In Al Tafar, while the soldiers walk toward the orchard and wait in a ditch, Bartle feels afraid of dying. In the eerily quiet orchard, the lieutenant signals to move forward and Bartle concludes that he is only following orders because Murph, Sterling, the lieutenant, and all the others are doing the same, and the idea of being the one soldier who does not terrifies him.
Bartle’s fear of being the only one not to follow orders suggests that many soldiers are probably in the same situation as him: marching to combat not out of bravery, moral commitment, or the desire to fight, but because of social pressure.
Trying to make as little noise as possible, the soldiers walk carefully through the trees destroyed by the mortars and the battle suddenly begins. Like everyone else, Bartle fires as soon as he can, finding that the excess of noise feels like a particular kind of silence in the ears. Although Bartle is not sure where the shooting is coming from, someone screams “Three o’clock!” and everyone begins to shoot in that direction while lying on the ground.
The confusion that this scene describes highlights the fact that even seemingly well planned military operations are experienced in a disorderly way, as soldiers’ fear and desire not to be killed takes over, leading them to shoot at anything and everything. The silence that Bartle experiences underlines the surreal quality of this scene, in which men are fighting for their lives.
Silence returns, and the soldiers begin walking again. They discover the bodies of two adolescent Iraqi boys who have been shot in the face and the chest, as well as an American soldier whimpering, dying from a shot in the stomach while the doctors push his insides back in. When Bartle suddenly realizes that the soldier has died, he says out loud that he had expected him to say something before dying. Other soldiers agree that they, too, had expected him to say something, but Sterling explains that the dying rarely say anything and that he only once heard someone speak before dying.
The fact that the soldiers’ enemy was only two adolescent boys highlights the enormous disparity between the local population and the U.S. army’s training and resources, suggesting that the local population is trying to fight back in a desperate way, using every means they can. Bartle’s expectation that the soldier would say something before dying underlines his desire for finding significance in war, as the soldier’s words could perhaps have brought comfort or peace to this tragic situation.
Bartle asks Sterling to know what this dying man had said, but Sterling is reluctant to share that memory because he thinks that Bartle is making a big deal out of all of this. In the meantime, Bartle notices that Murph is kneeling in silence by the dead body. Bartle does not want to feel responsible for his companion’s state, since he is already struggling enough to maintain his own sanity. Finally, Sterling agrees to tell Bartle that the dying man had asked Sterling to check if he had defecated in his pants. After hearing this story, Bartle turns around to throw up, noticing that the bile comes out in yellow ribbons.
Bartle’s annoyance at being responsible for Murph serves as a prelude to Murph’s future emotional breakdown, which leaves Bartle feeling helpless and guilty. The episode that Sterling recounts is shocking in its purely physical approach to death, which focuses on the disintegration of the human body in a crude way and suggests that death might not bring spiritual elevation. The description of Bartle’s vomit as yellow ribbons signals that traditional images of war and death as noble moments (which the yellow ribbon represents in American society) is at odds with the reality, which is infinitely more disgusting and uncomfortable.
A few hours later, when the soldiers are supposed to sleep, Murph and Bartle remain awake and Murph says that he cut the line earlier in front of the soldier who died today. Bartle tries to reassure Murph, who feels that he is going crazy and is ashamed of having felt relieved when he saw that that boy died instead of him. Bartle, who admits that he also felt relieved not to be shot in battle and die in front of everyone, tries to make a joke about the fact that this must be the nine hundred eightieth death, but neither of them succeed in finding this funny.
This episode marks a turning point in Murph’s life, as he can no longer see death in an impersonal, detached way but becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the cruelty of war. In addition, Murph begins to evaluate the moral validity of his actions, wondering if caring only about one’s survival might be selfish and wrong. These thoughts foreshadow Murph’s later emotional breakdown and escape.
Hours later, the soldiers keep on walking and reach the city, which has been destroyed by the U.S. army’s modern weapons. In the city filled with dead bodies, Bartle sees no one except an old woman walking away in the distance. When the soldiers reach a bridge, they come across a dead body in the middle whose head has been cut off and placed on his chest. The lieutenant curses and explains that this is a body bomb.
The fact that the lieutenant is not shocked by the horror of the scene but by its practical implications (namely, the danger of this body bomb) shows how emotionally detached he is from the horrors of war—in a similar way that the enemy, who does not hesitate to use a human body as a weapon, has become.
As the soldiers wait in silence, wondering what they should do, there is a sudden explosion and they are fired at. The soldiers fight back immediately. In this battle, in which Bartle shoots at everything that moves, he decides to abandon all of his memories of home because he feels that he is an intruder in the universe. However, when he shoots a man to death, watching his clothes become covered in blood, a memory comes back of him sitting on a dock next to a girl. During the battle, Sterling congratulates the soldiers for their aggressiveness, telling them: “Now you’ve got it, Privates. Thorough, thorough is the way home” with a serene face. However, Bartle soon finds that he cannot take it anymore and puts his head in his hands.
This combat scene foreshadows Bartle’s later difficulty to reintegrate civilian life in the U.S. In the same way that Bartle will not know how to cope with his intrusive memories of Iraq, here Bartle’s memories of home come unbidden and prove incompatible with the violent necessity of the present moment. Sterling’s association of this extreme violence with home makes this situation all the more ironic. It suggests not only that fighting is the only way for soldiers to survive and thus hope to return home, but that violence has become the soldiers’ home, since it is now a routine part of their life and defines their identity as soldiers.
When the battle ends, the American soldiers have suffered no casualties. They move forward, noticing how the body on the bridge has been destroyed into bits of flesh and metal. In silence, Bartle reflects about this dead man’s last moments, when he must have begged to be saved before having his throat cut out, so that his body, emptied out and filled with explosives, might be used as a weapon. Sterling then calls on Bartle and Murph to make sure that the body no longer holds any explosives, and they tug at the various pieces of the body until they conclude that there is no longer any danger. As the soldiers walk into the city, civilians come out in small groups to bury the dead and, as night falls, the muezzin calls people to prayer.
Bartle’s compassion for this dead man, whose body could have killed them, shows that he does not demonize the enemy but understands that it is made up of individuals just as vulnerable and fearful as him. He understands that war turns individuals into tools used for violent purposes, destroying human life in horrific ways. In the same way that Bartle has learned to be violent to keep from being killed, perhaps even the enemy’s seemingly inhuman cruelty is a sign of necessity and desperation. Even civilians’ movement to bury the dead highlights how ordinary cruelty has become.