The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In an intensely lyrical voice, Private John Bartle recalls his memories of the war in Iraq, recounting his experience of fighting in the city of Al Tafar, Nineveh Province. Bartle describes the war as something that tries to kill everyone indiscriminately, an ever-present force that feeds on destruction and violence. Patient and determined, the war tried to kill everyone in the spring, then in the summer, killing thousands of people by September—soldiers and innocent civilians alike. Bartle and his friend Murph count the number of soldiers who have died, with the goal of avoiding becoming the thousandth soldier killed.
Bartle’s description of the war as an impersonal phenomenon bent on killing others incessantly shows that he is not interested in assigning human responsibility to the war (for example accusing the government, the army, or the enemy of evil), but in emphasizing that the war corrupts and destroys everyone, regardless of who is fighting whom. This means that everyone—civilians and soldiers alike—is a potential victim, whether they suffer from violence or commit it themselves.
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Although September seems to bring nothing new, Bartle later recounts it as a period that would change his life forever, setting the foundation for everything that would be important in his life. In Al Tafar, after four days of crawling along rooftops, Bartle and Murph are now waiting, hidden, at dawn. Bartle looks down at the space that his fellow soldiers and he are responsible for defending, and notes the dead bodies in the street and the strong smell of burning around him.
Bartle’s mention of dead bodies and stench as ordinary features of his life suggests that he has already become used to them. Although he still notices their presence, he does not have a strong emotional reaction anymore. Bartle’s realization that this period changed him forever reveals that the psychological impact of war extends well beyond fighting itself, affecting soldiers in their post-combat life.
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As Bartle’s platoon waits on the roof, Bartle lights a cigarette, watches Sergeant Sterling pour Tabasco on his eyes to stay awake, and feels comforted by his companion Murph’s steady breathing, which Bartle is now used to hearing by his side. After Bartle puts out his cigarette, the two of them chew some tobacco. When the lieutenant tells the men to get ready, Bartle and Murph prepare their rifles and get ready to take part in yet another battle.
The fact that Sterling needs to pour hot sauce on his eyes reveals the extreme physical stress that war places on the human body, as the soldiers are forced to behave in unhealthy ways. Bartle’s mention of Murph’s breathing reveals that the intense months they have shared together have united them in an almost corporeal way, making Murph’s breathing almost necessary to Bartle’s life.
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Bartle describes reaching this building a few days ago and running into the empty house, yelling aggressively when the soldiers perceived shapes they thought might be people. On the first day, the platoon’s interpreter, Malik, who studied literature before the war and speaks excellent English, sits next to Bartle. He always wears a hood over his face to keep people from knowing who he is, because he knows that he would be killed for helping the Americans.
The fact that working with the Americans could destroy Malik’s life highlights the underlying political nature of this conflict, an aspect that Bartle rarely mentions. War forces people to adopt narrowly nationalistic attitudes, organizing entire societies in terms of two opposites: fidelity or betrayal. This fosters division and hatred instead of cultural understanding and exchange.
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Looking around, Malik tells Bartle that this used to be his neighborhood. He stands up and points to a place where an old woman used to plant hyacinths. Despite Bartle and Murph’s warnings that Malik should remain seated, Malik keeps on standing and, when shooting suddenly erupts, Malik is killed on the spot. Although Bartle and Murph do not see Malik die, his blood splatters all over their uniforms.
Malik reveals his underlying longing for a time before the war, when he could enjoy ordinary civilian life and simple things such as flowers. Malik’s desire to recall his former home serves as a forewarning of Bartle’s later difficulties to return to his own home in the U.S.
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After Malik’s death, Bartle and Murph decide that this death doesn’t count, and that they are still at nine hundred sixty-eight or seventy deaths. Reflecting on this episode, Bartle explains that the reason he felt neither surprised nor moved by Malik’s death is because death is so common in Iraq. In this context, the only way to remain sane and want to keep on fighting, Bartle argues, is to focus on the actions he needs to perform, not on the deaths around him. Cynically, Bartle concludes that, even though he initially thought that war would bring people together, he soon realized that it only forces everyone to focus on their own survival. This mad Bartle see other people’s deaths as reassuring, since they made it less likely for him to die.
Bartle and Murph’s counting makes the constant death around them seem less frightening and allows them to see the war as a kind of game, which they can observe from the outside. Taking part in war thus involves ignoring or eliminating one’s emotional instincts, according to which witnessing death might be shocking or sad. Bartle’s conclusion that war makes people selfish overturns traditional conceptions of war as a noble enterprise. It emphasizes, instead, that a soldier’s true role in war is not to defend noble ideals but simply to kill and survive—and that, from a soldier’s perspective, war is nothing but a series of meaningless, brutal actions.
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Reflecting on this mindset, Bartle concludes that this mode of thinking was an illusion, since war kills people arbitrarily, respecting no particular order or logic. Unlike what they thought, counting up to a thousand deaths does not protect anyone, and Bartle and Murph might be killed at any point. Bartle rejects the idea of destiny, noting that the fact that he ultimately survived while Murph died does not mean that Murph was destined to die. Rather, death struck Murph impersonally, in exactly the same way it could have affected anybody else. Although Bartle was not present at the moment of Murph’s death, he knows that the knives that killed his companion could have killed anyone else, and that neither living nor dying makes soldiers special.
Bartle realizes that his counting game with Murph represented a way for them to feel as though they had some control over their lives—an illusion that would soon dissipate for Murph. Bartle’s conclusion that anyone could have died in Murph’s place suggests that no one is inherently responsible for Murph’s death—not even, perhaps, the very people who killed him. Rather, Bartle suggests, it is the context of war that indiscriminately turns everyone into potential murderers and victims.
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When Malik dies, therefore, Bartle does not feel anything. He only remembers a woman who his conversation with Malik reminded him of, a woman who served him tea once in delicate cups. The memory feels distant, covered in dust, but he tries to unbury it and remembers the old lady’s wrinkled face.
Bartle’s desire to hold onto this seemingly insignificant memory serves as an early indication—which becomes an obsession after the war—that he is trying to make sense of the war on a personal and emotional level, trying to understand the role that different characters played in this period of his life.
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Four days after Malik’s death, when the soldiers prepare for combat, Bartle notes that the place where Malik pointed to the hyacinths is now all burned-up and any trace of ordinary civilian life gone. As the sun begins to rise, the lieutenant, a detached, reserved man, explains that the third platoon will try to lead the enemy to their front. He asks about the fires that he notices in nearby orchards, and tells Bartle and Murph to monitor them. When the lieutenant forgets what he was previously saying, Sterling, a sergeant, intervenes and completes the lieutenant’s sentence, adding that their job is to “kill the hajji fucks.”
The physical destruction of Malik’s neighborhood serves as a symbolic prelude to the destruction that Bartle himself will experience when returning to his home: the collapse of his former life. Sterling’s apparent hatred and aggressiveness toward the enemy does not necessarily reflect his desire to harm others, but, rather, his understanding that soldiers need to be aggressive if they want to fight successful battles and put their own lives at risk.
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After Bartle realizes that the call to prayer did not sound that morning, a mortar attack suddenly erupts and the men protect themselves, lying on the ground with their hands over their head. When the attack stops, everyone yells that they are fine and gets ready for battle. When Sergeant Sterling tries to motivate the soldiers, Bartle describes his mixed feelings of appreciation and hatred for Sterling. Although Bartle hates how aggressive Sterling becomes in battle, he also knows that he needs Sterling to stimulate him for him to want to fight. Seeing Sterling yell with anger and hatred at the enemy, seemingly taking pleasure in shooting at others, makes Bartle feel grateful.
Bartle’s knowledge that Sterling plays an important role in motivating him to fight reveals that the possibility of his death is not sufficient to make him want to kill others. This reluctance to fight suggests that Bartle feels an emotional or moral reluctance to harm others—and that only artificial, external stimulation allows him to forget this instinctive aversion. Under the guise of righteousness and self-protection, war often forces people to act against their principles.
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The enemy then appears, hidden in nearby buildings, and Bartle begins to shoot. When he sees a man who shows surprise at still being alive in the middle of this shooting, Bartle wants to congratulate him but realizes that it would be inappropriate to yell words of encouragement to the enemy. Bartle sees his fellow soldiers shoot at this man, and he feels uncomfortable and wonders what kind of men they are. At the same time, he knows that he is terrified and finds that he too is shooting at the man. The knowledge that they are killing him collectively makes Bartle feel relieved, despite his moral interrogations. In the end, though, Bartle knows that he is the one who gave the man a fatal shot.
Bartle’s desire to congratulate the enemy on surviving suggests that divisions between nations, which organize people into rival enemy groups, are artificial and arbitrary. Bartle does not believe the war is inherently just. Rather, he always remains aware of the fact that he is committing a crime by killing other human beings just like him, and that his first impulse remains compassion, not the desire to kill. His perception of moral dubiousness will not disappear, but will continue to haunt him long after his participation in the war ends.
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Bartle then sees a car drive on the road near the orchard, with white sheets flowing from it, and notices that there is only an elderly couple in the car. He wants to tell his platoon not to shoot, but the shooting has already begun and Bartle watches the scene without saying anything, filled with fear and anticipation. When the old man in the car is killed, the old woman tries to get out of the car and is soon shot dead. Murph makes a surprised yet unemotional comment about this woman’s death, and Bartle notes that sleep deprivation makes them feel as if nothing matters.
Scenes such as this one, in which an evidently innocent and harmless couple is killed, reveal that war is unfair and cruel in the way it affects civilians and combatants alike. Instead of teaching soldiers to identify the enemy accurately, war forces people to want to defend their lives in all circumstances, sometimes at the cost of committing mistakes and atrocities. Bartle’s inability to do anything and Murph’s indifference both suggest that war’s power lies beyond individuals’ control.
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As Bartle watches the old woman bleed to death, Sterling gives Bartle and Murph pieces of dry pound cake. A small girl then moves toward the car and begins to drag the old woman’s body away. In the meantime, Bartle watches the leaves of some trees move in the wind. The lieutenant comes by to congratulate the soldiers on their good work and Bartle wonders if they all look so frightened that the lieutenant needs to reassure them that they are going to be okay. Bartle has a hard time believing that they fought well but decides that his disbelief does not mean that what the lieutenant is saying is not the truth.
Despite Bartle’s previous comment about how selfish the war makes people become, Sterling’s sharing of pound cake reveals that unity and solidarity are also necessary for soldiers to survive, as they need to rely on each other for physical safety and at least minimal emotional comfort. Bartle cannot believe that they fought well because he knows they killed people indiscriminately, but he also accepts that his “truth” might not align with the military’s “truth”—its stated goals and objectives.
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Bartle knows that they are going to be sent on a new mission soon but feels comfort from knowing that Murph and he have survived this one. He wonders if he could have known at the time that Murph was going to die soon but concludes that he could not. That day, they were simply happy and relieved, and spent the next hours sleeping in the sun.
Bartle’s desire to recall Murph precisely reveals his desperation to make sense of Murph’s death and identify any pre-emptive signs of Murph’s emotional breakdown. However, this scene emphasizes that soldiers’ external attitudes, in which they show relief from the physical and emotional stress of battle, might not reflect their underlying psyches and moral considerations.
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