There is nothing truly new in Kevin Powers’ Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds, but the author does wonderful things with familiar material. The main characters are Private Bartle, a 21 year old soldier who narrates the book and is about as competent in war as can be expected, Murph, an even younger and very fragile soldier he befriends, and Sergeant Sterling, their grizzled, battle-tested leader. These character types have appeared in plenty of war movies and novels, but it’s the spectacular voice Powers gives Bartle that makes this not just a war novel but one that could very well be the novel about the Iraq War.
Early in the book, Private Bartle makes a promise to Private Murphy’s mother that he will “bring him home” to her. Sergeant Sterling overhears this exchange and later in a drunken rage physically attacks Bartle for making such a promise. It seems like a savage attack, and it is, but as the story shows the increasing horrors of the war and the confusion the soldiers have in regards to what they are trying to accomplish in Iraq, Sterling’s anger starts to make at least some sense. I won’t give away more of the plot as the actual story is quite simple. Again, the characters and Powers’ writing are what set The Yellow Birds apart.