The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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Protagonist and narrator Private John Bartle is young and innocent when he is sent to fight in Iraq. Although he soon finds war cruel and difficult to endure, he succeeds in protecting himself from excessive psychological trauma by adopting a strategic attitude of indifference to violence. At the same time, despite his self-interested survival techniques, he proves sincerely concerned about his war companion Murph’s fate, showing solidarity with the young boy’s psychological trauma. Upon his return home, Bartle discovers the depth of his actual emotions. Although he does not believe in spiritual absolution or forgiveness, he remains faithful to the ideal of truth. He demonstrates his honesty and integrity when he engages in introspection, admitting to himself that he has taken part in immoral deeds and is suffering tremendously from the knowledge of his own brutality. He also discovers that his true resilience and strength lie not in his capacity to kill, but in the capacity to let go of the past and rebuild a new life for himself in the United States, despite the trauma he has been through.

John Bartle Quotes in The Yellow Birds

The The Yellow Birds quotes below are all either spoken by John Bartle or refer to John Bartle. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Little, Brown, and Company edition of The Yellow Birds published in 2012.
Chapter 1 Quotes

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head

Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. […] While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed. […] I needed to continue. And to continue, I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Malik
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Malik
Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

There were no bullets with my name on them, or with Murph’s, for that matter. There were no bombs made just for us. Any of them would have killed us just as they’d killed the owners of those names. We didn’t have a time laid out for us, or a place. […] I believe unswervingly that when Murph was killed, the dirty knives that stabbed him were addressed “To whom it may concern.” Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

A man ran behind a low wall in a courtyard and looked around, astonished to be alive, his weapon cradled in his arms. My first instinct was to yell out to him, “You made it, buddy, keep going,” but I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that. It was not long before the others saw him too.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Page Number: 20-21
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be. When we finished our work we went to sleep, calm and free of regret.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy, Sergeant Sterling
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

I felt an obligation to remember him correctly, because all remembrances are assignations of significance, and no one else would ever know what happened to him, perhaps not even me. I haven’t made any progress, really. When I try to get it right, I can’t. When I try to put it out of my mind, it only comes faster and with more force. No peace. So what. I’ve earned it.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

But things happened the way they happened without regard to our desire for them to have happened another way. Despite an age-old instinct to provide an explanation more complex than that, something with a level of profundity and depth which would seem commensurate with the confusion I felt, it really was that simple.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

I didn’t want to smile and say thanks. Didn’t want to pretend I’d done anything except survive.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), The American Bartender
Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

I felt as if I’d somehow been returned to the singular safety of the womb, untouched and untouchable to the world outside her arms around my slouching neck. I was aware of all this, though I am not sure how. Yet when she said, “Oh, John, you’re home,” I did not believe her.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Bartle’s Mother
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

“I was really happy it wasn’t me. That’s crazy, right?”

“Naw. You know what’s crazy? Not thinking that shit.”

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

What would I say? “Hey, how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.” Right.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Luke
Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud […]

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can’t explain it but it’s just, like, Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose […]

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now […]

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

It’s impossible to identify the cause of anything, and I began to see the war as a big joke, for how cruel it was, for how desperately I wanted to measure the particulars of Murph’s new, strange behavior and trace it back to one moment, to one cause, to one thing I would not be guilty of.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

We were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence. Each action was a page in an exercise book performed by rote. I didn’t care.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Yellow Ribbon
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

He wanted to choose. He wanted to want. He wanted to replace the dullness growing inside him with anything else. He wanted to decide what he would gather around his body, to refuse that which fell toward him by accident or chance and stayed in orbit like an accretion disk. He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy, The Doctor
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

It probably wouldn’t matter what our level of culpability was. I was guilty of something, that much was certain, that much I could feel on a cellular level.

Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

Eventually, I realized that the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern. They were fixed in place. Connecting them would be wrong. They fell where they had fallen. Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Yellow Birds PDF

John Bartle Character Timeline in The Yellow Birds

The timeline below shows where the character John Bartle appears in The Yellow Birds. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: September 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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In an intensely lyrical voice, Private John Bartle recalls his memories of the war in Iraq, recounting his experience of fighting in the... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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As Bartle’s platoon waits on the roof, Bartle lights a cigarette, watches Sergeant Sterling pour Tabasco on... (full context)
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Bartle describes reaching this building a few days ago and running into the empty house, yelling... (full context)
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Looking around, Malik tells Bartle that this used to be his neighborhood. He stands up and points to a place... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Reflecting on this mindset, Bartle concludes that this mode of thinking was an illusion, since war kills people arbitrarily, respecting... (full context)
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When Malik dies, therefore, Bartle does not feel anything. He only remembers a woman who his conversation with Malik reminded... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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After Bartle realizes that the call to prayer did not sound that morning, a mortar attack suddenly... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Bartle then sees a car drive on the road near the orchard, with white sheets flowing... (full context)
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As Bartle watches the old woman bleed to death, Sterling gives Bartle and Murph pieces of dry... (full context)
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Bartle knows that they are going to be sent on a new mission soon but feels... (full context)
Chapter 2: December 2003 – Fort Dix, New Jersey
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John Bartle describes writing a letter to Ladonna Murphy, Murph’s mother. Murph dies ten months after Bartle... (full context)
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Although Bartle knows that it was wrong to write that letter, he feels that he has done... (full context)
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When Murph moves his belongings next to Bartle’s, the two of them chat. They discover that they are both from Virginia, but Bartle... (full context)
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In the meantime, as the days go by, Bartle and Murph know that their departure date is approaching. When Sterling meets with the two... (full context)
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...that people are going to die. That night, when they are in bed, Murph asks Bartle if they are going to be okay. Bartle reassures him that they are, although he... (full context)
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...the enemy, which Sterling says he will help them with. Reflecting on Sterling in retrospect, Bartle concludes that Sterling is very brave, willing to sacrifice himself for someone else’s life without... (full context)
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...soldiers spend the evening with their families for the last time before leaving for Iraq. Bartle’s mother comes and feels upset about her son leaving for the war, but tries to... (full context)
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Bartle then meets Murph’s mom, who is glad to know that Bartle and Murph are becoming... (full context)
Chapter 3: March 2005 – Kaiserslautern, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
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...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... (full context)
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Bartle takes a taxi toward the center of town and, on the way, notices that his... (full context)
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Bartle walks in front of a cathedral, and he decides to enter. He grabs a descriptive... (full context)
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The priest tells Bartle that his name is Father Bernard and asks him if he needs help with anything.... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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When the priest offers to pray for Bartle, Bartle refuses, thinking that the priest’s gesture is obligatory and thus meaningless. When the priest... (full context)
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As Bartle walks out the church into the cobblestone streets, he feels completely detached and separate from... (full context)
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Reflecting on what happened in Al Tafar, Bartle concludes that events happen in a certain way even if one does not want them... (full context)
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When Bartle sees a man walk out the door, he decides to enter the house. A frail-looking... (full context)
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Bartle then hears a loud noise on the stairs and turns around to see Sergeant Sterling... (full context)
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Bartle then notices that it is two in the morning and that all the other men... (full context)
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As Bartle notes how drunk Sterling is, Sterling tells him in a menacing way that only the... (full context)
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Later, Bartle wakes up upstairs. When he sees the bartender, asks her if Sterling is gone. He... (full context)
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As dawn is approaching, Bartle wakes up and walks back toward the house, where he angrily asks the women sitting... (full context)
Chapter 4: September 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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In the meantime, Bartle watches as Murph takes off his helmet, retrieves a photograph from inside it, and reads... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Bartle then discovers that some friends sent him a bottle of whisky and, laughing, Murph and... (full context)
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Bartle feels that the colonel is moved by pride and arrogance, as well as a lack... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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As the colonel is leaving, Bartle hears him ask the reporter how the photos look. Murph then asks Bartle if he... (full context)
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Sterling then prepares Murph and Bartle for battle, covering their shiny gear with tape that will hide any reflections and trying... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 5: March 2005 – Richmond, Virginia
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On the plane on his way home to the U.S., Bartle realizes that he feels like he has left a part of himself in Iraq. To... (full context)
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...soldiers are dismissed, many look confused and wonder what their lives will be like now. Bartle, who also feels lost and confused, goes to the airport bar. He notices that the... (full context)
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Bartle drinks a few beers and has a brief chat with the airport bartender, who tells... (full context)
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...the pilot makes an announcement expressing his honor to be taking an American hero home. Bartle feels annoyed and embarrassed but is given a seat with more legroom on the plane... (full context)
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Bartle falls asleep and soon finds himself in Virginia. His mom welcomes him at the airport,... (full context)
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On the drive home, Bartle looks out at the landscape and, when he sees the valley below, imagines himself patrolling... (full context)
Chapter 6: September 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Bartle asks Sterling to know what this dying man had said, but Sterling is reluctant to... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 7: August 2005 – Richmond, Virginia
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During that entire spring after coming home, Bartle sleeps most of the time, noting the hour of the day by the sounds of... (full context)
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Bartle finds that everything he does reminds him of Iraq. Once, when his mother asks him... (full context)
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Bartle sometimes wakes up wishing he did not have to live. Even though he does not... (full context)
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Bartle gets up from bed, feeling raw pain all over his body, and walks down to... (full context)
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Unable to keep thinking about Murph, Bartle walks back to his mother’s house, puts some belongings in a duffel bag, and leaves.... (full context)
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Taking the railway tracks toward the city, Bartle feels that he is walking aimlessly and finds that he has gone far, already reaching... (full context)
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Bartle wakes up in late morning. He hears music and noise nearby and sees Luke with... (full context)
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In an ironic tone, Bartle concludes that it would be impossible for him to tell his friends that he feels... (full context)
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Bartle adds that he failed to protect the one person he had promised to keep safe,... (full context)
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Night falls. Walking in the river, Bartle starts to cry and lets himself float on the current, as he watches the moon... (full context)
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When Bartle’s mother sees him walk through the door, she grabs his face, saying she thought she... (full context)
Chapter 8: October 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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...a major comes to talk to the soldiers at dawn, after a storm. He congratulates Bartle’s platoon for fighting well and suffering few casualties, which earns them more relaxed patrolling schedules.... (full context)
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After the major leaves, Bartle realizes that Murph is nowhere to be seen. In the next few weeks, over the... (full context)
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When Bartle talks to Sterling about his worries, Sterling laughs and tells him that Murph is going... (full context)
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Bartle soon finds himself forced to admit that Sterling might be right. Bartle, too, finds himself... (full context)
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After finding Murph’s casualty feeder card and the picture he kept in his helmet, Bartle begins to follow Murph, searching desperately for signs of life in his companion’s behavior. He... (full context)
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Murph greets him and, when Bartle asks him where he has been, replies that he has been here. When Bartle asks... (full context)
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While Bartle tries to soothe Murph, the doctor comes out of the tent, washes her hands, lights... (full context)
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As the doctor walks toward the chapel, Bartle tries to reassure Murph that they can count on each other, although he later admits... (full context)
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Bartle hears the last mortars explode, and concludes that they were probably meant to target local... (full context)
Chapter 9: November 2005 – Richmond, Virginia
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In Virginia, Bartle now lives in an apartment he is renting and usually goes out only to buy... (full context)
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One snowy day, a captain arrives at Bartle’s apartment and Bartle feels ashamed to be seen in this unkempt, alcoholic state. The man... (full context)
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The captain then contemptuously calls Bartle cowardly for not knowing how to live in ordinary society anymore. He asks Bartle if... (full context)
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In his apartment, Bartle admits that he wrote this letter, although he does not fully agree that it was... (full context)
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Bartle then reflects on Sterling’s attitude. He concludes that Sterling was more self-sacrificing and devoted to... (full context)
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After the captain handcuffs Bartle, Bartle asks if he can take something with him, and he grabs the picture and... (full context)
Chapter 10: October 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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Bartle recalls the moment Murph disappeared, crying because of the doctor’s death. Although Murph did not... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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The interpreter tells Sterling and Bartle to go look by the minaret, and Sterling tells the interpreter to leave. Bartle is... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Bartle asks what they should do, and Sterling swears, speaking to Murph directly, telling him he... (full context)
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Sterling and Bartle call the old cartwright, who asks for a cigarette, and they lift Murph’s body into... (full context)
Chapter 11: April 2005 – Fort Knox, Kentucky
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Now in a prison for convicts serving terms under five years, Bartle feels that his life is pleasantly ordinary. He is glad to notice that most people... (full context)
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...staff see these signs, they are impressed by the number of marks, which soon cover Bartle’s cell, making Bartle feel as though the memories themselves are turning into prison walls. The... (full context)
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One day, Murph’s mother comes to visit Bartle in prison. Although the two of them are initially uncomfortable, and Mrs. Murphy is visibly... (full context)
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...that frustrates her, since she believes there should be only one truth. She then asks Bartle if he has plans for the period after his release, but he admits that he... (full context)
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Although Bartle does not feel any sense of reconciliation from his meeting with Mrs. Murphy, he appreciates... (full context)
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Much later, Bartle reflects on this period and feels that his loss is abating, as he gets older... (full context)
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
In prison, Mrs. Murphy gave Bartle a map of Iraq, but after looking at it for a long time Bartle concludes... (full context)
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
That first day in the cabin, Bartle walks outside. He imagines hearing the sound of a cloth being taken off of a... (full context)