The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
This was my second Iraq War book and second contender for the final spot in the Tournament of Books. It's a very different book from Fobbit in every respect. I did think it was interesting that in Fobbit a good portion of the book is concentrating on who would be the 2000th casualty of the war. Powers' book must come a little before that, because when Bart gets to Iraq they are coming up on the 1000th war death.
Powers is a poet and that really shows in his narrative. There is nothing like when a poet writes prose. The imagery is amazing. Poets just have to use words so powerfully, each one has to carry so much weight that you find sentences just drenched in imagery.
This is the story of three young men serving in Iraq and the tragedies they suffer. Private Bartle is 21 years old when he meets 18 year old Private Murphy at their New Jersey army base. Bart takes Murphy under his wing and helps him get used to army life, and soon after Sargeant Sterling comes into their lives. He encourages the two to stick together and, despite the fact that he's only a couple years older than Bartle, Sterling has been in the war and it's changed him. He's willing to do his job, but he knows what it will cost every young man who follows his path.
War is horrible for all of the men, but it hits Murphy particularly hard, especially after he gets a Dear John letter from his girl friend back home. Bartles and Sterling see him pulling away and there's plenty of foreshadowing of Murphy as a dead man. Although, I don't think it was any kind of literary device. If you are despondent and don't care that much about what happens to you, AND you are in the middle of horrible, violent bloody gun fights and torture sessions, there's a good chance you will not be paying enough attention to keep yourself safe. The details of Murphy's death get meted out over the course of the story. The effect his death has on Bartles and Sterling is just as important.
Murphy returns home to a nation filled with grateful citizens and he just wants escape. He doesn't feel he deserves the attention and gratitude he's given. He pulls away from his family and friends, living a sort of shadow life, filled mostly with cigarettes and booze. He needs to find a way to live again, to move forward in his own life and to deal with all that he's seen and experienced.
Fobbit focused on the war as experienced by people not on the front lines, but who must categorize and account for the lives lost, for the most part. There is fighting on the forward operating base and there are people on the base who are part of the war, but mostly the story concentrates on the office drone military personnel. But, The Yellow Birds focuses more on what happens to these young boys we send off to kill and be killed. I can't imagine it is easy to come to terms with all that you experienced when you get dropped back into your old life. John Bartles came home from the war a different person and was expected to go back to the life of the guy he was before the war. He looked the same, but could/should he really be expected to fit back into the hole he left when he went away?