Larry Bassett's Reviews > The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
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really liked it
bookshelves: war, historical-fiction

The boys go off to kill and be killed:
The colonel cleared his throat and pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket and rested them on the bridge of his nose. One of the sergeants came over and shined a small flashlight on the colonel’s piece of paper. “Boys,” he began, “you will soon be asked to do great violence in the cause of good.” He paced back and forth and his boot prints in the fine dust were never trampled. Each step was precise and his pacing only served to firm and define the tracks that he originally left. The sergeant with the flashlight paced beside him. “I know I don’t have to tell you what kind of enemy you’ll be up against.” His voice became a blunt staccato as he gained confidence in his capacity to motivate us, a bludgeon that smoothed the weary creases in my brain. “This is the land where Jonah is buried, and where he begged for God’s justice to come.” He continued, “We are that justice. Now, I wish I could tell you that all of us are coming back, but I can’t. Some of you will not come back with us.” I was moved then, but what I recall now most vividly about that speech was the colonel’s pride, his satisfaction with his own directness, his disregard for us as individuals. “If you die, know this: we’ll put you on the first bird to Dover. Your families will have a distinction beyond all others. If those bastards want a fight, we’re going to give them one.” He paused. A look of great sentimentality came over him. “I can’t go with you boys,” he explained with regret, “but I’ll be in contact from the operation center the whole time. Give ‘em hell.”


I often wonder about the source of the title of a book. In this case, you find out right away and it foreshadows the tenor of the book.

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head…

-Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence


The Yellow Birds is identified by the author as a novel so he alone knows what bears some resemblance to his own experience as a soldier in Iraq. There are not happy moments in this book for it is about war, man’s greatest inhumanity to man. The scene alternates between Richmond, Virginia and Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Private Bartle carries the war inside himself wherever he is.
The main characters are 21 and 18 when they meet in basic training. At the end of the book the 21 year old is damaged forever and the 18 year old is dead. Kevin Powers, the author, joined the army at the age of 17, later serving as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. As we know from the death notices, war is fought by young people. That in itself makes war an abomination. We disparage foreign countries that have “child soldiers” without acknowledging the similar role of the United States military.

I am used to people being killed in books about war. But I had a strange shock from this book: the “casualty feeder card” kept by each field soldier under his helmet liner. It is the military being bureaucratic:
At the top of the card, in the appropriate boxes, Murph had written the requested information. His name: Murphy, Daniel; his social security number; his rank; his unit. Below that were other boxes, left blank in case the need arose to record an assortment of information with a quick X in ink. There was a box for Killed in Action, for Missing in Action, and for Wounded in Action (either lightly or seriously). There was a box for Captured, and for Detained, and for Died as a Result of Wounds. There were two sets of Yes or No boxes, one each for Body Recovered and Body Identified. There was a space for witness remarks and for the signature of the commanding officer or medical personnel. Murph has placed an X in the box for Body Recovered. “Just in case,” he said when he caught me looking. Both of our cards were signed already.


Strangely, The Yellow Birds has a certain elegance. You can see that the words have been carefully chosen. The book is both lyrical and distressing.
The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns.

Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a while shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes.

The war had killed thousands by September. The bodies lined pocked avenues at irregular intervals.

We hardly noticed a change with September came. But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then.


I guess we needed another distressing book about war. As long as we insist on fighting them, people will continue writing about them. This one is well written and caused me to think about how people deal with the ultimate tragedy of war when they meet it face to face. Maybe we each need to see for ourselves that “his eyes had been gouged out, the two hollow sockets looking like red angry passages to his mind.” Or maybe the colonel back at the operation center needs to see it.

We keep trying to hide the crass ugliness of bodies made unrecognizable in war. And the damaged minds of those who survive.

Four stars.
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Reading Progress

October 5, 2012 – Shelved
October 5, 2012 – Shelved as: war
October 11, 2012 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
November 16, 2012 –
page 11
4.87% ""We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare. Rare was the bullet with your name on it, the IED buried just for you. Those were the things we watched for.""
November 17, 2012 – Started Reading
November 21, 2012 –
page 89
39.38% "The colonel's voice snapped up out attention. "We're gonna drop mortars in that rathole for two hours before dawn. They'll still be shredding those little trees right when you get up to 'em. We're counting on you, boys. The people of the United States are counting on you. You may never do anything this important again in your entire lives.""
November 21, 2012 –
page 217
96.02% "Is it too much to want to know the author's meaning in this conclusion? "Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated." Or is it just too obvious?"
November 21, 2012 – Finished Reading

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Larry Bassett I just read a review in the Washington Post online that indicated this book can be looked at as a collection of related short stories. Hadn't occurred to me; I just thought he was bouncing around a bit!


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