Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds; A Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), 240pp.
Kevin Powers (b. 1980) was born and raised in small town Virginia. When he was seventeen, he enlisted in the Army, and then in 2004 and 2005 he spent a year in Iraq as a machine gunner. After an honorable discharge, Powers graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, and then the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned an MFA. Somewhere in those years he became a keen observer of human nature, especially of his own psyche, and a gifted writer. The Yellow Birds, his first novel, has won numerous awards, including finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, and uniformly rave reviews from critics.
The Yellow Birds is narrated by private John Bortle, who at the age of thirty reflects back on his experiences of war in Iraq when he was twenty-one, and in particular on his close friendship with a fellow private, eighteen-year-old Daniel Murphy. In Bortle's telling, war is a barbarous and cruel experience, stripped of all jingoistic lies, such as a colonel's "half-assed Patton imitation" in which he told his troops how they were about to do "great violence in the cause of good." The novel shows how only the first part of the colonel's rant was true. The chapters alternate between the platoon's battles in Al Tafar, and Bortle's attempts to recover once he's back home as a deeply broken man.
The degradation and savagery of war filled Bortle with shame and self-loathing at what he had done and become as a human being. He was a murderer, he says, with many rationalizations for his cruelties. He made an important promise that he couldn't keep. The only way to survive was to "stay deviant." Then there was the disconnect back home, where people thanked him for his service and treated him like a hero: "I feel like I'm being eaten from the inside out and I can't tell anyone what's going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I'll feel like I'm ungrateful or something. Or like I'll give away that I don't deserve anyone's gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I've done but everyone loves me for it and it's driving me crazy." And so "it felt like acid was seeping down into your soul." The whole experience "ravaged your spirit." Powers's book reminded me of the aphorism of the Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin that in war, "for every boy turned into a man, there are five human beings turned into animals."