“The Yellow Birds” is the story of Private John Bartle who is preparing to join the United States Army and be posted in Operation Desert Storm. He is finally sent to Al Tafar, Syria for one year. At the wise old age of twenty-one he is considered to be a senior. Most of his colleagues are barely out of school. They are supposed to be these brave men, soldiers, fighting a war on behalf of their country. But the reality is that they have punishing schedules, the people with whom they seem to engage in combat are the elderly, children, lone adults who are as terrified as the soldiers. For instance, at one particular engagement Private Bartle recounts, “…I wanted to tell everyone to stop shouting at him, to ask, ‘What kind of men are we?’ An odd sensation came over me, as if I had been saved, for I was not a man, but a boy, and that he may have been frightened, but I did’t mind that so much, because I was frightened too, and I realised with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn’t stop until I was sure he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it.” (p.21)
The violence of war everyone knows or at least thinks that they can imagine. But it has been quite a while that such a powerful book has been published — that which recreates the horror of war, the stench and misery that accompanies it and what it actually does to the young men and women soldiers. Many lose their lives, many lose a limb or two or others lose their mind but if and when they return home they are treat as heroes. But Private Bartle would rather not have anything to do with them. When he returns home he slinks along the rail tracks to get himself some beer, preferably not respond to the cheers of people welcoming him home or calling him on the phone. His mother tells him, “People want to see you. I really think you should. Think about it.” He replies, “Goddammit Mama, All I do is think.”
Kevin Powers, the author, is a Gulf War veteran who says he wrote this book primarily alone. The Yellow Birds is based upon his experiences. Hence the descriptions of the body bomb, Private Murph losing his mind, the nurse being killed at the makeshift hospital are all very frighteningly real descriptions. Their is no room for imagination to soften the blow or distance oneself from the events in the third-person narrative. He describes it as is.
This is a book that fits well in the long tradition of war literature — John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Paul Fussell, Hans Fallada, Erich Maria Remarque, Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut to name a few. Kevin Powers writing is extremely powerful, it must be read and discussed and shared. But read on an empty stomach if possible. It is befitting that last week it won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award.
Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds Hachette India, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp.230 Rs. 595