The Yellow Birds

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The Yellow Birds
First edition cover image
AuthorKevin Powers
Cover artistOliver Munday
CountryUnited States
GenreFiction, Novel
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
Publication date
11 September 2012
Media typePrint (hardcover)

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel from American writer, poet, and Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. It was one of The New York Times's 100 Most Notable Books of 2012[1] and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. It was awarded the 2012 The Guardian First Book Award,[2] and the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.[3]


Much of the novel draws upon Powers's experience serving a year as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, from February 2004 to March 2005 after enlisting in the Army at the age of 17. After his honorable discharge, Powers enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University, where he graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor's degree in English. He holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry.[4][5]

Powers has said that the novel took him about four years to write.[5] He also comes from a military family as "his father and grandfathers both served, and his uncle was a Marine."[6]

With regard to the autobiographical elements of the novel, Powers says: "The core of what Bartle goes through, I empathised with it. I felt those things, and asked the same questions: is there anything about this that's redeeming; does asking in itself have value? The story is invented, but there's a definite alignment between his emotional and mental life and mine."[6]


The Yellow Birds begins: "The war tried to kill us in the spring" and follows Pvt. John Bartle, the novel's protagonist and narrator, in Al Tafar, Iraq; Fort Dix, New Jersey; Kaiserslautern, Germany; the author's and narrator's hometown of Richmond, Virginia; and Fort Knox, Kentucky spanning from December 2003 to April 2009.

Much of the novel focuses on Bartle's promise to the mother of Murph, a fellow Private, not to let him die in the war. Bartle and Murph also make a pact not to be the 1,000th casualty in the war. The reader learns in the beginning of the novel, however, that Murph dies in the war.

The Yellow Birds also examines the reactions of soldiers after their deployments. Bartle enters a state in which he does not want to leave his house upon his return from the war and slowly deteriorates as the novel progresses. Powers has stated: "I wanted to show the whole picture. It's not just: you get off the plane, you're back home, everything's fine. Maybe the physical danger ends, but soldiers are still deeply at risk of being injured in a different way. I thought it was important to acknowledge that."[6]

The title of the novel alludes to a story Murph tells Bartle while on a guard tower about when Murph's "father brought a dozen caged canaries home from the mine and let them loose in the hollow where they lived, how the canaries only flitted and sang awhile before perching back atop their cages, which had been arranged in rows, his father likely thinking that the birds would not return by choice to their captivity, and that the cages should be used for something else: a pretty bed for vegetables, perhaps a place to string up candles between the trees, and in what strange silences the world worked, Murph must have wondered, as the birds settled peaceably in their formation and ceased to sing."[7]


Epigraph to The Yellow Birds

"A yellow bird

With a yellow bill,

Was perched upon

My windowsill.

I lured him in

With a piece of bread

And then I smashed

His fucking head …"

Traditional U.S. Army marching cadence

For Powers, the epigraph has come to stand for: "the lack of control soldiers have over what happens to them. The war proceeds, no matter what you think or do; it's an entity unto itself. You're powerless, and powerlessness itself becomes the enemy. That was my emotional experience of the war. The idea of the bird resonated with the core of what I was trying to get at."[6]

One of the major themes of The Yellow Birds is the separation between the American public and soldiers fighting overseas, which has dominated much of the Iraq War. It reflects the idea that Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum put forward in their book, That Used to Be Us: "We have also outsourced sacrifice. If World War II was 'the good war,' and the Korean War 'the forgotten war,' and Vietnam 'the controversial war,' the conflict that began with the attacks of September 11, 2001, and has sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly a decade can be called 'the 1 percent war.' The troops deployed to these combat zones and their immediate families make up less than 1 percent of the population of the United States. The rest of us contribute nothing. We won't even increase our taxes, even through a surcharge on gasoline to pay for these wars. So we end up asking 1 percent of the country to make the ultimate sacrifice and the other 99 percent to make no sacrifice at all."[8]

With regard to the lack of connection between U.S. forces and the general public, Powers has said: "But I also felt powerful resentment that it seemed like nobody cared that we had gotten into this thing without thinking what the consequences would be...In some ways, the dialogue itself is missing. It seems the public conversation has disappeared. There are still soldiers in Afghanistan right now. There might be a wounded soldier as we speak who is feeling his life slipping away from him. And it doesn’t warrant a mention in some venues. I think that’s tragic."[9]

Upon Bartle's return from the war, he encounters a patron at an airport bar who wants to buy him a drink and express his gratitude for Bartle's service. Bartle, however, finds this gesture, like the placement of a yellow ribbon, to be disingenuous and feels guilt when he is congratulated and thanked for his participation in something he sees as immoral.

With Bartle's and Murph's pact not to be the 1,000th casualty of the war, The Yellow Birds aims to deconstruct the patriotic narratives of the war like the controversies surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, the prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, and the Mission Accomplished Speech given by President George W. Bush. Bartle also contrasts with the image of a masculine, brave soldier and reflects on his need to prove his masculinity as a reason for enlisting in the Army.


In a review for The New York Times Benjamin Percy writes: "In this way, The Yellow Birds joins the conversation with books like Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony,” Brian Turner’s Phantom Noise and Tim O’Brien’s classic, The Things They Carried — and wakes the readers of 'the spoiled cities of America' to a reality most would rather not face. Percy quotes the novel, writing: "Here we are, fretting over our Netflix queues while halfway around the world people are being blown to bits. And though we might slap a yellow ribbon magnet to our truck’s tailgate, though we might shake a soldier’s hand in the airport, we ignore the fact that in America an average of 18 veterans are said to commit suicide every day. What a shame, we say, and then move on quickly to whatever other agonies and entertainments occupy the headlines."[10]

Michiko Kakutani included it as one of her 10 favorite books of 2012 and called it: "a deeply affecting book that conveys the horrors of combat with harrowing poetry. At once a freshly imagined bildungsroman and a metaphysical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory."[11]

The National Book Award citation describes The Yellow Birds as: "Poetic, precise, and moving, The Yellow Birds is a work of fiercest principle, honoring loss while at the same time indicting the pieties of war...An urgent, vital, beautiful novel that reminds us through its scrupulous honesty how rarely its anguished truths are told."[12]


The book was adapted on screen in 2017, The Yellow Birds was directed by Alexandre Moors and starred Jack Huston, Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan and Jennifer Aniston.


  1. ^ "The New York Times". Retrieved 2014-04-06.
  2. ^ "Guardian First Book award 2012 shortlist announced | Books | The Guardian". Retrieved 2014-06-28.
  3. ^ "Hemingway / PEN Award | Hemingway Society". Retrieved 2014-06-28.
  4. ^ "Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds - National Book Award Fiction Finalist, The National Book Foundation". Retrieved 2014-04-06.
  5. ^ a b "A poet borne from war « Know". Retrieved 2014-06-28.
  6. ^ a b c d "Kevin Powers on The Yellow Birds: 'I felt those things, and asked the same questions' | Books | The Guardian". Retrieved 2014-06-28.
  7. ^ Powers, Kevin (September 2012). The Yellow Birds. Little, Brown. pp. 139.
  8. ^ Friedman, Thomas and, Mandelbaum, Michael (2011). That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. Picador. pp. 309–310.
  9. ^ Lynn Sherr. "A Soldier's Story: Returning Home From Iraq". Retrieved 2014-06-28.
  10. ^ Percy, Benjamin. "'The Yellow Birds,' by Kevin Powers". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-04-06.
  11. ^ "The New York Times". Retrieved 2014-04-06.
  12. ^ "Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds - National Book Award Fiction Finalist, The National Book Foundation". Retrieved 2014-06-28.