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Beautiful, horrifying 'The Yellow Birds' takes reader to an Iraqi battlefield

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:02 p.m.


Pvt. John Bartle, the narrator of Kevin Powers' sorrowful war novel “The Yellow Birds,” is a man of reason caught between the uncontrolled emotions of two men.

The first is his sergeant, a severe gunslinger and molder of warriors named Sterling. Sgt. Sterling's discipline and his rage against the enemy are keeping his squad of men alive as they patrol an eerie, death-filled Iraqi landscape. Pvt. Bartle loves and hates him for this.

“I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination,” Bartle says. “But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me ... I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire ...”

The second man is Murph, a green new addition to the unit. Murph is smallish and just 18 years old, and Pvt. Bartle has made the grave mistake of promising Murph's mother that he'd bring him back home alive.

Murph, we quickly learn, is simply too sensitive and too innocent to be a U.S. soldier in Iraq. Pvt. Bartle, at 21, is just old enough, and sufficiently hardened by the horrors of war, to become Murph's protector.

“All right, little man,” Sgt. Sterling tells Murph. “I want you to get in Bartle's back pocket and I want you to stay there.”

Powers, an Iraq war veteran, has said he wrote “The Yellow Birds” as an answer to the question everyone who served in Iraq hears again and again: “What was it like over there?”

“The Yellow Birds” is the narrative of a soldier-witness still numbed by what he's seen. It's a beautiful and horrifying trance of a book, as Powers takes us again and again to a dream-like battlefield where unimaginable cruelties are inflicted upon combatants and civilians alike.

The men fight in Al Tafar, in a setting that is Dante-esque, in the broadest possible sense of that word. The men of Bartle's squad go there to see sin and to suffer, and perhaps to survive and be somehow redeemed. The torments they find in Al Tafar are described by Powers with a spare, haunting lyricism.

“As we walked on line through the ragged grove we began to hear a sound out front,” Powers writes, describing an orchard that's been torn apart by a firefight. “At first it sounded like humbled weeping, closer, a bleating lamb. We moved faster ... and saw the enemy dead strewn about a shallow ditch: two boys, sixteen or so.”

In this battlefield, Pvt. Bartle is caught between the conflicting demands of his role as soldier: becoming the ruthless killer Sgt. Sterling expects him to be and being the protector Murph needs. His inability to reconcile those contradictions is pulling him apart, while ideas, language and memory are the glue holding him together.

A young man who got beat up for reading poetry in high school, Pvt. Bartle signed up for the Army to prove his courage. He finds his poetic and philosophical sensibilities put to use observing his brothers die, and describing encounters with the broken bodies of enemy “hajji” fighters, civilian women and anonymous men whose corpses have been dismembered and transformed into bombs.

“We only grieved those we knew,” Powers writes. “All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth, in the dirt or up through the pavement like flowers after a frost ...”

It's a war that, like many wars, seems to be stripped of any meaning. Pvt. Bartle's unit sweeps into Al Tafar every year, only to see the enemy take it back. On this next mission, as on others, “People are going to die,” Sgt. Sterling warns Pvt. Bartle. “It's statistics.”

Early on, we learn that one of the men in the unit is fated to die, as Powers shifts his narrative back and forth between the battles in Al Tafar and a post-deployment reckoning in which he mourns a comrade's death and is called to answer for the way that young man died.

In Virginia, everyone calls Pvt. Bartle a hero, but the honorific feels like a joke, because all he's done is survive — and the man he promised to protect did not. As time passes, Bartle feels more like a “murderer” and an “accomplice.”

Finally, the lies are just too much to live with, leading Powers to write a startling and angry rant against a country that celebrates its soldiers without understanding the viciousness of the war they went to fight: “everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every ... yellow ribbon in sight ...”

Powers has the courage to take his readers back to such angry and empty psychic states again and again. “The Yellow Birds” leaves both its protagonist and its readers in an unsettled, confusing place. Writing from the point of view of a deeply damaged narrator is tricky work, however, and there are passages, including the novel's final chapter, that feel unpolished and not entirely satisfying.

Still, “The Yellow Birds” might just be the first American literary masterpiece produced by the Iraq war, even if an imperfect one. It is, without a doubt, a powerful and disturbing statement about the brutality of that conflict, and of the deep wounds inflicted on thousands of our citizen-soldiers.

Hector Tobar is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times

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