The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds: Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bartle recalls the moment Murph disappeared, crying because of the doctor’s death. Although Murph did not attend the ceremony in the woman’s honor, it was not until hours later that Sterling announced they had to go searching for Murph—who, in the meantime, had escaped naked through a hole in the wire.
The only way Murph tries to escape his pain is by escaping his whole environment, which also leads him to give up on his own life. The need for the entire group to go search for Murph suggests that the army is based on the need for solidarity, but also highlights its limits, since the army did not actually help Murph when he needed it the most.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
The men gather quickly and walk toward Al Tafar, which is eerily empty because of the curfew. The uncertainty of the situation makes Bartle wonder about potential dangers, such as being attacked or having to search for Murph for days. Suddenly, an Iraqi man emerges from a house, his arms raised, begging not to be shot and explaining that he saw Murph. A translator then comes, properly hooded, and interrogates the man in a brutal manner, which leads the man to explain that he saw a naked American boy, with legs and feet bloody from the wire and the trash, walk past him in the afternoon, when he was at a local shop.
The man’s willingness to come forth suggests that he is trying to protect himself and the fellow inhabitants from the U.S. army’s violence by being as honest as possible and showing that he is willing to collaborate. However, Bartle’s fear and the translator’s aggressive methods reveal the lack of trust that exists between the two groups, as they are used to interacting in brutal ways. The image of Murph’s naked, bloody body is Christ-like and presents him as a martyr, a victim of these cruel circumstances.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
The Iraqi man pauses, confusedly asking the soldiers why Murph was naked, as though they knew the answer. He then pursues his story, explaining that Murph passed next to him without being aware of any other human presence, looking at the sky and swaying back and forth. The man and his friend at the shop tried to convince Murph to go back to the military outpost, but Murph remained in a trance and followed a beggar, who took Murph’s hand and led him down a dark alley.
The Iraqi man’s confusion at Murph’s appearance mirrors everyone else’s confusion and suggests that Murph must have gone insane, giving up on any pretension to being a soldier or a member of ordinary human civilization. The Iraqi men’s efforts to send Murph back are not a sign of compassion, but an understanding that Murph is going to bring trouble on himself, which might then bring trouble on the local population.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
The soldiers follow the direction the Iraqi man indicated, seeing local inhabitants run away with fear at their approach. The soldiers look for signs of Murph and find a puddle of blood down an alley. Following the bloody footprints, the men check their weapons and follow the alley, reaching a dead old beggar at an intersection. Unsure which direction to take, the soldiers worry that Murph has been captured and tortured to death.
The eerie elements of this search—the darkness, Murph’s blood, and the dead old man—create an overwhelming atmosphere of death, anticipating the horrific discovery of Murph’s dead body. The soldiers’ assumption that Murph has been captured suggests that this war follows simple rules of retaliation, as one enemy is blindly bent on killing the other, even if he is naked and seemingly harmless, as Murph is.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
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As the sun begins to rise, the soldiers reach the outskirts of the city, where a man with a mule-drawn cart, seemingly undisturbed by the presence of twenty armed soldiers, explains—through the interpreter—that he saw five or six men go into the minaret the previous night. Sterling decides that Bartle and he will go explore the minaret, and the cartwright offers to guide them there. The cartwright then placidly stops and feeds his mule, explaining to the interpreter that he has already been to the minaret and does not want to go there again.
The cartwright’s mysteriously indifferent attitude makes him suspicious. It suggests that he is both detached from the threat of violence (since he does not fear the soldiers) and also that he might be involved in Murph’s death, since he seems to know exactly where Murph’s body is. Overall, the man’s attitude suggests that death and violence are so predominant that they no longer affect him.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
The interpreter tells Sterling and Bartle to go look by the minaret, and Sterling tells the interpreter to leave. Bartle is scared, feeling that this whole bizarre situation must be a trap, but Sterling pushes him on. In a tense, eerie atmosphere, Bartle and Sterling walk up to the minaret, where they find Murph’s dead body. Sterling comments that Murph must have been dead before falling, because of the minaret’s small height.
Sterling’s decision to send the interpreter away suggests that Sterling anticipates that what is about to happen needs to remain secret. Sterling’s comment about Murph’s death suggests that he was probably tortured to death and shows Sterling’s detachment from the horrors of war, since his first reaction is not the expression of shock but practical considerations.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Pulling out Murph’s body from the vegetation, Bartle and Sterling see that Murph’s eyes have been gouged out, his throat slit, almost detaching his head from his neck, and that his ears, nose, and genitals have been cut off. Bartle realizes that neither Sterling nor he will ever again be able to see Murph the way they knew him, as an innocent eighteen-year-old boy. Bartle covers the body with a blanket from his pack and finds himself unable to look, finding the sight of Murph more horrific than the results of suicide attacks or cut-off heads.
Although Bartle is used to witnessing death and destruction on a daily basis, the horror of this tortured body and the fact that he knew the victim in an intimate way makes this particular death intolerable. Murph’s death shows that human cruelty has no limit, as the aggressors mutilated Murph’s body with no greater goal in sight, but simply to wreak vengeance.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Bartle asks what they should do, and Sterling swears, speaking to Murph directly, telling him he shouldn’t have died in this way. Sterling argues that they need to bring the body back, because that is regular procedure and that they do not have the authority to decide. Bartle does not want to send such a destroyed body back home, where Murph’s mother would probably open the casket and see what happened to her son. Influenced by Bartle’s adamant attitude, Sterling takes a moment to think while Bartle shakes uncontrollably. Finally, Sterling decides that they will pretend that they never found Murph’s body.
Sterling now expresses his emotions and his sense of compassion, as he genuinely feels terrible for what has happened to Murph—even though he had long predicted this boy’s death. Bartle’s desire to ignore conventional procedure is meant to protect Murph’s mother. Therefore, even though he might be considered guilty of disobeying orders, his ultimate goal is noble, showing a moral concern for other people’s feelings.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Sterling and Bartle call the old cartwright, who asks for a cigarette, and they lift Murph’s body into the cart. Sterling burns the grass by the minaret, cursing “them” and “everyone on earth.” Then they take Murph’s body by the river, walking past burning objects thrown in the streets from the soldiers’ search. When Sterling and Bartle reach the river, they throw Murph’s body in. It soon begins to drift away. Sterling reminds Bartle that they have to act as though none of this ever happened, and he shoots the cartwright in the face. The mule walks away and, when Bartle looks back at the river, he sees that Murph is gone.
The cartwright’s indifference to everything that is happening highlights, once again, the routineness of such horrific violence around him. Sterling’s anger is not necessarily directed toward the enemy itself, but toward human cruelty in general, which is capable of such horrific deeds. The physical disappearance of Murph’s body proves illusory, since the memory of Murph keeps on haunting both Sterling and Bartle well after they leave Iraq.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon