Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Yellow Birds: On The Psychology of War

It's a mercy Kevin Powers' Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds is not longer than its scant 225 pages. That's not because it's dull or slow or poorly written. No, it's a good thing it's not longer because it's often hard to read and draining — it deals with the psychology of soldiers at war, and that's a tricky thing. Had this novel been longer, it could've felt long-winded and easily lost its way, like soldiers in the dark.

But as is, it's a chilling illustration of how shattering war can be for kids in their late teens and early 20s. No one is adequately equipped for the psychological toll of war, but especially not kids. So one of their coping mechanisms is to turn the terrible to mundane. After watching an old woman get shot, and a young girl trying to drag her from the road, our narrator, 21-year-old Private Bartle muses: “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed…We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”

Chapters alternate between war scenes in Iraq (it's 2004, and the soldiers are fighting in and around the small fictional city Al Tafar) and post-war Bartle, who has returned to his hometown of Richmond, Va., and trying to comprehend the war. Before shipping out, Bartle promises a young private's (named Murphy) mother that he'll watch over him, and deliver him back safely — of course, an impossible promise. Murphy is an 18-year-old country boy, who doesn't quite understand what he's getting himself into. And as the effects of the war break him down, Bartle's promise becomes increasingly difficult.

Where this novel really succeeds — and why it was a finalist for the National Book Award, no doubt — is in diving into how these characters rationalize the war; how they come up with psychological justifications to help them deal with the stress. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Bartle explains that he and Murphy assume that anyone who is going to die is, essentially, predestined to die. So there's no use worrying — if there's a bullet with your name on it, there's nothing you can do.

The novel also succeeds because of its poetry — Powers writes with power and grace, simultaneously; each page, practically, includes a way of describing something that makes it as clear as if Powers had plopped what he's describing down in front of you. (Example: "When the mortars fell, the leaves and fruit and birds were frayed like ends of rope. They lay on the ground in scattered piles, torn feathers and leaves and the rinds of broken fruit intermingling.") And there's even a few pages of stream-of-consciousness — another example of how the stress of the war wreaks havoc on these characters' psyche.

This certainly isn't your typical war novel — you don't often hear war novels described as "inexplicably beautiful," as Ann Patchett does on one of the cover blurbs. But it is all the things that make up a good war novel, specifically, but just a good novel in general. Definitely recommended!


  1. This is the January choice on next year's Literature & War Read-Along and will be the first book dealing with the Iraqi war that I've read. Thank you for your insightful review.

  2. Once again, you've made me want to read the popular book I've heard of a million times but not really turned on to. Thanks.

  3. Yes I have been wanting to read this one, despite the harsh topic of War. Good review.

  4. I was surprised to discover The Things They Carried to be one of the best pieces of writing I've ever read. Now you've talked me into reading this one.