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The Yellow Birds

Clare Hobba

Kevin Powers
Sceptre, 226pp

The Yellow Birds recalls the excoriating experience of one US soldier in 'Al Tafar', Iraq, in the autumn of 2004. This is familiar territory to Kevin Powers, who is himself a US veteran of the Iraq war. In a scenery of dead bodies left to stiffen in the sun, and an environment where simply walking into the street can turn a person into a target, the soldier Bartle records what happened to his friend, Murph, and how out of the best motives, he made a terrible mistake for which the US government finds him culpable.

The horrifying thing is that amid circumstances which would break down any person through fear, disorientation, physical privation and the constant presence of hostility and cruelty, Bartle still has the human capacity to feel guilt over his misjudgement. The whole episode is told without self pity - if the reverse were true, the reader would not feel so keenly for the soldier.  'Please,' I wanted to say, 'Under the circumstances, any of us might have done the same.'

There is no overt argument for pacifism here, but the close point-of-view through which the story is told allows us to experience the violation of a man who is asked to risk his own wounding and death and even worse, to kill others. The usual distancing of calling such a person 'soldier' is here challenged. We see the violence through his eyes, experience his stunned deafness after an explosion, feel what it's like to suffer post traumatic stress disorder from the inside. We should not place any fellow human being in this situation.

One character, Sergeant Sterling, displays the macho toughness, leadership and capability typical of US action films, but gradually, the rifts in his hard shell are revealed. Even he cannot withstand what war demands of him. The extreme youth of the characters is reiterated a number of times - the main characters range from 18 to 24. Another theme is the way that several soldiers react finally to what is happening to them by giving themselves up to their own deaths. This chimes with recent statistics that the number of suicides among veterans in the US is outstripping the number of fatalities in the field.

Powers treats language with such enormous respect that it brings a lump to my throat. Contrasted with the brutal subject matter is the tenderness with which he selects a particular verb or noun. Sometimes, the word he settles on doesn't feel quite appropriate, and the writing has a slightly uneven quality, but that is part of the magic - this is the work of a new writer who is trying very hard to honour his craft. The Yellow Birds is full of beautiful imagery which bespeaks the authorship of a poet.  

If you know a young man or woman who is considering enlisting, give them this book first.

Clare Hobba