Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

05Jan13

Kevin Powers’ book, The Yellow Birds, hit the literary world last year with the force of an insurgent car bomb. Powers, who served in Iraq as a machine gunner according to his book flap bio, was a writer who had been there, done that, and wrote the book about it. The public could finally learn some truth about the Iraq War through Powers’ beautiful prose. This book exposes the horrible cruelty of the war and the pathetic state our soldiers are reduced to when they come home, alone, just as they did from Vietnam. When the protagonist’s brutal, horrible secret is revealed, when we learn what he really did in the war, we can all say to ourselves, “See? I knew they were all doing stuff like that over there!”

. . . . dramatic pause. . . .

I had you there for a minute, didn’t I? What I just did was give an impression of the literary world’s reaction to Powers’ book. This book has been praised, fawned over and proclaimed a classic. The literary elite, who don’t have a clue what war is like, are all agog over this book’s “true” depiction of the Iraq War. Unfortunately, as a veteran of that war, I don’t see it that way.

First complaint (and this is a HUGE one): as I mentioned before, Powers’ book flap bio says he was a machine gunner in Iraq. Then in interviews, Powers says he was a combat engineer, and served as a gunner on a humvee. His team patrolled roads looking for IEDs. What he did was noble, important and dangerous. BUT IT’S NOT THE SAME THING AS BEING A MACHINE GUNNER, AND POWERS KNOWS IT ISN’T.

Why does this matter? To a civilian, it probably doesn’t. But to us in the Army or Marine Corps, it’s a big deal. Among infantrymen, being a machine gunner is a huge responsibility and a physically challenging, painful job. It means long forced marches burdened with a (minimum) twenty-seven pound machine gun on top of all your other gear. It means bearing spare barrels, thousands of rounds of ammo, and a heavy tripod. It means struggling in 120 degree heat, crushed by twice as much weight as everyone else, holding something that makes you the enemy’s first target. In the Marine Corps, there’s a separate designation and school for it. Being a machine gunner is a crucial job that requires brute strength, iron discipline and selfless courage.

A gunner on a humvee, on the other hand, doesn’t require all those things. Almost anyone in the military could have ridden as a humvee gunner in Iraq. I did it many times in Iraq and Afghanistan and I was never even an infantryman, much less a machine gunner. A ninety-pound cook could do it. Being a vehicle gunner is important and dangerous, but if you did it that doesn’t mean you’re a “machine gunner”. I’m willing to bet Kevin Powers wouldn’t stand in a room full of infantrymen and say, “Oh yeah, I was a machine gunner.” If he did, he’d be lucky to only be laughed out of the room.

Maybe you’re wondering why this bothers me so much. You might say, “Powers was in Iraq, he was on a machine gun, that’s close enough to being a machine gunner for me.” The problem is, it exposes a willingness to stretch truth in order to get more attention and sell more books. I have a very strong suspicion that when Powers told his agent “I was a combat engineer and humvee gunner in Iraq”, the agent rubbed her chin and said, “Hmmm. . . we’ll say you were a machine gunner. That’s kind of true, right? It sounds way cooler, you’ll sell more books that way.” And Powers went with it.

As a military guy, coming from a world where you better be able to back up any claim you make, I was disgusted to see this exaggeration about Powers’ background. I learned of it before I read the book, and I’ll admit it set me against the book from the start. I’m objective enough to appreciate Powers’ literary skill; no question about it, the guy’s a poet. But the little bio fib exposed what I think is Powers’ willingness to write whatever would sell, reality be damned. And what sells (just like another alleged “classic Iraq novel”, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) has to appeal to people who don’t know anything about our war. It’s the same reason The Hurt Locker won best picture, even though Iraq vets largely detested it.

In this pseudo-Iraq story we hear Powers’ protagonist, Private Bartle, promise an 18-year old soldier’s mother that he’ll take care of him (but guess what happens?). We see a treasured photo kept in a helmet liner. We meet the older, experienced sergeant who casually beats his soldiers (and women). We follow Bartle on his journey out of Iraq, see his unit split up and Bartle land, alone, at a lonely airport. We see Bartle isolated, drunk and suicidal, shut into a dark apartment as he waits for the consequences of his crimes to finally catch up. We almost hear The Doors’ Jim Morrison singing The End.

Could one soldier promise another soldier’s mother to take care of him? Sure. It’s a well-worn war tale that I never saw or heard of in my deployments, but it’s happened in the last ten years. Could a grizzled older sergeant beat his troops? Sure. That was also way more common in past wars, but it still happens. Could a soldier keep a photo in a helmet liner? Sure. . . well, no, actually. We haven’t had helmet liners since the 80’s. Powers knows this, and still wrote a passage about a soldier putting a photo in a helmet liner. But photos in helmet liners looked really cool in a lot of Vietnam movies.

What about the homecoming scene, where lonely Private Bartle returns alone to a lonely airport and meets his lonely mother on a dark, lonely night? That’s a great Vietnam homecoming scene, but it’s not how we came home from Iraq. Entire units rotated in and out of country together, unlike Vietnam where individual replacements did. When a unit left Iraq, it went to Kuwait for a short time, then was flown back intact to its home station. Soldiers DID NOT come home from the war alone, as Powers described. He knew that, but he wrote the scene that way anyway.

Why would he write scenes that he knew weren’t true? If the soldier had put the photo in his pocket, would the scene have suffered? If Bartle had come home with his unit, gone through the normal discharge process and then gone home, would something have been lost? I don’t think so. But Powers wrote those scenes a certain way, maybe because that was how it happened in Vietnam.

I’m going to return to the homecoming scene for a moment, because it’s a good example of one major problem I had with the book. Powers’ characters just do weird stuff for no reason, stuff that’s totally non sequitur. When Bartle comes home and meets his mother at the airport, she cries, hugs and kisses him. . . then slaps him for no reason. This was the most minor example of out of place, bizarre behavior. I realize some people will read the book after reading this review, and don’t want to ruin it for them. But Powers’ characters repeatedly do things that make no sense, are totally out of place, and really follow no logical pattern at all. When the main secret driving the plot is revealed, my reaction was, “What the hell? Nobody would do that!” Then I yelled it louder, twice more, at the characters’ reactions to this secret. Their actions just didn’t make sense. I couldn’t even say, “Yeah, that could have happened. Soldiers could do stuff like that.” It was just so far out there, it lost me. The book could have turned into young adult fantasy at that point.

In summary, The Yellow Birds was well written by an author who has the credibility and experience to write a war book. But what he wrote, in my opinion, has no connection to Iraq. He wrote a half generic war story/half Vietnam story, probably because that’s what the literary world wanted. If you want to read a book that tells you what Iraq was really like, you’re out of luck with this one.



8 Responses to “Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers”

  1. The promotional write-ups for The Yellow Birds were leaving me a bit cold to begin with for many of the reasons that you ended up disliking it. Mostly it sounded like a generic war novel that didn’t say much about any particular war (just like you point out). I wasn’t even aware of the misleading machine gunner comments, but that stretching of the truth pretty much sinks any interest I had in reading it. Great review, by the way.

    • I appreciate that, glad you enjoyed it. I don’t wish ill on Kevin Powers, the guy is a good writer who served honorably. I just hope for his next book he drops the pretense about his background, and doesn’t tell a story tailored to the market. Granted, everyone wants commercial success, including me. Powers is obviously headed toward success. He just could have told a much better, more honest story than this one.

      Chris

  2. 3 JimP

    It seems as “tailored to the market” as Anthony Swofford’s whining tale from the first Gulf War …… I’ll pass.

    • I actually enjoyed Swofford’s book, although I didn’t understand the whole thing about bursting into tears, throwing down his AK and hiding under a humvee at the end of the book. That felt like manufactured drama to me.

      • 5 JimP

        The whole book was pretty much a long list of how messed up his family life was, and how messed up “The Suck” was , and how messed up you had to be to embrace it. …… like I said, tailor made for the Bicoastal mass market…… just my.$02.

        • Understood, no argument. I guess I liked most of it because I was in the Corps at that time, and related to a lot of what he talked about. But yeah, now that you mention it, the book does seem a little slanted toward the anti-war crowd.

  3. 7 DSS90

    You actually misunderstood the passage where Bartle returns home. He was in Kuwait (it was only about a paragraph’s worth), and then Germany. He returned with his unit to Richmond where they were dismissed. That’s when he goes to the airport bar, gets drunk, and waits for his mother to get him in.

    In general, I agree with your critique. I think the style of writing Powers attempts was done first and better by Tim O’Brien. I think it’s a decent book, but totally undeserving of being flouted around as being the iconic book of the Iraq War or something when it’s all vague generalities and 5-page long landscape descriptions.

    • DS,

      Thanks for that, I’ll have to take another look at it. It seemed to me that the unit was dismissed before they made it to their home station, then split up and went home alone. Either way, it doesn’t seem to be the way a unit comes back from war today. I don’t know of any unit that is dismissed before they reach their base or home station.

      I definitely agree with your second comment. The book was more about literary style and less about Iraq. I can’t think of a single part in it that was specifically about the Iraq War.

      Thanks for commenting, and I’ll check out that part of the book again.


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