible promise to Murphy’s mother to bring him back alive.
The Iraq War unfolds around their platoon in sudden bursts of chaos and death. Bartle tries to detach himself by drifting into the movement of the clouds; the play of light in an orchard and the rise of the setting sun; even though he knows there is no safe place in Iraq. In spite of Bartle’s efforts, Murphy is drawn into the shock of the brutality and suffering of war, takes it in and can’t let it go. Their ruthless sergeant badgers and dominates them, anything to keep them alert, smart and alive in the death-filled Iraqi landscape. In powerful scenes; the waiting, filth, fatigue and endless fear play out in Powers’ precise, graphic and evocative language.
Bartle’s story is about the responsibility - that is imposed and accepted - to survive. But when he comes home an internal war begins. He must explain what he saw, justify what he did to himself and face the blank stares of those who can’t begin to understand what it was like to be there.
© 2010 City of East Lansing & MSU