“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers (2012) – 226 pages
“The Yellow Birds” begins with a U.S. platoon on patrol on the streets of Al Tafar in northern Iraq in 2003. New recruits Bartle and Murphy are part of the platoon led by battle-hardened tough guy Sergeant Sterling. Their enemy is anything that moves on the city streets. The U. S. soldiers have immensely superior weapons; they are fighting in a foreign land, and the enemies are civilians all around them. Sergeant Sterling toughens them to shoot first and ask questions later, to kill hadjis. If the perceived enemy turns out to be an old lady or a young teenager that’s the way it goes; they are still hadjis.
Although this novel is about a recent war, a lot of the clichés in novels from wars past are in it. The tougher-than-nails Sergeant, the naive young recruits, the enemy menace, the too-short R. and R. leave in Germany, then the return to Al Tafar. In many ways, “The Yellow Birds” is a very traditional war novel. One difference here is that the platoon is in a civilian area and is fighting mainly civilians and not soldiers.
When Bartle goes back to his home near Richmond, Virginia, strangers come up to him and thank him for killing all those hadjis. He thinks he doesn’t deserve any gratitude, “…because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes…”
The reviews for “The Yellow Birds” have been extremely positive. This is the first attempt to make some sense out of the Iraq War in a serious novel, and I suppose just for that reason it would be over-praised. The story in “The Yellow Birds” is about the very early days of the war in 2003 when Americans were mostly gung-ho about the war, and the war could still be considered fairly traditional. It does not cover the difficult years ahead from 2004 until the end of the war in 2010. There is no mention at all of that all-pervasive private American paramilitary force, Blackwater, which played a major role in the Iraq War.
I see “The Yellow Birds” as only a good start to telling the full Iraq War story. There were 4,486 United States soldiers killed in Iraq, and the best estimates of Iraqi deaths are 110,000 deaths, most of whom were civilians. It will take years and years until the United States fully comes to terms with the Iraq War. We need novels that deal with the politics that got us into the War in the first place, novels from the Iraqi point of view, novels that deal with Blackwater, and so on.