'Yellow Birds' Proves Writing War Isn't Just for Generations Past

Dec 11, 2012

War is hell. Even those of us who haven’t fought in one know that to be true. Communicating the experience of war in a truthful and authentic way is hard enough. Telling the story of war is even harder.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
Credit Little, Brown

Yet it’s something Kevin Powers does with fierce poetry in his debut novel The Yellow Birds. The book, published by Little, Brown & Company, tells a story of friendship and loss forged in war and its aftermath. It was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in Fiction and was just named one of the top 10 books of the year by the New York Times. 

It has been called this generation’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

But Powers, who was in Milwaukee back in September, hesitates to have his work be seen as all-inclusive of experiences soldiers have had in Iraq.

"All I can really do is offer one version of that possible experience," Powers says. "I didn’t feel like it was my place to speak for anybody else, to claim anybody else’s experience. You know, I offer this book up as just a record of my attempt to deal with the questions I had."

Before he graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with an MFA in poetry, Powers served in the US Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar. But he is quick to point out that his experience was not that of his two protagonists, privates Bartle and Murphy, even though they serve in a similar unit doing a similar mission.

Still he channeled his time there to fine-tune the specific sort of language he felt such a story needed.

"You're trying to communicate the level of intensity of what these characters are going through," he says, "and it seemed natural to me that trying to have the language be dynamic and strange could somehow mirror the intensity of these characters' interior lives."

The attention to wording was particularly important as Powers tried to convey conflicting emotions about returning "home" after battle. He says after such a foreign and alienating experience as war, you want to return to what's familiar and comforting. But many times, those comforts, for whatever reason, aren't there.

"It can be challenging," Powers says, "and it can cause you to turn in other directions."

For his own part, he says he isn't sure he has arrived at any definitive answers about his own experience. But he says after having written such an intense, albeit fictional account of war, he sees those questions more clearly.