The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

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Two qualities distinguish Sergeant Sterling from other soldiers: his bravery and his selflessness. Characterized by a willingness to sacrifice his entire being to military duty and the necessity of war, Sterling is also deeply devoted to protecting the men under his authority, including Bartle and Murph. Although he occasionally seems cruel or overly aggressive in battle, these are attitudes he consciously adopts to survive and ensure the soldiers’ success. At the same time, his brutality does extend beyond the war, as he viciously attacks a vulnerable bartender in Germany, suggesting that violence might be a way for him to cope with the physical and psychological stress of war. Sterling also reveals his sensitive nature through some of his actions, such as his suicide, which suggests that he was perhaps more emotionally vulnerable than he allowed people to witness.

Sergeant Sterling Quotes in The Yellow Birds

The The Yellow Birds quotes below are all either spoken by Sergeant Sterling or refer to Sergeant Sterling. 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:
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
). 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:
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:
Get the entire The Yellow Birds LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Yellow Birds PDF

Sergeant Sterling Character Timeline in The Yellow Birds

The timeline below shows where the character Sergeant Sterling 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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Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
As Bartle’s platoon waits on the roof, Bartle lights a cigarette, watches Sergeant Sterling pour Tabasco on his eyes to stay awake, and feels comforted by his companion Murph’s... (full context)
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
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...Bartle and Murph to monitor them. When the lieutenant forgets what he was previously saying, Sterling, a sergeant, intervenes and completes the lieutenant’s sentence, adding that their job is to “kill... (full context)
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
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...attack stops, everyone yells that they are fine and gets ready for battle. When Sergeant Sterling tries to motivate the soldiers, Bartle describes his mixed feelings of appreciation and hatred for... (full context)
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As Bartle watches the old woman bleed to death, Sterling gives Bartle and Murph pieces of dry pound cake. A small girl then moves toward... (full context)
Chapter 2: December 2003 – Fort Dix, New Jersey
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...of them were at Fort Dix, New Jersey, waiting to be sent to Iraq. Sergeant Sterling, whom Bartle describes as a severe but noble, much-admired officer, tells Murph to follow everything... (full context)
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...the days go by, Bartle and Murph know that their departure date is approaching. When Sterling meets with the two asks them how old they are, Bartle is surprised to learn... (full context)
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Sterling concludes their meeting by telling them that, from a purely statistical perspective, it is inevitable... (full context)
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The next day, the boys attend a safety briefing and practice marksmanship, impressing Sterling with their shooting skills. When Murph asks Sterling what Iraq is like, Sterling gives the... (full context)
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...Murph, he finds himself promising Mrs. Murphy to bring her son back to her. Later, Sterling, who has overheard this conversation, confronts Bartle and tells him that he shouldn’t have promised... (full context)
Chapter 3: March 2005 – Kaiserslautern, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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As Bartle notes how drunk Sterling is, Sterling tells him in a menacing way that only the two of them know... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
Chapter 4: September 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Sterling then prepares Murph and Bartle for battle, covering their shiny gear with tape that will... (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 only says... (full context)
Chapter 6: September 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Bartle asks Sterling to know what this dying man had said, but Sterling is reluctant to share that... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 8: October 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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...Bartle recalls, spending three hours picking pieces of metal from a boy’s face, that only Sterling succeeds in staying attentive and upright. The only part of the major’s speech where soldiers... (full context)
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When Bartle talks to Sterling about his worries, Sterling laughs and tells him that Murph is going to die because... (full context)
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Bartle soon finds himself forced to admit that Sterling might be right. Bartle, too, finds himself struggling mentally, muttering to himself and imagining his... (full context)
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...in his companion’s behavior. He begins to ask people if they have seen Murph, and Sterling tells him that Murph goes to the medics’ station to look at a woman there.... (full context)
Chapter 9: November 2005 – Richmond, Virginia
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...captain’s version of the story is based only on other soldiers’ faulty memories, and that Sterling probably gave a deliberately vague answer to protect both Bartle and himself. (full context)
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Bartle then reflects on Sterling’s attitude. He concludes that Sterling was more self-sacrificing and devoted to others than Bartle ever... (full context)
Chapter 10: October 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (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.... (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 his head... (full context)
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Bartle asks what they should do, and Sterling swears, speaking to Murph directly, telling him he shouldn’t have died in this way. Sterling... (full context)
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Sterling and Bartle call the old cartwright, who asks for a cigarette, and they lift Murph’s... (full context)