The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One evening, during a period in which the soldiers guard their post during their day and fight over a nearby field at night, a runner brings the soldiers their mail. Sterling, who has received none, asks the runner if he has forgotten him, but the man says Sterling must not have received mail this time.
This episode highlights Sterling’s solitude—and his desire, like everyone else, to feel loved and remembers. Sterling’s devotion to the war has effectively severed his ties from civilian life, and he must learn to be on his own.
Themes
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
In the meantime, Bartle watches as Murph takes off his helmet, retrieves a photograph from inside it, and reads his letter carefully. When Bartle asks him if he has received good news, Murph replies that his girlfriend has decided to break up with him. Concerned, Bartle asks if Murph is okay, but his friend seems to accept the news in a resigned way.
Murph’s apparent resignation does not mean that he no longer has any feelings for his girlfriend, but that he is beginning to accept that his current life is detached from the ordinary life of civilians, and he must learn to accept this difficult fact.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Noticing how silent their environment is during this conversation, Bartle recalls the sounds of cicadas in Richmond, Virginia, and realizes that it must be morning back home. He remembers the day he told his mother, without forewarning, that he had enlisted into the army. Bartle feels that his life has moved straight from that day to the present moment in Iraq, and that he has not lived in between. Much later, reflecting on Murph’s death, Bartle agrees with Murph that his separation from his girlfriend did not matter indeed.
The way Bartle thinks of home while in Iraq foreshadows the way he will think of Iraq while in the U.S.—he cannot feel fully comfortable in either environment. Bartle realizes that the war is becoming a defining feature of his life, and that his recollection of home might be nothing more than nostalgia—a feeling of comfort that might no longer exist in reality.
Themes
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
After Murph compares the sky they are under to the one his girlfriend must see, Bartle and he chat in an innocent, lighthearted way, like children. Bartle treasures this memory of his friend before Murph became too affected by the horrors of the war. During this conversation, Bartle asks to look at Murph’s picture and see that it shows Murph and his girlfriend in a peaceful setting on a dirt track by a mountain. When Murph says that he does not blame Marie, his girlfriend, for her decision, Sterling intervenes. He says if it were him, he would kill her, and that Murph should not accept this. Murph simply replies that he doesn’t feel he can do anything about it.
Through Murph’s picture, Bartle gains some insight into Murph’s life before the war and becomes better acquainted with Murph as a full person, not only as a soldier. Sterling’s tendency to resort to violence as a solution reveals not only that he is dangerously transposing the brutality of war into everyday life, but also that he does not want to give up on civilian life and relationships. It is perhaps Sterling’s insistence that civilian life continues to exist in parallel to war that allows him to withstand the difficulties of war—unlike Murph, who ultimately feels so severed from civilian life that he gives in to despair.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
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Thinking back on this scene, Bartle almost wishes that Murph had resisted more, shown a greater desire to fight for his life. When Murph puts the picture back in his helmet, Bartle sees the card that all soldiers must fill out and sign in case they are killed. He notices that Murph has checked the box for Body Recovered, and Murph comments that he did this “just in case.”
Murph’s resignation becomes a sign of his gradual deterioration, as he seems resigned to give up on his identity and the civilian life that used to define him—a process that ultimately leads to his death. At the same time, he seems eager to keep from disappearing entirely, since he hopes to preserve his body.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Bartle then discovers that some friends sent him a bottle of whisky and, laughing, Murph and he share the alcohol. The two of them then admire the stars and the scattered fires in the distance, at the same time as they hear the wailing voices of women in mourning in the distance. Later, back home in the U.S., Bartle can still recall theses impressions when he lights a fire and hears the sounds of the women crying.
Bartle’s perception and memory of these wailing women underlines his knowledge that his presence in Iraq, through the U.S. army, is harmful to the local population. Even though Bartle does not openly express guilt, this memory seems linked to his own painful knowledge of being an aggressor.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
The lieutenant then walks up to them and announces that the colonel is coming. The soldiers prepare their rifles to protect their building and, when the colonel arrives, they notice that he is accompanied by a reporter and a cameraman. The colonel asks all the soldiers individually how the war is going and then, while the camera is rolling, reads a speech in which he announces that the soldiers will soon have to take part in a violent battle “in the cause of good.” He notes that this is the land where the Biblical character Jonah was buried, begging for God’s justice, which the soldiers now impersonate.
The colonel’s ceremonious appearance contrasts with the soldiers’ everyday experiences, in which they take part in inelegant and, often, seemingly gratuitous or meaningless acts of violence. The colonel attempts to couch these actions in terms of justice and fairness. His reference to the Bible eliminate any political connotations this conflict might have, arguing that it is, instead, the result of a long-standing process of justice. This attitude of righteousness, however, remains unsubstantiated by actual facts.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Bartle feels that the colonel is moved by pride and arrogance, as well as a lack of interest in the soldiers’ individual lives, when the colonel announces that some of them will die. The colonel then exhorts them to fight aggressively against the enemy, but is disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm he receives at the end of his speech.
The contrast between the colonel’s exaltation and the soldiers’ response reveals that they do not believe the colonel’s words: they know that they are taking part in an inherently brutal, dangerous fight—not a noble, elevating enterprise.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
The lieutenant then explains that they will move into the field before dawn and Bartle feels overwhelmed by the smells of dead bodies and trash in Al Tafar, hoping he will not step into one of the bodies. The lieutenant explains that the enemy is in the orchard. As the soldiers all reflect on the long walking they are about to do, the colonel explains that they will drop mortars in the orchard before the soldiers get there, and that this might be the most important action the soldiers take part in in their entire life.
Bartle’s thoughts highlight how irrelevant the colonel’s words are, since Bartle is exclusively concerned with matters of physical well-being and survival, not with justice or elevated ideals. At the same time, ironically, Bartle knows that, from a purely personal perspective, this moment is indeed potentially momentous, since it could lead to his own death.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
As the colonel is leaving, Bartle hears him ask the reporter how the photos look. Murph then asks Bartle if he thinks this is truly the most important thing they will do in their lives, and Bartle replies that he hopes not. The soldiers are nervous and scared, and Bartle learns that this is the third time the U.S. army has passed through this orchard, fighting over this town every year. Bartle feels that this war is purposeless, as they simply engage in the same battles over and over again, without achieving anything substantial.
The colonel’s concern with his own image reveals how little true sense of solidarity and companionship exists between the soldiers and him. In addition, the fact that the army has fought over this orchard cyclically suggests that there is no grandiose purpose or significance to the soldiers’ actions, since they seem bound to win and lose this piece of territory over and over again, without any true progress.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
Sterling then prepares Murph and Bartle for battle, covering their shiny gear with tape that will hide any reflections and trying to reassure them that everything will be fine. After a brief sleep, the soldiers are awakened by the sound of mortars. Bartle feels a deep fear take over him, typical of the feeling he gets before every battle—a sensation that Murph has described as a protracted version of what one might feel in the seconds before a car crash, when one realizes that the crash is going to take place. Bartle finds that he cannot relax his muscles or keep from sweating.
The physical and psychological stress that war places on soldiers reaches its height here, as it becomes apparent that the fear soldiers experience is a kind of torture, placing them in a limbo between life and death. As in other aspects of war, soldiers are forced to accept that they have no control not only over the battle to come, but over their very own bodies. This physical process foreshadows the mental phenomenon Bartle will go through after the war, when he finds that he cannot control his memories.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
As the soldiers prepare to go into battle, Murph and Bartle notice Sterling throwing salt over the ground, smiling and muttering. When asked about it, he only says “it’s from Judges.” Although Sterling explains that this is simply a tradition of his, Murph wonders if Sterling has gone crazy and goes to look at what he is doing. He comes back to Bartle troubled and confused, explaining that Sterling is holding a dead body and is not smiling anymore.
Sterling’s invocation of Biblical tradition (Judges is a book from the Old Testament) reveals his own fear and desire for protection. His behavior, informed by faith or superstition, underlines his yearning—like Bartle and Murph—to maintain at least some control over his life and hope that these preparatory actions might somehow protect him in battle.
Themes
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon