Kevin Powers' Literary Tour of Duty
Credit: Courtesy Marsha Miller / UT Austin

Kevin Powers' 'The Yellow Birds' tells the story of two young soldiers, Bartle, 21, and Murphy, 18, who are sent to Iraq in the early stages of the war. The night before they ship out, Bartle is cornered by Murphy's mother, who makes him swear he'll bring her son home alive. Bartle, feeling trapped, utters the life-changing words: "I promise." From that moment on, Murphy's inevitable death hangs over the book. He's doomed, and even Murphy seems to sense it, living out his last days with a heartbreaking, ghostly detachment that mirrors Bartle's own dissolution in a war zone far from home.

Powers grew up near Richmond, Virginia, and enlisted straight out of high school, at 17. "My father, uncle, and grandfathers were in the military," says the author, now 32. "So it felt like a natural thing to do. But they made sure I understood what a serious decision it was." He served a tour in Mosul and Tal Afar as a combat engineer with an EOD unit (the ordnance-destroying teams at the heart of 2008's The Hurt Locker). That meant logging 48-hour shifts clearing roadways of bombs hidden by insurgents (at one point in the book, Murphy and Bartle approach a corpse – "his head was cut off and it lay on his chest like some perverted Russian doll" – that nearly kills them when it detonates).

'Yellow Birds' is luminous ("We moved through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers") and brutal (soldiers sit and eat pound cake as they watch an elderly woman they've shot bleed to death in the road), an indispensable portrait of the Iraq War and its impact on those who fought it. "The question you get is always, 'What was it like over there?'" says Powers. "I wanted to try to answer that. There's this idea that if you haven't been there, you're incapable of understanding it, which I think is not true. People are sympathetic beings: They understand fear and loss and regret, so they can understand it."