The Yellow Birds: A Novel

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers As much as I love long, never-ending stories, I also love short bursts of feeling that show you raw and impossible to deny realities. The best material for these kind of explosions are war stories, because their truth is not a very fictional one, you can't make it more romantic. It's painful and bare and it hurts in so many different ways that you can't contain it better than writing very directly about it. You can see that pain is not a very artsy thing and doesn't care for adorning; it is best to portray it as simply as you can, as close to your heart as you can and give it the ability to wake something up in your reader's mind.

Now, for the review. Warning: it won't be a very coherent one, I'm really tired.

You read memoirs of soldiers. Journals, maybe. You read their thoughts, black on white, recorded for the world to see. You get to know their aftermath. And you think about the thousands upon thousands of faces you have seen in documentaries, on TV, in photos. You think about those anonymous beings, strangers really, to you, sad-eyed and empty-faced, brown-haired, blond, black, white-skinned, caramel, doesn't matter. Dressed in that uniform that eliminates individuality and makes every soldier virtually the same single one, with their thoughts drawn out and inside, instead, hammered a bunch of worthless patriotic ideas that are supposed to make them feel like they're fighting that war for themselves, when they're just pawns on some rich man's ebony chess table.

The soldier of this book is not that man. I know he fought in a modern war (is there even such a thing? a modern war? it's been all about killing since the first one, what difference does it make if we do it with drones now, we still need flesh to kill, we're still murderers), but I like to envision him as the different one from the row of soldiers you can see in a vintage movie. I like to think he's the one whose eyes sparkle. I see him, in my mind, looking at the camera instead of looking at the flag (like all the others, like the herd), trying to send the viewer a message, a personalized one, not what the others want him to. I see he is young and that life has barely started to boil in him; I also see he is old, because war taught him to hunch over, to bow his head, to accept death, to be silent about it. He is separated from our world, he's so far away he can't come back to being normal. The kind of man who counts the dead and raises his head to acknowledge every other comrade's pain on the plane towards home. The kind of man who knows what he does is called survival, not living. You see that there's horror in his eyes, but he shades it away from your understanding, because he knows that once you've understood, you'll become like him. He doesn't hide from the world because he's afraid for himself, but he's sick of the lies we've all been told and sees that he can't change things all by himself, that his fight to fit in once more will be in vain.

I see a brave man; he was once empty. War made a man out of him. Getting out of war broke him down. And it hurts him that his only meaning seemed to be found when he was killing and afraid and hurt. He asks himself if that is normal life...

That soldier who, when he takes his garments off, when he steps out of his uniform, is actually, like a snake, slithering out of his own skin, without having a clue how to grow another one.

This book has been given to me by my History teacher, and because of the way he gave it to me I thought it would be just a filler book, the kind you read in between other major works. But I really, really liked it. I loved every minute of it and honestly thought it was beautifully written, very lyrical, very poetic for something so strong and raw. I happen to judge things, and I happen to judge them badly. I did it to this one too.

Without giving any spoilers, because I honestly don't want to, it goes like this: there's three main characters, Bart, Murph and serg. Sterling. Bart is 21 when he goes to war, Murph is 18 and Sterling is 24. They are deployed in Al Tafar, an area they have to conquer and protect, and experiment the horrors of what modern warfare means: shooting, bombing, etc. Bart and Murph are what you would classically call war-buddies, men who have met on the front and became friends on the basis of maybe saving each other or needing a friend before their imminent death. But this particular story is not about the positive part, it's not a story about friendship during fighting or how a man can surpass war, but rather the exact opposite: how you never, ever survive war.

Even if you live until the end of it. You'll never find your peace.

Once again, the writing I found perfect for a book like this. Very poignant, straight-forward, punctuated with swearing-words and in general a true description of normal human thought processes. There can be tens of quotes I can pick to make you see this, but I'll go for the monologue that almost made me give this book a 5-star rating. I found this to be one of the best confessions I have ever read in a war book, and by far one of the best written pieces in the stream-of-consciousness style that I have personally seen in literature.

“Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sign posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you goona do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, and the one person you promised would live is dead, and you have seen all things die in more manners than you’d like to recall and for a while the whole thing fucking ravaged your spirit like some deep-down shit, man, that you didn’t even realize you had until only the animals made you sad, the husks of dogs filled with explosives and old arty shells and the fucking guts of everything stinking like metal and burning garbage and you walk around and the smell is deep down into you now and you say, How can metal be so on fire? and Where is all this fucking trash coming from? and even back home you’re getting whiffs of it and then that thing you started to notice slipping away is gone and now it’s becoming inverted, like you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, that at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and 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, and you can’t explain it but it’s just, like, Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s your fault, really, because you went on purpose, so you are in the end doubly fucked, so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward and, really, cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you a fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now and you’re too much of a coward to be a man and get it over with so why not find a clean, dry place and wait it out with it hurting as little as possible and just wait to go to sleep and not wake up and fuck ‘em all.”

Perfection, I tell you.