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. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way."
After the jump, my review.
I don't pretend to know what it's like to be in combat, to be forever changed by war, not in a good way, to know that you have to live the rest of your life in that damaged way. But Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds makes me think I am getting a little taste of that. Powers doesn't just present the war, he shows what it's like through the eyes of one soldier: 21-year old Pvt. John Bartle. His friendship with the even younger Pvt. Daniel Murphy is at the heart of the story. The burden of living with a rash promise Bartle made to Murphy's mother to bring him home safely weighs heavily on Bartle during his tour of duty.
War sucks. War is hell. War is obscene. It's not just the waste, the destruction, the killing. It's the brutal dehumanization of war on so many, even the ones who survive, who come home in one piece (as if "in one piece" means anything when the damage is to the human psyche).
When this book is eventually made into a movie, it will lose something in translation. Much of what makes this a good read is not the action (which is ideal for adaptation to film) but what goes on inside the head of the main character. If there's any criticism I have of the novel, it's that the dialog given to the young Bartle (short, perfunctory, lacking insight) and the soliloquies in his head (long, articulate, searching) don't sound like they can possibly both come from the same person.
The Afghan and Iraq wars are already making their own lasting contributions to the collection of great literature: movies and novels. By all means watch The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty. Read novels like Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. But make time to read Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds. I can't vouch for its authenticity in capturing the Iraq War experience (although I have no reason to doubt it), but I can vouch for its ability to make a powerful impact on the reader.