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Books: The Literature of War

My eldest son and I have an ongoing discussion about “The Shelf,” an imaginary but distinctive resting place for the best war literature.

He referred to it after I finished Karl Marlantes “Mattherhorn,” a 640 page slog — in the best sense of the word — through the Vietnam War. (We agree to disagree on whether “Matterhorn” belongs on the shelf. It’s on mine, along with Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” and Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”)

I’m putting a newly published novel about the Iraq war on The Shelf. Kevin Powers “The Yellow Birds” is the story of two soldiers who do the wrong right thing after discovering the mutilated body of a fellow soldier.

Powers is a poet; he was a machine gunner in the U.S. Army, serving in Iraq. This is his first novel.

Powers unfurls this story slowly; we are in many places at once. We are back home in Private Bartle’s Virginia, where he’s unable to reconnect with his family or hometown friends. We are with him and his buddy Private Murphy in Iraq: tired, dirty, thirsty, bored, hot, scared. Finally we are in Germany: Bartle is AWOL and drunk in a bar, on the way home from something we sense has been more terrible than the war itself. At the bar, Sergeant Sterling warns Bartle that only they two know what happened to Murph; Sterling “owns” Bartle.

Later we learn that Sterling is a suicide. What happened to these three in Iraq? The answer is stunning, but fully believable.

When we leave Bartle, he’s serving time in a military prison.

It wasn’t until I finished “The Yellow Birds” that I appreciated its breadth and power. It’s not a long book — 226 pages — but it’s well told, a full read. A devastating story about duty and honor.

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