By Chet Yarbrough
By: Kevin Powers
Narrated by: Holter Graham
Kevin Powers is a thirty-something, first-book’ author that explains what it is like to be a soldier in combat. Powers
recreates war experience in Iraq and shows how combat affects a soldier’s life. “The Yellow Birds”’title comes from a boot-camp’ marching song but is about more than a walking cadence mnemonic; i.e. yellow symbolizes cowardice—its symptoms of fear, self-loathing, and death. Powers’ book-title presages yellowness in his story of war.
The experience and consequence of war soaks into one’s mind with every recited page. Powers’ story reminds one of youth; what it is like to begin adulthood with a belief that one is immortal; that going to war is only a life adventure. But, when war becomes real, youth finds life fleeting, death eminently possible, and despair-likely. Though this is a fiction about war, anyone who has been in the military realizes Powers is writing from experience (Powers enlisted at 17 and served in Iraq).
Combat is shown to make young men seem old because battle experience dissociates them from the brutality of killing another human being. Sergeant Sterling leads his platoon like a veteran of WWII though he is only a few years older than the 17 and 21-year-old recruits he commands.
When Sterling first introduces himself to Private Bartle and Private Murphy, he teams the two together, knowing that each would help the other work through their first combat experience. Before deployment to Iraq, Bartle, Murphy, and Sterling attend a gathering of parents for their goodbyes to the new recruits. Sterling is disgusted with Private Bartle’s acceptance of Murphy’s mother’s plea for Bartle to protect her son. After the gathering, Sergeant Sterling isolates Bartle and smacks him in the face because Sterling knows that taking responsibility for someone else’s life is a burden that cannot be borne in battle. An irony in that observation is that the author writes about Sterling, as platoon leader, taking responsibility for other’s lives in every military action; i.e. the author believes Sterling would give his life to preserve his personal code of conduct.
Iraq is a modern war where news men and women are often embedded with troops to report the war. Powers explains that an often asked question is what is it like to engage the enemy? Private Murphy explains it is like being in a car wreck; motion slows down; one sees what is happening but has no control over the action; the action completes and acquaintances, friends, or foes are alive, wounded, or dead.
Powers recounts the story of a mortar shell attack that kills a medic that is a female, blond, blue-eyed beauty with whom Murphy has become infatuated. The beautiful woman is killed and Murphy psychologically disintegrates.
“The Yellow Birds” tells the story of how combat affects soldiers; i.e. it explains how heroes can become villains, how cowards can become heroes, and how every soldier is scarred by the experience of battle. War is a mess of contradictions that confuse the mind, torture the truth, and leave soldiers, parents, children, and friends alone, often broken-spirited, and sometimes broken-hearted.
As Bertrand Russell said, “War does not determine who is right—only who is left.”