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Soldiering amongst hyacinths and horror

As most Americans have become disillusioned and/or disinterested in the wars our country continue to fight, a book written by a young Iraqi War veteran hits bookstores this month. There are many people who can not ignore the continuing war on terror as they or someone they love has been there. Kevin Powers, author of “The Yellow Birds”, is one of those people.

Powers joined the Army when he was only 17 years old and served as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Still a young man, he has seen and lived through horrors most of us can’t even imagine. Drawing upon those experiences, he has written a novel that is receiving high praise from reviewers and bookstore owners. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times says Powers’ first book is remarkable and stands with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, “The Things They Carried”, as a classic of contemporary war fiction.

“‘The Yellow Birds’ is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the use of memory,” Kakutani writes.

The book is fiction, but could only have been written by someone who’s experienced war first hand. I am struck by the sad statement that Bartle, the book’s narrator, who’s 21 years old, pledges to the mother of Murph, a naive and emotionally fragile 18-year-old private, that he will make sure nothing happens to her son. As a parent, the irony of a 21-year-old soldier being seasoned enough to watch out for an 18-year-old soldier is too poignant for words. This book is fiction, but anyone who reads the list of real servicemen and women being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan knows this scenario is happening. The youth of those being sacrificed is heart breaking.

It’s also touching in this book that Bartle and Murph are small town boys with “small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.” They hope to find that “something” in the Army.

Powers gives us glimpses of ordinary life in the midst of war: a hyacinth garden, a swallow tracing the shape of an alley, an orchard on the edge of the city — things that alternate with scenes of horror that feel like something out of a painting of hell such as medics trying to stuff a young soldier’s insides back into his body; a corpse bomb exploding on a bridge; a castrated body, missing its ears and nose, thrown from a tower.

It’s important that all of us remember what’s happening on the other side of the world under the U.S. banner. Powers helps us remember and hopefully understand. And also, we can hope that his writing career continues.

More on “The Yellow Birds”

Author: Kevin Powers

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company Publishers

Price: $24.99 hardcover

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