Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds arrived in 2012 to great fanfare. In company with David Abrams’ excellent Fobbit, also published that year, as the first post-9/11 war novels written by military veterans, The Yellow Birds seemed both preternaturally good and strikingly unique. Combining a heightened lyrical style, gritty scenes of combat carnage, and a psychological interest in military leadership, duty, and guilt, The Yellow Birds attracted plaudits left-and-right, including a nomination for the National Book Award. Part of what made The Yellow Birds so interesting was its prose: rather than hard-boiled grunt-speak and super-concern for realistic military detail, it featured a fractured narrative composed of sentences often more allusive than descriptive, knit together by crafted patterns of color and imagery, and punctuated by portentous stabs at profundity, as in its oft-quoted opening line, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Even more striking was its sensibility. The novel’s protagonists are infantryman, but they aren’t the tough guys who populate World War II and Vietnam novels. They drink, smoke, say “fuck” a lot, go to whorehouses, curse their chain-of-command, and shoot people—all the usual infantry things—but do so without the emotional hardening, or posturing, that seems de rigueur for infantrymen in real life and even more so in books and movies. More emo than hardcore, not so much Slayer as Death Cab for Cutie, the protagonists of The Yellow Birds are fragile and vulnerable, and the whole business of war leaves them in morose isolation. Disconsolate and self-loathing when they might be pissed-off and self-righteous (or even proud), they direct their capacity for violence inward, not outward.
With success came backlash, as the very things that made The Yellow Birds unique brought quick strong rebuke from a variety of angles. Powers’ prose was charged with being too mannered, too much the product of the University of Texas MFA program he attended, and too unfaithful to the vernacular idiom of “real” infantrymen. For many, Powers’ characters, in particular the first-person narrator Private First Class John Bartle, were unappealing, more listless dishrags (like Melville’s famous Bartleby; Melville’s Billy Budd also seems to be an antecedent) than decisive men-o-war. To veterans who had kicked-ass-and-taken-names in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed unconscionable that Bartle was being held forth as a representative US combat soldier, and as the far greater popularity of works such as American Sniper attested, the reading public wanted little to do with the Bartle model, either. Academics, who one might think would be sympathetic to Powers’ effort to portray the “human cost of war” in a literary way, soon piled on, too. They accused Powers of trying to recoup sympathy for emotionally traumatized young white male veterans rather than castigating them for killing Arabs in an unjust war, as if The Yellow Birds were a white nationalist stealth project designed to assert that white American soldiers were the “real victims” of the war in Iraq. It was a lot, maybe a bit much, as the overall impression rendered by the attacks was that The Yellow Birds was a book that everyone might comfortably find a reason to feel superior to. One wonders what Powers has made of it all, but he has been mostly mum on the subject, even as he continued to write and publish. 2014 brought a volume of poetry titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and a novel, A Shout in the Ruins, arrived earlier this year.
In early 2017 a movie version of The Yellow Birds inconspicuously appeared to somewhat surprisingly little notice. I make it my business to track these things, but I missed it upon release, and I was not the only one, for no one I know seems to have noted its appearance or has yet watched it. The movie’s now available through Netflix, but even so seems still to be governed by mysterious forces minimizing its impact. A terrific John Mellencamp song called “The Yellow Birds,” for example, runs over the closing credits, but is not available on any of the popular music streaming services. As of a couple of weeks ago, the movie was only available by mail-order DVD, not via streaming, and a video documentary available with the DVD version that describes its making is missing commentary by the film’s director Alexandre Moors and its biggest-name star Jennifer Aniston. The signs unfortunately suggest that several of the principals who might best promote The Yellow Birds movie have distanced themselves from it.
All that’s curious, for the movie version of The Yellow Birds, while not perfect, or even great, is pretty good. In at least two ways it excels, garnering in my opinion head-of-the-pack kudos among recent war films for the excellence of its cast and the beauty of the cinematography. Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, as Bartle and his battle buddy Private Daniel Murphy, respectively, are handsome faces and poised actors who for my money render the best GWOT cinematic portrayals of the 20-year-old white males who still make up the bulk of the fighting force. British actor Jack Huston (son of famed director John Huston) as Sergeant Sterling doesn’t quite capture the body language and rhetorical swing of the career NCOs I knew in the military, but in a stylized way he’s still impressive enough to make his dominance over Bartle and Murphy realistic and compelling. Aniston as Murphy’s mother—in the film an aging soccer-mom—and Toni Collette as Bartle’s mom—a hard-bitten country woman—are also strong. Their characters are given far more play in the movie than in the book, to include a moving scene in which they commiserate about their sons, and it’s all to good effect.
Production-values-wise, The Yellow Birds is a little shaky. The use of M113 Armored Personnel Carriers instead of modern Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and and Huey helicopters instead of Blackhawks signals cut-rate reliance on surplus Vietnam military hardware rather than the real stuff used in Iraq. The soldiers’ gear and weaponry also seem to be pared-down simulacra of actual soldiers’ “kit,” as if the film were gesturing at authenticity as in a stage-play rather than replicating it in gnat’s-ass detail. Curiously, Bartle and Murphy consistently call Sergeant Sterling, “Sir,” which is weird because every male sergeant I ever knew announced at least once, “Don’t call me ‘sir’; I work for a living.” Extremely grating from a veterans’ viewpoint is that many scenes feature actor-soldiers wearing their helmets with chinstraps unfastened “John Wayne” style—that just plain never happened in the Army I served in for twenty-eight years. On the other hand, the bang-bang combat scenes are good, and the representation of the soldiers’ blood, sweat, grime, and gore post-battle is excellent to the point of harrowing. Above and beyond reproach is the look of the film—tonally dark in scenes set both overseas and in the States, with faces framed and scenes paced thoughtfully, it has an artistically-unified feel that I’m guessing is director Moors’ effort to create an atmospheric visual style commensurate with Powers’ moody lyricism.
Alterations from the book are not especially significant thematically, but still worth noting. One example is Bartle’s first name; the scriptwriters have seen fit to replace the old-fashioned “John” of the novel with the millennial moniker “Brandon.” In the book, Murphy’s mom is a rural mail-carrier and Murphy is said to have never left the county in which he was born before joining the Army. Bartle, on the other hand, seems to be from some more middle-class place that makes his deterioration into criminality, drunkenness, prison, and isolation more calamitous. The movie reverses those backstories, with Murphy announcing that he hopes to go to UVa and study history after the Army and his mom (played by Aniston) a frosted-highlights suburbanite, while Bartle’s mother ekes out existence on the edge of poverty and respectability. There’s also the scene in the movie uniting Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Bartle that is not in the novel, which is a shrewd addition, and a long episode in the book set in Germany at the end of Bartle’s deployment is cut without loss from the film.
These are all minor switcheroos, I feel, for the movie gets the most important element of the book—the entangled web of obligation and remorse binding Bartle, Murphy, Sterling, Mrs. Bartle, and Mrs. Murphy—right in just about the same proportions that the novel does. The crux of the story is that Bartle makes a foolish promise to Mrs. Murphy that he will look out for her son on their upcoming deployment. Sterling overhears the conversation and lambastes Bartle for making a commitment that is not his to make and which will prove almost impossible to keep. Sterling, a war veteran who knows war’s capriciousness and who possesses his own over-developed sense of responsibility, lords it over his two young charges in ways that the two privates feel first charismatically, then perversely, and finally diabolically. In Iraq, Murphy begins to crumble under the stress of combat and then falls apart completely when a female soldier on whom he has developed a crush is killed. Murphy subsequently goes AWOL, or in modern parlance, DUSTWUN, and Sterling and Bartle search for him apart from the rest of their platoon. Finding Murphy’s mutilated dead body, they make a fateful decision to dispose of it (in the process killing an innocent Iraqi) rather than recovering and returning it to the States, because they want to spare Mrs. Murphy the emotional devastation they presume she will feel upon seeing her son’s ravaged corpse. In the book, Bartle compounds his duplicity by writing Mrs. Murphy a letter full of lies and evasions; it’s not as clear in the movie that this happens. In any case, the men’s plan succeeds for a while, as the Army lists Murphy as MIA rather than KIA. Over time, though, the difficulty of living with a lie renders both Sterling and Bartle suicidal, and eventually a military investigator (in the movie played by Jason Patric, another “name” cast member) puts together the clues linking Bartle to Murphy’s disappearance—an act of misguided mercy that in fact is a war crime—and brings Bartle both to legal justice and a soul-crushing apprehension of the magnitude of his mistakes and the vicissitudes of life.
As plots go, that’s not bad for an Iraq or Afghanistan war story. The attention paid to the bonds linking soldiers, with the suggestion that heroism is a delusion, leadership is a canard, and camaraderie and loyalty are traps, is fine. The effort to incorporate mothers and the homecoming into a war saga is good, too. The book as does the movie fails to explain why Murphy in particular exacts such an emotional investment on the parts of Bartle and Sterling—I’m supposing it has something to do with his innocence. Similarly, Sterling’s character emits confusing clues as to whether we should understand him as rigid military martinet, caring NCO bound by duty, or ethically-fluid shaman whose evil genius is unleashed by war’s chaos. The suggestion is that his experience is the yin to the yang of Murphy’s innocence, but the end of the novel and film complicate the matter, for it is Bartle who convinces Sterling that they should dispose of Murphy’s body, rather than vice-versa. That seems out-of-character for both of them, as well as being a dumb, under-explained decision that defies plausibility. Oh well, nothing’s perfect and everything could be better. The Yellow Birds was never going to be American Sniper, but it has its virtues and its fans nonetheless. If the film doesn’t quite succeed on all levels, the excellence of the cast and Moors’ direction suggest that Powers’ novel might ultimately find its most powerful expression on-stage as a play, where plot ambiguities and military quibbles would be incidental to the emotional force of the human interactions being dramatized.