The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On their way back from Iraq to the U.S., the soldiers stop at the town of Kaiserslautern, in Germany. Bartle feels strange, noticing how different the trees and the temperatures are here. He walks toward the town and finds comfort in the silence between the local inhabitants and him, since he does not speak German, although he feels deeply lonely for another reason.
Bartle’s feeling of solitude becomes a defining feature of his life: his desire to be left alone with his thoughts and pain, combined with the loneliness and grief caused by Murph’s death. Bartle needs time to reflect on his own, but could also benefit from the presence of a trusted friend.
Themes
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Bartle takes a taxi toward the center of town and, on the way, notices that his hands close automatically around a rifle that he no longer has. Bartle feels numb and tired. When he reaches town, the thought of running into Sterling and the other soldiers makes him want to vomit, although he notes that it is not only because he has gone AWOL, leaving the military base when he wasn’t supposed to.
Bartle’s physical instinct to grab his rifle serves as a prelude to the trauma that will affect him for the next months and years, as memories and sensations keep on returning vividly to him over time. Bartle’s disgust toward Sterling shows that he associates Sterling with Murph’s death.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Bartle walks in front of a cathedral, and he decides to enter. He grabs a descriptive pamphlet, watches the priest prepare incense at the other end of the church, and watches a group of school children. Bartle admires the martyred saints depicted in the cathedral and, after looking back up from his pamphlet, notices that the priest has walked up to him. The priest tells him that he cannot smoke, and Bartle looks down, realizing that he has lit a cigarette without even noticing.
The martyred saints in the church are the victims of violence in a similar way to Bartle, who is celebrated in his own country for the wounds he has suffered at war. The fact that Bartle has begun to smoke without realizing it highlights that he is no longer in full control of his body and his mind, and that he will need to work hard to readapt to civilian life.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
The priest tells Bartle that his name is Father Bernard and asks him if he needs help with anything. He discovers that Bartle is a private, and makes a joke about also being a private. Then he tells Bartle that he looks troubled, burdened by something. He asks Bartle if he might want to talk, but Bartle feels uncomfortable and rejects the priest’s offer. Bartle says only that he made a mistake.
The priest’s perception of Bartle’s mental distress and Bartle’s subsequent rejection of the priest’s offer suggests that Bartle is not yet ready (or does not yet know how) to handle the mental wounds that war has left him with, even though these wounds are visible for people to see.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
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Looking around at the cathedral, Bartle admires its beauty but finds it sad at the same time. Reflecting on his own life, he finds that he does not feel he has any control over his history. He feels that he has no grasp over the logic of the events he has lived through, and that he does not even know how to mark the difference between words, memory, and the truth.
Bartle’s sense that he has no control over his life suggests that war has caused him to relinquish control—and, therefore, that he cannot be considered fully responsible for his actions, since he sometimes cannot even recall or justify them.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
When the priest offers to pray for Bartle, Bartle refuses, thinking that the priest’s gesture is obligatory and thus meaningless. When the priest insists, though, Bartle says he could pray for a friend, Daniel Murphy, who died in Iraq. Bartle then has a mental image of Murph’s body floating down the river and feels that it is his duty to remember him well, because remembrance is a way to give meaning to events, even though Bartle himself admits that he does not understand precisely how or why Murph died.
Bartle feels a sense of duty toward honoring Murph’s life, even if this life does not have any grandiose, underlying meaning or impact on the world. The mystery surrounding the circumstances of Murph’s death builds suspense, but also reflects Bartle’s difficulty to confront it directly, since it is imbued with horror and emotional trauma.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Related Quotes
As Bartle walks out the church into the cobblestone streets, he feels completely detached and separate from everyone else. He reaches a building with red curtains, from which women’s voices can be heard, and he remembers this address as a brothel, which a fellow soldier had enthusiastically told him about. Bartle considers walking in but has begun to feel uncomfortable in crowds and desperately wishes Murph were here.
The contrast between Bartle’s complex emotional mind state and the possibility of easy sexual relief through prostitution reveals just how difficult it will be for Bartle to find an adequate source of comfort for his grief.
Themes
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Reflecting on what happened in Al Tafar, Bartle concludes that events happen in a certain way even if one does not want them to, and that there is no inherent logic to their occurrence. At the same time, Bartle knows that people have always tried to make sense of life, even if there is no destiny and all people can do is watch life unfold before them.
Bartle concludes that much of human life is passive, as people are forced to suffer events over which they have no control. This attitude shows how helpless war has made him feel, and how difficult it will be for him to trust in his own life and agency again.
Themes
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When Bartle sees a man walk out the door, he decides to enter the house. A frail-looking bartender with a bruise beneath her eye talks to Bartle in German but he asks for whiskey and begins to drink, watching the men wait for prostitutes. Bartle drinks many glasses of whiskey and, noticing how shy and scared the girl looks, asks her if she is okay, but realizes that his speech is slurred.
Bartle’s drinking suggests that he wants to forget about what has happened to him, even if the pleasure or oblivion he achieves is only temporary and dissatisfying. At the same time, Bartle reveals that war has not made him callous, and that he retains his instinct for protecting others.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Bartle then hears a loud noise on the stairs and turns around to see Sergeant Sterling coming down, shirtless and bleeding a little by his mouth. When Sterling sees Bartle, he yells at him excitedly, then he walks toward the bartender and attacks her violently, insulting her and squeezing her face in his hand while she tries to resist and begins to cry. Bartle distracts him by telling him to drink with him. Before joining Bartle, Sterling hits the girl’s head against the wall.
Unlike in the war, Sterling’s aggressive behavior here remains unjustified, since this gratuitous violence is not an act of self-protection, nor does it obey to higher orders. This scene thus reveals the incompatibility of war with civilian life, where such brutality is not considered acceptable. Sterling seems almost inhuman here in his violence and the fear he inspires in the bartender.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Bartle then notices that it is two in the morning and that all the other men have left, either to spend time with a prostitute or to escape Sterling’s drunkenness. Sterling laughs and says that he loves this freedom. Then, Sterling begins to make fun of Murph’s face when a female suicide bomber killed herself in front of the men. Sterling adds that nothing bad ever happens when he is in charge, but that trouble begins when people try to convince him of things.
Despite Sterling’s apparent joy, his pleasure remains colored by his memories of the war—which he initially recalls in a joking way by making fun of Murph, but then admits that he sees seriously when he comments on his responsibility to his soldiers. His words hint at the problematic circumstances of Murph’s death, which still remains unexplained.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
As Bartle notes how drunk Sterling is, Sterling tells him in a menacing way that only the two of them know what happened to Murph, and that he could destroy Bartle, since in addition he is currently AWOL. Bartle replies that he too could talk about what Sterling did. Sterling then begins to laugh, concluding that no one cares about what happened to Murph anyway, since all that matters is celebrating the boy’s death and telling his mother a nice story. Bartle suggests that they could simply tell the truth and put an end to all of this, but Sterling laughs at him.
Sterling’s threatening attitude toward Bartle is surprising given his usual protection of his men. Therefore, it is more likely a reflection of his own traumatic memory of what happened to Murph than of a sincere desire to harm Bartle. Sterling’s cynical conclusion suggests that he does not believe in justice and accountability. Rather, he knows that war is arbitrarily cruel—and, at the same time, that the army and the nation work hard to conceal that fact, as they use comforting narratives to disguise the horrors of war.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Later, Bartle wakes up upstairs. When he sees the bartender, asks her if Sterling is gone. He is then shocked to realize that the girl speaks English. When Bartle begins to make a request to her, she feels offended and slaps him, although he realizes that he does not actually want to have sex, even if that might give him a feeling of control over something. Bartle throws up in a trashcan and the girl comments that they are all so sad. After walking back down and grabbing the whiskey bottle, Bartle falls asleep outside, by a canal.
The fragmentary nature of these memories, due to Bartle’s drunken state, serves as a symbolic representation of the fragmentary nature of Bartle’s memories in general, which fail to give him a satisfying sense of meaning and purpose. The girl’s capacity to identify the soldiers’ attitudes—including Sterling’s aggressiveness—as sadness, not cruelty, suggests that violence can disguise underlying pain.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
As dawn is approaching, Bartle wakes up and walks back toward the house, where he angrily asks the women sitting on the porch for the bartender. He then realizes it is close to dawn, so he returns to the base, where the lieutenant is angry and tells Bartle to clean up. Later, Sterling tells Bartle that he covered for him, although he adds that they are not finished.
Bartle’s decision to look for the girl—in pursuit of sex or not—reveals his desperate need for human comfort. Although Bartle does not receive such comfort from Sterling, he does discover that Sterling remains an honest man, willing to protect his fellow soldiers.
Themes
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon