we have all experienced war vicariously through news stories,
novels and movies, there is only so much that embedded
journalists, writers and directors can capture. While they
can observe and document, they are never directly immersed in
the full reality of war in the way that the soldiers
This experience can really only be conveyed from the
perspective of the soldiers themselves (the documentary
Armadillo is perhaps the most confronting piece of cinema I
have ever seen), but very few are willing or able to do so.
The fact that Kevin Powers is both a talented author and Iraq
war veteran makes The Yellow Birds an important book for
anybody who really wants to understand the reality of the
current American/Arab conflict.
The narrator, John Bartle, is back in the States after his
tour of duty and struggling to come to terms with his
experiences. He is especially troubled by the fact his best
friend, Murph, died in the field. His guilt is deepened by
the promise he made to Murph's mother to keep him safe, and
by his own complicity in her son's death.
The chapters alternate between the States, where he is now
living as a hermit, attempting to find meaning in his
experiences there (his eventual conclusion being that there
is none), and his time training and fighting with Murph in
Iraq. The former passages are reflective and philosophical,
often in long, rambling discursions that capture the
associations and random drift of thought, while the latter
are more descriptive and narrative in nature, relating his
experiences in the field and the slow revelation of the
circumstances leading up to and following Murph's death.
These sections reveal the reality of life for those caught in
the fight, a world of heat, thirst and fatigue, in which long
periods of boredom and endless waiting are punctuated by
moments of terror. It is the small details that stand out - a
lark calling as they march past to retake a city that has
been taken and lost again many times, the soft tinkle of
Murph's grenades as they laugh together on the night watch -
fragments of normality that jar against the world they now
inhabit, one in which the moments before a fight are ''like a
car accident ... the instant between knowing that it's going
to happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels
pretty helpless ... it's there staring you in the face and
you don't have the power to do shit about it. And know it.
Death or whatever, it's either coming or it's not ... except
here it can last for goddamn days.''
Reading this novel, I felt as close to the reality of war as
I hope I ever get, and there is a truth to it that comes from
the fact that the author is writing from experience, and
shows us the true cost of the current conflict on all sides.
I leave the final judgement to Bartle: ''There isn't any
making up for killing women or even watching women getting
killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in
the back and shooting them more times than necessary to
actually kill them it [is] just like trying to kill
everything you saw sometimes because it felt like acid was
seeping down into your soul ... there is no making up for
what you are doing.''
Dr McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.