Book Review: 'The war tried to kill us ...'

Friday, September 14, 2012

"The Yellow Birds," by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown, 226 pp. $24.99.

War is not pretty.

It cannot be pretty. In war, death is a natural occurrence. It is not rare, and therefore, it is not dwelt upon.

War is grimy and distasteful, and in Kevin Powers' debut novel, "The Yellow Birds," war is present.

"We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn't care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all."

The war depicted in "The Yellow Birds" is uncomfortable to read, though it is necessary in the same way that Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" are necessary. And just as Remarque's novel has become a classic for it's account of World War II, and O'Brien's for its depiction of the Vietnam War, Power's novel will become a classic for its real, though still fictional, account of the War on Iraq.

Powers is a veteran, having served two tours in Iraq, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar.

The story follows Privates Bartle and Murphy, friends from basic training, as they execute their mission in Tal Afar, clinging to life the entire way.

"The Yellow Birds" could only have been written by someone who has seen the destruction first-hand. The creative insight comes in the characters and in the writing, but not in the situations. Those, I can imagine, more or less, actually happened.

In war, no one is truly a hero and no one is truly a villain. Good men save some, but no one can save everyone. And when death inevitably comes around, the best option is to move on and not look back.

"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. ... 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 on or kept me off the list of the dead. I know it isn't like that now."

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