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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Battle stories pierce the piety of war

“The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers, should be required reading.

The debut novel tells the story of two young American soldiers fighting their way through Al Tafar province in Iraq in 2004. A thoroughly original work, the book defines the experience of war as only fiction can. It stands with all the great war novels, from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “A Farewell to Arms” to “The Thin Red Line” to “The Things They Carried.”

Powers writes from experience. He enlisted in the Army when he was 17. He served as a machine gunner in Iraq for two years, and came home to write this book. We can all feel thankful that he survived to tell his tale, a gift of humanity pulled from the trenches.

The narrative thread is simple, but the themes are rich and complex and the language is beautiful.

It begins: “The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”

Elegiac. And yet the opening epigraph strikes a different note. It is taken from an Army marching cadence: “A yellow bird/With a yellow bill/Was perched upon/My window sill/I lured him in/With a piece of bread/And then I smashed/His —— head.”

This author, like other great ones, does not countenance piety or prudery in the face of war. His protagonist suffers psychological trauma, which manifests itself mostly in an agonizing numbness. What the young soldier sees, what he does, sears his soul. He cannot begin to organize the experience of sudden, violent death in a way that makes any sense to him. Once he gets home, he doesn’t know how to live in the world.

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