The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds, a debut novel by Kevin Powers, is a powerful look at the confusion soldiers experience while abroad during the Iraq War between 2004-2005.  Private Bartle and Murphy become connected and friendly, but their friendship is tenuous at best as it relies on the anxiety and adrenaline of war to sustain it.  What do these two men really know of each other than their age, the fact that one has a girlfriend and mother back home and that the other has only a mother, and that they both joined up with the promise of a new future ahead.

“I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I’d been trained to think war was a great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth.  Bullshit.  War is the great maker of solipsists:”  (page 12)

Powers attempts to examine the ideas of “freedom” and “free will,” especially through the actions of the soldiers, with Murph seeking out time in his day to watch a female medic from afar without interacting — creating memories that are not beyond his control.  But what does this control say about the notion of freedom, particularly since Murph is attempting to take, at least partially, control of his own memories.  At one point early in the novel, meanwhile, Bartle says, “I remember feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear.  It had dawned on me that I’d never have to make a decision again.  That seemed freeing . . . ” (page 35)  Does freedom from decision-making mean that soldiers are free and that their will is free to act as it pleases?  It’s a catch-22 for without will, there are no decisions.

Beyond the calls to assess freedom and its consequences, Powers is asking the reader to question the ideas of right and wrong, miracles, and circumstance.  What does it mean when a bullet strays from you and hits another?  In Bartle’s case, he sees no meaning; it just happens.  In this way, Powers illustrates how far removed Bartle has become from morality and emotion, something that many soldiers experience.  Even his attempts to reconnect with Murph are faulty, and while many may view Murph as fragile, there is something more human and less robotic about him than Bartle.  One is the foil of the other as the war has worn them both down, and their differences — no matter how pronounced — are a testament to the ability of Powers to demonstrate the ways in which war can take its toll on the human psyche.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is less an emotional book than it is a psychological one, though the shift between years is well documented, it can be distracting to pinpoint where the events fall in a time line.  However, while the style is something that takes a bit of getting used to, it does showcase the mind of soldiers when they return from war — as trauma makes it harder to think of events in a linear fashion.  Powers includes not only the gruesome details, but also the beauty of the foreign land in which these soldiers find themselves battling the enemy.  The juxtaposed images make the horrors of war even more heartbreaking and tough to take.

About the Author:

Kevin Powers was born and raised in Richmond, VA. In 2004 and 2005 he served with the U.S. Army in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq. He studied English at Virginia Commonwealth University after his honorable discharge and received an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.



This is my 15th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge


  1. I think I’d be drawn to the psychological aspects of this book too. It’s finally waiting for me at the library…just have to make time to read it now!

  2. What a coincidence that we both posted this book on the same day! I thought the book was well-written and even had a poetic lilt to it. But overall, it just crushed me. Not that any war book is uplifting, but this one affected more than most. I think what got me more than anything was the presence of the mother with the son. I cannot separate the love I have for my son from what was going on here, and it sickened me.

    • I can imagine this might be a tougher read for someone who has a son, as opposed to a daughter. I really liked the psychological aspects of this one a bit more than I realized while reading it. Initially, I was a bit ambivalent about the book.

  3. This one has garnered quite a bit of praise. I did not know that the author actually served in the military. Someone suggested I read this one after I read Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk.

  4. Sandy reviewed the audio of this one today too. I just don’t think I could handle this one, but I am really glad it is out there!

    • I handled it fine, but I’ve read others that were more disturbing in terms of war images. This one was more psychological to me, with some grotesque scenes thrown in so you were reminded of the war.