The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kevin Powers

Born in Virginia in a family with a long tradition of military service, Kevin Powers joined the U.S. Army at the age of seventeen. In 2004, he was sent to Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, to serve for a year as a machine-gunner in the Iraq War. After an honorable discharge from the military in 2005, he dedicated himself to literature, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012, inspired by his experience as a soldier in Iraq, he published his first novel, The Yellow Birds, which meant to convey a sense of the complex psychological impact of war on an individual soldier. Powers later published a debut collection of poetry, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014) and a second novel, A Shout in the Ruins (2018), about the violence and repercussions of the American Civil War in Virginia.
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Historical Context of The Yellow Birds

After the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared the “war on terror” to eliminate terrorists and their allies around the world. As part of this strategy, President Bush declared war against Iraq in 2003. He justified the American invasion by explaining that Iraq allegedly had ties to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks in New York City, and that there was evidence that Iraq was secretly and illegally developing weapons of mass destruction. Even though intelligence agencies soon proved that these claims were unfounded, the war lasted until 2011. During this period, Iraq, whose entire government was disbanded by the U.S. in the early months of the war, suffered from violent political tensions and sectarian conflict opposing two different groups within Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’a. As the American occupation continued, opposition to the war soon grew in the United States. In 2008, President Bush finally signed an agreement planning for American troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, which successfully took place.

Other Books Related to The Yellow Birds

A contemporary war novel centered on the physical and psychological trauma of taking part in war, The Yellow Birds has been compared to other classics of the genre, written about twentieth-century wars. Set during World War I, German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) describes German soldiers’ difficulties to recover from the intense stress and violence of the front and to reintegrate civilian life. In 1940, Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls recounts the story of an American soldier who volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War. More recently, American novelist Tim O’Brien published The Things They Carried in 1990, a short story collection about American soldiers during the Vietnam War—a work which, like The Yellow Birds, proposed to fill a gap in public knowledge about soldiers’ intimate experiences of war. Similarly, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War explores the complexity and psychological trauma of the Vietnam War, as well as providing thoughtful political criticism aimed at American political leaders and the American military.
Key Facts about The Yellow Birds
  • Full Title: The Yellow Birds
  • When Written: 2008-2012
  • Where Written: Austin, Texas
  • When Published: September 11, 2012
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Iraq, Germany, and the United States
  • Climax: Murph is tortured and killed after deserting the U.S. Army in Iraq
  • Antagonist: Although the Iraqi enemy represents the most direct physical threat to Bartle’s life in Iraq, the true antagonist in the story proves to be the war itself, as it deeply affects Bartle during and after combat.
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for The Yellow Birds

Al Tafar. Kevin Powers share many similar traits with his protagonist, John Bartle. The name Powers chooses for the fictional Iraqi town where John Bartle fights, “Al Tafar,” highlights the similarity between Powers and Bartle’s experiences, since the author’s own experience of combat took place in the real city of Tal Afar, Iraq.

The War in Iraq Today. Although the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, after eight years of occupation, the rise of the terrorist organization ISIL (also known as ISIS) has led the U.S. to return to Iraq in 2014—this time working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi army to defeat ISIL.