An Unforgettable War


A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

For nearly a decade publishers have been filling bookstores with tomes about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. First came those from the embedded journalists; then the officers and politicians who led the wars, whether in Washington or on the battlefield; then the survivors, snipers, SEALS and soldiers with Silver Stars. These books will be quickly forgotten. Save for a few non-fiction titles about war, the books that linger longest are those by writers who transformed the events of the day with their imaginations.

Poets in particular have proven expert at capturing the emotion and terror of war. Think of Whitman writing about the Civil War, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on the trenches of World War I, Auden and Eliot on the horror of World War II. Regarding our recent wars, one thinks of Brian Turner’s 2005 volume Here, Bullet, a visceral manifestation, in poetry no less, of the life of a modern soldier.

Now we have The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran and Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Texas at Austin. Powers’ novel relays the story of two Virginia boys—21-year-old Pvt. Bartle and 18-year-old Pvt. Murphy—from basic training at Fort Dix to the battlegrounds of Al Tafar, Iraq, and its stateside aftermath. Murphy (“Murph”) never returns after a horrifying tragedy.

In Powers’ depiction of military life in and out of war, he punctuates Wordsworthian passages of poetic stream-of-consciousness about nature and human nature with Hemingwayesque observations. (A vaporized body is described as “a perfect bloody angel made of dust.”)

But what does it say about war today? Well, war is a “morbid geometry,” and this novel delivers a close approximation of the mental anguish and loss that war inflicts on the sensitive and the barbaric alike. The Yellow Birds reads like one man’s raw version of the truth, and you feel not only for, but with Pvt. Bartle. This does not make for easy or particularly enjoyable reading, but it is full of passionate intensity. Exactly what might give this particular book about war a chance to last.

Ed Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing, a trade journal for the international book business. He lives in Houston.