47 pages • 1 hour readKevin Powers
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Told as a retrospective narrative after the narrator, Bart (John Bartle’s), part in the Iraq war is over, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, published in 2012 and Finalist for the National Book Award, begins with Bart and the rest of his platoon holding a position atop a building outside of a town called Al Tafar, Iraq, the locale at the novel’s center. Over the course of the novel, subsequent chapters will move backward and forward in time, but the majority of the novel returns to Al Tafar in the fall of 2004.
In the opening chapter, the platoon’s interpreter, Malik, is killed in a fire fight, and a few days later Bart and his fellow soldiers kill an elderly couple apparently attempting to flee the village during a skirmish. Bart also reveals that his friend, Murph (Daniel Murphy), will die sometime in the near future. Throughout the chapter, Bart reflects on death, fate, and unknowability of the future.
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The next chapter reveals that Bart will eventually forge a letter to Murph’s mother as if it were from him, something he regrets. Then it moves back in time to Bart at Fort Dix, New Jersey before the platoon has shipped out, when he first meets eighteen-year-old Murph. Another key figure, Sergeant Sterling, also comes into clearer focus in this chapter, as “harsh but fair” (33), and pairs the two up. Late in the chapter, before they ship out, we find out that Bart promised Murph’s mother to “bring him home to [her]” (47).
The third chapter jumps forward in time, to after Bart’s tour of duty has ended, and he is in Germany, awaiting departure back home to the U.S. He goes AWOL (away without leave) to wander the town in the rain, stopping in a cathedral and then into a brothel, where he runs into Sterling, drunk and abusive. Sterling mentions “I own you” to Bart (68), and Bart says enigmatically, “We could tell […] Just get the whole thing over with” (69).
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The remaining chapters alternate between the Al Tafar timeline and the timeline following Bart’s arrival back in the U.S., each moving steadily toward the events surrounding Murph’s death and their inevitable consequences in tandem. Chapter 4 returns to Al Tafar and Murph receives a breakup letter from his girlfriend back home. That night the city comes alive with fires and insurgents, and they get their next orders. The coronel gives a rousing speech in front of a TV crew, and then their lieutenant tells them the details: they’ll move through the orchard and enter the city to retake it. The chapter ends with Murph telling Bart he thinks Sterling is “losing his shit” (94).
Chapter 5 details Bart’s return to the U.S. Once off the plane, they are given a cursory “safety brief,” and then Bart finds a bar to wait for his connection home to Virginia, having an uncomfortable interaction with the bartender. Once he arrives in Virginia, his mother arrives to pick him up, embraces him, slaps him, then embraces him again. They go home, and he sleeps.
The next installment of the Al Tafar timeline follows Bart and Murph through a battle in the orchard in which they see a fellow soldier die. Sterling tells Bart he needs to look after Murph but Bart doesn’t right away, and, retrospectively, thinks, “It is possible I broke my promise [to Murph’s mother] in that very moment” (120). Afterward, in the city itself, they encounter a “body bomb” (cadaver filled with explosives) and an ambush, in the aftermath of which Bart and Murph repeatedly shoot one of the attackers who is clearly already dead.
Chapter 7 returns to Richmond after Bart’s return home, to his malaise and constant drinking, haunted by Murph’s death and its aftermath. His mother is worried about him and tells him he needs to talk to people, like his childhood friend Luke, who has invited him to the river. Bart wanders away thinking of death and Murph and goes to the river, camps, and spends the next day watching Luke and his friends messing around, but cannot join them. Eventually, he floats in the river and falls asleep, being woken and rescued by police after Luke apparently called them after seeing him. When he returns home, his mother says someone from the Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.) had called.
Back in Al Tafar in 2004, a while now since the battle, Bart notices Murph has become distant. When Bart asks Sterling about it, Sterling replies that Murph “is a dead man” because he’s gone home in his mind before his body is there. We start to see more of Bart’s own difficulties in coping as he drinks more and more. Finally, Bart finds out that Murph has been going to watch a female medic. Bart finds him and as they are walking away, mortars begin falling from the sky. Although both Bart and Murph are okay, they find the female medic has been killed, which deeply affects Murph.
Chapter 9 jumps ahead in time in the post-Iraq timeline, to November 2005, and Bart has his own place. A captain from C.I.D. shows up with the letter Bart wrote to Murph’s mother in an evidence bag, and briefly questions Bart, who seems resigned to his fate. We find out that Sterling had killed himself and so Bart remains the only person who can be held accountable. He is arrested and, as the captain takes him to his car, Bart drops his and Murph’s casualty feeder cards into the river.
Chapter 10 is the climactic chapter for the Al Tafar timeline. Murph, in the aftermath of the medic’s death, has lost it, and gone AWOL, removing his clothes and disassembling his weapon. Bart and Sterling and the rest of the platoon go out into Al Tafar to find him. They find an Iraqi who says he saw Murph walking dazed and went off with a beggar. The soldiers continue to search and find the beggar dead. Eventually, they come across a man with a cart and donkey who directs them to the foot of a minaret by the river. Bart and Sterling go alone and find Murph’s body, seeing he’d been tortured and killed and thrown out of the minaret’s window. They don’t want to send him home like that for his mother to see, so Sterling calls the man with the cart back over, starts a fire and the three of them throw Murph’s body in the river. In order to cover it up, Sterling then shoots the Iraqi as well.
The final chapter serves as the novel’s denouement, jumping several years into the future, as Bart is about to be released from prison after his three-year sentence. His time in prison has been spent trying to piece together the events that brought him to this moment. Despite proving fruitless, that realization that it is fruitless helps nonetheless. We also learn that Murph’s mother had visited Bart, and through her visit, Bart imagines what it was like for her, and they had come to a sense of “resignation” together (223). The novel ends with Bart getting out of prison, getting a cabin in the mountains, and imagining the journey of Murph’s body to the sea.