Yellow Birds: a stunning tale of American soldiers in Iraq

Renewed involvement of US military might in Iraq must have been one of the tougher decision President Obama ever made. Insistently limiting the intervention to airstrikes but pledging not to send ground troops gives a measure of the balance of pros and cons he must have considered before relinquishing his promise to the American people to pull out of Iraq. I believe he does not want ground service men to endure the ordeal of private Bartle, the central character of Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, trying in vain to prevent his platoon sergeant bullet riddle a car driven by an elderly man, with an old women in the backseat.
I stumbled over Yellow Birds by accident, After the first few lines I was hooked. The words cast the shadow of a threat that became more envasive as I turned the pages. Kevin Powers engulfs the reader in a powerfully written literary adventure that journeys between Bartle’s native Virginia, Iraq and the transit in Germany on his way home. The strenuous military training has taught him to manipulate weapons, to run for cover, to respond to orders, but has left him unprepared for the warfare he encounters. This is the focal point of the drama. The literary palette changes as the story moves between Virginia, Iraq and Germany. The change of tonality underscores Bartle’s mental disorientation. A few rapid brushstrokes suffice to bring alive the Virginian hometown. The reader hears the leaves quivering in the wind; he feels the caress of the water flowing in the creek; he smells the changing seasons and he walks with Bartle in the town store to buy cigarettes and beer. The German episode has the tone of a surrealistic dream as guilt haunted Bartle visits a church and a brothel. The scenery in Iraq is a grotesque abstraction of threatening targets. Towns, fields, orchards, people alive or dead bathe in sand and dust, hiding booby-traps, mortar fire and snipers. Killing and dying are casual events. Still, the gruesome culmination of the story opens the way to Bartle’s redemption. Yellow Birds has done to me what For Whom the Bell Tolls did to me half a century ago.

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