Trajectory of Loss: New generation writing from the Iraq War
A Review of Kevin Powers'  ‘The Yellow Birds’ 
by Kate Wilson

... war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.
Kevin Powers,
from a poem in the Collection:
Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
Sceptre, 2014
TheYellow Birds
is Kevin Powers’ debut novel, written out of his experience of the war in Iraq where he was deployed as a machine gunner in 2004-5 to Nineveh Provence. The book brought him immediate recognition in the shape of a lucrative advance from Little, Brown and a whole raft of literary prizes, notably  The Guardian First Book Award 2012, The Hemingway/PEN Award 2102, and several significant Book of the Year Awards. Powers has been likened to Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Cormac McCarthy and –a more recent connection- the war writer Tim O’Brien, Pulitzer Prize finalist for his collection of short stories about an American platoon in the Vietnam War The Things They Carried (1990).

Starting off in the town of Tal Afar, northern Iraq, near Mosul, Powers’ story is narrated from the perspective of one young soldier. This focus on individual experience has earned him comparison with earlier war writers such as Stephen Crane, whose book The Red Badge of Courage (1894) centred on the thoughts and feelings of a young private of the Union Army during the American Civil War and Erich Maria Remarque whose All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) described the mental and physical stresses endured by German soldiers during the First World War both at the front and back home. Powers similarly depicts two time lines, one during front line conflict and the other in the peaceful West, either billeted in Kaiserslautern, Germany or in stateside Virginia in the main character’s dull home town outside Richmond. As Powers explained in an interview with the Guardian:[1]

I wanted to show the whole picture. It's not just: you get off the plane, you're back home, everything's fine. Maybe the physical danger ends, but soldiers are still deeply at risk of being injured in a different way. I thought it was important to acknowledge that.

Powers’ writing style has received many accolades. He has been praised for the unusual combination of brutal subject matter and poetic expression, [2] for his inexplicably beautiful style,’[3] and for his clean, evocative, lyric and graphic prose[4]. There is no doubt that Powers is first and foremost a poet and a writer whose talents the war could so easily have snuffed out, rather than nurtured.

His beginnings were not all that promising for a poet. Born in 1980, the son of a factory worker and a postman, he enlisted in the US army at the age of 17. After an honourable discharge, he ended up in several dead-end jobs until there came a point  when he made the decision that what he really needed to do was to try to write. His war experience unexpectedly strengthened him in this resolve :

One of the things my service in Iraq did give me was this freedom from fear or failure or any kind of expectation that I had to take a standard path.[5]

He got himself a degree in English in 2008 and a Master’s in Fine Art from the University of Texas, where he wrote most of The Yellow Birds. Initially he had started writing poems about the war, but realized he needed a larger canvas. Unlike O’Brien or Vonnegut or Heller who took decades to give themselves space before writing about their experience of war, Powers was able to finish his book over a period of four years, because by then he was confident he had gained enough clarity.

The title TheYellow Birds is from a Haitian ditty made popular by Harry Belafonte in the 1960’s and then burlesqued by the US Army as a marching song[6] :

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.

The fate of the yellow bird parallels that of the untried young soldier coaxed into America’s theatre of war and then killed. The sense of betrayal in the song is marked – an idea also strongly foregrounded in Ben Fountain’s frenetically satirical novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2013) which points up how the young soldiers in Billy’s platoon have been lured to war to protect the loathsome values of their complacent and self-indulgent elders, ending up less well fed and equipped than the celebrity Dallas Cowboy’s football team [7]. In Yellow Birds the same generational scam is typified by the indifference of the Army to its soldiers as individuals, both in the disconnectedness of the senior officers and in the tick-box approach to soldiers’ problems on their return home (We have this questionnaire down to an exact science). The platitudinous rhetoric delivered to Bartle’s platoon before they engage the enemy is for Powers a particularly easy traditional target. Here is a colonel in crisply starched uniform in best pep-talk flow:

“This is the land where Jonah is buried, where he begged for God’s justice to come. 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.  If you die, know this: we’ll put you on the first bird to Dover. Your families will have a distinction beyond all others.” (…) 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 centre the whole time. Give ‘em hell.”

Ben Fountain criticizes the same platitudes by capturing them in a Texan drawl (terrRst,  nina leven,   currj,  sacrifice) and scattering them typographically over the page, showing not just how embedded such received ideas have become in the language of modern Americans, but how rationally disjointed.  


[1] Sarah Crown, The Guardian, Tuesday, 13 November, 2012

[2] Lisa Allardice, chair of Guardian First Book judging panel. The English Poetry of the First World War had, of course, just this combination, as did that of the French Poet, Guillaume Apollinaire who also fought in the trenches.

[3] Ann Pratchett, Orange Prizewinner

[4] Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone

[5] Alison Flood, The Guardian, Thursday 29 November, 2012

[6] From John Sutherland, How to be Well Read, p.495.

[7] Powers targets American society in less polemic terms, speaking of “the sweet unwounded banality of the people.” and “all the spoiled cities of America”. The brutality of the American army is touched upon piecemeal and usually without comment throughout, which unwary readers might miss: the street was lined with poplars and the bodies from our search.

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