Bul­let’s eye view of war

The Yel­low Birds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Dapin

By Kevin Pow­ers Scep­tre, 240pp, $26.99

THE first line of The Yel­low Birds, the de­but novel of US Iraq war vet­eran Kevin Pow­ers, filled me with ner­vous dread: ‘‘ The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nin­eveh and the weather warmed.’’

He’s try­ing too hard, I thought. He’s giv­ing agency to an oc­cur­rence. What if the whole book is like this?

War doesn’t try to kill any­one. No­body seems able to give a cred­i­ble ac­count of the rea­sons be­hind the US in­va­sion of Iraq, but it clearly wasn’t a con­scious de­ci­sion on be­half of the event it­self. Make the war a char­ac­ter, but don’t ex­pect it to shoul­der the blame.

Then there’s the phys­i­cal book it­self, a hard­cover with an open­ing note claim­ing this un­cor­rected proof is one of 100 copies only, with the two ze­roes in 100 added by hand. Just what does The Yel­low Birds think it is?

All in all, it’s a bloody good job that Pow­ers’s de­but is such a fan­tas­tic piece of writ­ing. Oth­er­wise, there would re­ally be trou­ble.

The novel is shaped as a story told by US Army pri­vate John Bar­tle about his friend­ship with pri­vate Daniel Mur­phy, whom he has been sworn by Mur­phy’s mother to pro­tect. But Mur­phy’s death has been fore­told by the sol­diers’ NCO, Sergeant Sterling, who knows ev­ery­thing about men and war.

‘‘ I hated him,’’ Bar­tle says of Sterling. I hated the way he ex­celled in death and bru­tal­ity and dom­i­na­tion. But more than that, I hated the way he was nec­es­sary, how I needed him to jar me into ac­tion even when they were try­ing to kill me, how I felt like a coward un­til he screamed into my

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