Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna
“We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages”. Then “they’d come back, and we’d start all over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts… while drinking tea in front of their shops… We’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.” This is how 21-year-old Private John Bartle, the narrator of the critically acclaimed The Yellow Birds, describes the theatre of war.
Shortlisted this month for the Guardian First Book Award, Kevin Powers’ debut has been called “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars” by Tom Wofle. Author and Iraq war veteran, Powers’ compact but philosophically complex work investigates how conflict dictates and destroys the lives of soldiers on the modern frontlines. Deployed as a machine gunner in the US army, Powers served in Iraq in 2004-2005, when he was just seventeen. Here, he is able to lend Bartle an intensely lyrical voice as he travels with a platoon navigating insurgent attacks, bombings, death, and general mayhem in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Capturing the life-changing realities of combat service, the novel details how modern warfare can destroy the emotional state of young men and women mostly unprepared to face an elusive enemy that never tires or retreats. Explaining why such storytelling is essential, Powers says it helped him understand the nature and aftermath of the conflict.
The Yellow Birds opens in September 2004 in the village of Al Tafar where “The war tried to kill us in the spring… While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer”. When leaving for Iraq, Bartle promises the mother of 18-year-old Private Murphy that he would bring her son back alive. It’s a promise that isn’t just difficult but impossible to keep. “It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our lives. That each one of those deaths belonged to a time and that therefore that time was not ours… I used to think that maybe living under that contradiction had guided my actions and that one decision made or unmade in adherence to this philosophy could have put me or kept me off the list of the dead,” he says. After witnessing intense street fighting, with rooftops strewn with bullet casings, bodies mangled on streets, civilians used as human shields and gunned down mercilessly, Bartle becomes jaded. Under the command of the battle-hardened Sergeant Sterling ordering his platoon to face the enemy and death stoically lest they be sent home in a body bag, these young men fail to grasp the enemy or even why they are battling “ordinary” people, often mistaken for insurgents. Bartle reflects on his relationship with Sterling and the latter’s control over his platoon: “I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me… I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire”.
What becomes more apparent through the narration is how the military is unable to differentiate — as has been reported from combat zones — local civilians from insurgents hiding among villagers as the fast-moving pace of urban warfare categorises every moving target as the enemy. These observations are weaved into the narrative with lyrical ease and truth, describing encounters with the unidentifiable bodies of enemy “hajji” fighters, civilian women and anonymous men whose corpses have been dismembered and transformed into bombs. He describes an orchard where the platoon, seemingly ill-prepared to face the enemy, are lined up along a ditch in “soupy muck”, like a “poorly designed experiment in inevitability”, terrified of dying when the mortars fall. There’s a feeling of cowardly silence that envelopes a peaceful orchard of fruits and birds that lie in “scattered piles” when the mortars struck.
Justifying their actions while shooting at anything that moved, Bartle notes resignedly, “What kind of men are we?” He must watch defenceless women and children as they are hit by a volley of bullets from a rooftop, watch them slump, watch as a young girl emerges towards the dead woman lying on the street “her face contorted with effort as she pulled the old woman by her one complete arm… The path they made was marked in blood”. There is an underlying sense of confusion and agony when it comes to the cruelties inflicted on combatants and civilians. Bartle becomes the ruthless “killer” who is besieged with guilt when unable to protect his friend Murphy. “We only grieved those we knew,” he explains, wondering how he can keep his promise to Murphy’s mother, knowing his young friend is unable to process the atrocities of war. “All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth, in the dirt or up through the pavement like flowers after a frost,” he says. Murphy disappears and dies under strange circumstances, emotionally wrecked after witnessing the death of a young female medic in an explosion.