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Originally published Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'The Yellow Birds': Kevin Powers' novel of the Iraq war

Kevin Powers' powerful novel "The Yellow Birds" tells the story of two U.S. soldiers in Iraq. One comes back, the other doesn't.

Special to The Seattle Times


'The Yellow Birds'

by Kevin Powers

Little, Brown, 240 pp., $24.99

When any war passes out of current events and politics into history, the truth, in all its unalloyed detail, begins to emerge. So it has been lately with the plethora of books about Vietnam and Iraq.

Karl Marlantes took us back to Vietnam in "Matterhorn," and Ben Fountain relived Bravo Squad's firefight with Iraqi insurgents through the lens of a Texas football field on Thanksgiving Day in "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." Another entry is David Abrams' "Fobbit," a sendup of the Baghdad Forward Operating Base where there is a definite disconnect between those fighting the war and those watering the plants.

In the same genre but with a different twist is "The Yellow Birds." The intimacy of Kevin Powers' story uses the now banal horror of war as a backdrop for the poignant story of two boys in way over their heads. In Al Tafar, Iraq, Private Murphy, 18, and Private Bartle, 21, do all they can to protect each other through endless days of fighting the same battle over and over again. Only the names of the dead are changed.

In a conversation between soldiers: "Yeah, seems like we're fighting over this town every year ... we'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow bloody parade to mark the change of season. We'd drive them out. We always had. We'd kill them ... then they'd come back, and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we'd throw candy to their children with whom we'd fight in the fall a few more years from now."

Who can remain unaffected by this? Not these two young men, one of whom makes it home while the other does not. Powers, in alternating chapters going backward and forward, involving family and friends, slowly reveals exactly what happened so far from home, how the survivor was persuaded to handle it and the eventual price he paid for that decision.

Re-entry into a world once called "home" is nearly impossible. Isolation, alcohol as anesthetic, reliving scenes too vivid to forget all contribute to keeping the returning soldier frozen in amber — until the Army steps in.

Once again, the soldier is a pawn, this time offered up as panacea for the dead soldier's mother and to salve the collective conscience of the military. In quiet, beautiful prose, Powers has painted an unforgettable portrait of so much that is wrong about the conduct of war and peace for soldiers.