Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Coming of Age on the Battlefields of Iraq

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Coming of Age on the Battlefields of Iraq

Article excerpt

"The Yellow Birds," Kevin Powers's debut novel, is a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive.

The Yellow Birds. By Kevin Powers. 230 pages. Little, Brown & Company, $24.99; Sceptre, Pounds 14.99.

Kevin Powers joined the Army when he was 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Drawing upon those experiences, he has written a remarkable first novel, one that stands with Tim O'Brien's enduring Vietnam book, "The Things They Carried," as a classic of contemporary war fiction.

"The Yellow Birds" is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier's coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory. Its depiction of war has the surreal kick of Mr. O'Brien's 1978 novel, "Going After Cacciato," and a poetic pointillism distinctly its own; they combine to sear images into the reader's mind with unusual power.

Glimpses of ordinary life -- a hyacinth garden, a swallow tracing the shape of an alley, an orchard on the edge of the city -- alternate with scenes of horror that feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell: medics trying to stuff a young soldier's insides back into his body; a corpse bomb exploding on a bridge; a castrated body, missing its ears and nose, thrown from a tower.

Bartle, the novel's narrator, remembers that he and his fellow soldiers "stayed awake on amphetamines and fear," trying to "stay alert" to "stay alive." He talks about being taught to "get small" when there are incoming mortars, and about the "noise and light discipline" that the platoon employs on a march, putting black electrical tape over shiny, metallic gear and making sure nothing makes a sound.

Most memorably, he talks about how pointless the war in Iraq often seems to men on the ground -- a perverse Groundhog Day loop (so unlike his grandfather's war) in which there is no destination, no progress: "We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We'd drive them out. We always had. 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 over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we'd throw candy to their children, with whom we'd fight in the fall a few more years from now."

Mr. Powers has given his narrator a name that recalls the title character of Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and "The Yellow Birds" is filled with echoes of that tale's inquiries into the nature of freedom and free will. …

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