Have you ever played a sort of mental game with yourself, whether in anticipation or maybe even dread of an event, where if you could just do something or avoid doing something everything would turn out okay. A superstition really, sort of like having a rabbit's foot to ward off bad luck. In Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, Privates John Bartle and Daniel Murphy believe that if they can just stay alive longer than the anticipated death of the thousandth soldier they will survive the war.
"Our biggest error was thinking that it mattered what we thought. 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. We didn't know the list was limitless. We didn't think beyond a thousand. We never considered that we could be among the walking dead as well."
It must weigh heavily on every soldier's mind. The fear of not coming home, of not surviving a battle. How does one prepare for it? Inside the liner of his helmet Murph carries not only a picture of his girlfriend but the card each soldier carries. The one with name, rank and unit. And neat boxes to tick off in case of death, capture or wounds received in action as well as the circumstances for each outcome. Murph is only eighteen. Befriended, though initially more by chance than anything else, by Bartle he seems ill-suited to be a soldier. The two discover they're both from Virginia, and though Bartle had already been in the army for a couple of years, they end up in the same battalion preparing to deploy to Iraq.
Bartle never meant to make a promise to Murph's mother to bring him home safely. He never wanted to be accountable for anyone else. It wasn't meant flippantly but what do you say to someone's mother who sees you as a friend to her son and who so obviously wants and needs reassurance for his well being. It was a mistake and one he cannot undo, and not the first mistake he makes in regard to Murph. Mistakes that will shape Bartle's life and resonate through the years that follow his time spent in Iraq.
As with any novel about war The Yellow Birds is heartbreakingly sad. Awful things happen in the story, yet turning the last page there is a weightiness to all that occurs but somehow not distressingly so. There are a few violent and graphic scenes but not to excess. Perhaps it has to do with the execution of the story, which for a first novel is impressive. The prose is sharp and often very lyrical, and the narrative is tightly focused. This is just one man's story and one man's war, however. You won't find broad sweeping vistas or multiple viewpoints of the same action. While the focus is narrow, many of the themes are universal. And for a short novel and with a simple story, it's also has a complexity to its structure.
The story moves back and forth in time from Iraq to Virginia in 2004 and 2005 concentrating on the battle for the city of Al Tafar. This is a city that is lost and regained like clockwork and the boys who one day are the recipients of candies from the soldiers will likely be the same men they fight against the next. Powers foreshadows events and teases the reader enough to prepare for what will follow, so rather than a jarring sense of moving around the story flows in one unstoppable and tragic direction.
John Bartle narrates the story, so the war is seen through his eyes. He's an observer of events and how both Murph and their Sargeant, a man who could be a poster-boy for the army, reacts to and is affected by the war. But mostly this is John's story and how all that happens changes him and the disorientation he feels when he returns home and is unable to ease back into normal society. He may have won medals but they mostly reflect the emptiness he feels by what he's seen and done.
"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."
I don't tend read contemporary novels about Iraq or Afghanistan as what's happening in those parts of the world is too fresh and raw. I already read about them in the newspaper or magazines, so don't want to inhabit those places in my 'novel reading' as well. Of course I now feel chastened as there is something very visceral about inhabiting not those worlds exactly but the head of a soldier who has been there and has seen such incomprehensible sights while it's easy for America to not be bothered so much by what's going on on the other side of the world.
The Yellow Birds is compelling reading and a fine first novel. Many thanks to Caroline for the gentle nudge to read it. This was the first book for her 2013 War and Literature Readalong. Next up is The Flowers of War by Geling Yan.