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Nov 1, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Book cover for THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers
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U.S. Army Private John Bartle has returned home from Iraq—physically, not mentally. Having done a tour in one of the deadliest cities for American soldiers in the Iraq War, Bartle is lucky to be alive. But does agonizing over a haunted past count as living?

A Poetic Exploration of PTSD

For those who might need a reminder that war is indeed hell, there is The Yellow Birds by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. Like most war fiction that focuses on characters who’ve returned home from war, Yellow Birds is about the confusion of war and the pain caused by post-traumatic stress and reverse culture shock. You will have seen this story before about different men and women—about different places, times, and wars. What makes Yellow Birds stand out from many of the others is Kevin Powers’ poetic, concise writing. There’s no padding for comfort here. Everything is bare and raw like a fresh wound.

The book opens with two quotes, one a U.S. Army marching chant about a yellow bird (thus the book title), the other a quote from Sir Thomas Browne:

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

The irony here, of course, is that post-traumatic stress does keep sorrows “raw by the edge of repetitions,” which is what this book is about partly. When Private John Bartle returns home from Iraq, he’s unable to stop reliving the events that took place before, during, and directly after his time there. In particular, he can’t let go of Daniel “Murph” Murphy, a fellow private he somewhat carelessly promised to look out for. Murph became an unexpected friend, who Bartle now feels he failed. Desperate for relief from what turns into a living, endless nightmare, Bartle withdraws from society and self-medicates with alcohol. His mind skirts around painful memories but subjects him to others. He is never free.

I remember feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear. It had dawned on me that I’d never have to make a decision again. That seemed freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then. Eventually, I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability.

There’s a sense of randomness that clings to this story and Bartle, and not every reader will like that. It’s the randomness of enlisting on a whim, of making impromptu promises one can’t possibly keep, of war itself. If you’re looking for answers, for a clear beginning, middle, and end, this is not the book for you. There are no answers, and one moment bleeds into another like the hues in a watercolor painting. This is an existential journey.

Powers’ stylistic choices won’t be to everyone’s liking, either, but they shouldn’t be misunderstood, as they are perhaps the least random element found in Yellow Birds. Powers uses nonlinear storytelling to show the reader what post-traumatic stress is like, first-hand. Chapter one opens to Iraq in September 2004. Chapter two jumps to New Jersey in December 2003. There’s Germany in March 2005 for chapter three. And so on. You read exactly as Bartle’s mind wanders, yo-yo like, from the past to the present. Pain and regrets surface in bursts of depression, anger, and regret. Bartle is rarely, if ever, telling you about the past. He’s showing it to you as he agonizes over it and relives it.

I’ve read articles and studies about post-traumatic stress, and a few fictional works I’ve read have included characters suffering from PTSD, but I think Powers’ style in Yellow Birds does a much better job of presenting the obsession, fear, and depression that are tied up in PTSD. (Aside: The best auditory exploration of PTSD I’ve encountered is from NPR’s This American Life.) Some readers express frustration over Bartle’s inability to stay objective and focused. But Bartle is a slave to his past and unable to be a “normal” person.

I had become a kind of cripple. They were my friends, right? Why didn’t I just wade out to them? What would I say? “Hey, how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “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.” Right.

Powers doesn’t want you to understand war, even if it can be understood. He wants you to understand the isolated soldier with invisible wounds.

You have to be in the right frame of mind to read Yellow Birds. It’s a short book—around 240 pages in paperback—and it has a rather small, unsurprising plot, but it still took me a while to read and process. It packs a punch. It should.

Buy The Yellow Birds from Amazon or iTunes

Quotes from The Yellow Birds

War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.

He had nothing to fear. He’d been invincible, absolutely, until the day we was not.

I thought of my grandfather’s war. How they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we’d march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. 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.

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