Far from our Shores: A Modern-Day Coming of Age Story
By Andrew Barber
The Iraqi war has been responsible for over 4000 US Military deaths since 2003, not to mention countless permanent injuries, both physical and psychological. In his first novel, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers draws from his experiences in the U.S. Army to create a vivid and insightful story about two young American men trying their best to survive in the Iraq War.
The protagonist and narrator of the book is Private John Bartle, a 21-year old born and raised in rural Virginia. Bartle opens the story on a rooftop in Iraq, describing the environment and lifestyle challenges as an American soldier during the war; soldiers frequently find themselves under heavy fire as they fight to control the city of Al Tafar.
From chapter to chapter, the author transitions to different locations and time periods seamlessly. Early on, the reader learns that back in 2003, Bartle foolishly had made a promise to the mother of his friend, Daniel Murphy, right before he and “Murph” were deployed. He promised Daniel’s mother that he would keep Daniel safe and bring him home, even though the wartime cliché of promising to come back alive, let alone bring another man back alive—is not a truly tenable reality.
Soon after, the reader learns that Bartle is not able to live up to his promise. However, Bartle mentions Murph’s death without elaboration, and the reader is left with more questions than answers until later in the book. Bartle ultimately describes his friend’s death, the heartbreaking decision that he and his Sergeant were forced to make, and the events that followed.
Throughout the book, Powers repeats a process of describing Bartle’s life during and after the war, going into great detail of how he felt and what was going through his mind. This nonlinear narrative style is similar to the nature of war, as it is chaotic and doesn’t follow a straight path; it is an experience defined by long periods of each soldier’s reflection, punctuated by brief, intense spurts of in-the-moment violent action, and later, episodes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But Powers writes his narrator’s expression most eloquently once he is home—beyond the fog of war. An example of his vivid description is shown in the following passage, describing his life back in Richmond after the war: “I looked over the railing down onto the old stone piers of earlier iterations of the bridge where earlier iterations of aimless walkers must have seen some kind of sight like this…and maybe seeing a small wavy outline of themselves reflected down below, with all that space around, thinking there was just so much damn space to be in that it hurt.” The rhetoric of this passage is due, in part, to Bartle’s own utter “aimless[ness].” He is reaching out, symbolically, to other “wavy outline[s]” of men; he is trying to escape his hurt, his feeling of loneliness, by displacing hurt into others.
Overall, The Yellow Birds is an extremely well written and thoughtful account of the impact of war through the eyes of young men who were wholly unprepared for the work, experiences, decisions, and pain they would face. Their experiences are accessible to young people everywhere, most of whom have a wealth of other choices but who may not appreciate their good fortune. Because the Iraqi conflict may be invisible to many people in the United States, and too often it is someone else’s relative coming home in a pine box, the writer’s plain and graphic language serves to remind us of the physical and psychological devastation of war, even when that war is waged far from our shores.