Set in the contemporary, twenty-first-century political world, Kevin Power’s novel The Yellow Birds relates a soldier’s experience before, during, and after the war in Iraq, revealing the physical and psychological impact of such an intense experience.
In December 2003, at a military base in New Jersey, twenty-one-year-old John Bartle, who has joined the U.S. army three years ago, learns that he is about to be sent to Iraq. Bartle discovers that he will be following the orders of Sergeant Sterling, an officer famous for his bravery and selflessness, and that he will be paired with a young eighteen-year-old recruit, Daniel “Murph” Murphy, who only recently joined the military. Bartle and Murph are both nervous about leaving and try to imagine what Iraq must be like. A few days before leaving the U.S., although Bartle dreads being responsible for Murph, he surprises himself by making Murph’s mother a promise that will be impossible to keep: to bring her son back alive.
In Iraq, Bartle and Murph soon find themselves face-to-face with the horrific reality of war. Bartle, who had expected war to bring soldiers together, discovers that it actually has the opposite effect: it forces everyone to focus exclusively on their own survival. Since death is so frequent and unpredictable, Bartle and Murph learn to detach themselves from the deaths around them. Believing that other people’s deaths makes their own less likely, they begin a counting game in which they count the number of dead soldiers in the U.S. army. Their goal, which Bartle later calls a futile effort to ward off death, is to keep from becoming the thousandth soldier killed.
Bartle and Murph also learn to commit violent acts without reflecting on the morality of their actions. They grow accustomed to the destruction around them, accepting that part of war involves accidentally killing civilians and watching innocent people die. In battle, Sergeant Sterling proves aggressive, spurring his men to battle by instilling hatred and rage in them—a strategy that Bartle detests but finds necessary.
One evening, when the soldiers receive mail, Murph learns that his girlfriend is breaking up with him. Instead of showing anger, which Sterling wants him to, Murph receives the news with resignation, accepting that he can do nothing about it. Bartle then sees that Murph keeps a picture of his girlfriend and him in his helmet, along with his casualty feeder card, meant to allow military staff to identify his body if he is killed.
That same night, a colonel arrives, accompanied by a reporter and a cameraman. Moved by pride and arrogance at being filmed, the colonel announces that the soldiers are about to take part in a very important mission in the nearby orchard. The colonel invokes notions of divine justice, mentioning that this land has biblical roots, but Bartle finds that he seems unconcerned by the soldiers’ individual fates, even though he highlights the danger of the upcoming battle and the fact that some soldiers will probably die. After the colonel leaves, Bartle learns that American soldiers have fought over this orchard every year for the past three years—a fact that, for Bartle, makes the war seem absurd and pointless, lacking an overarching goal.
After preparing for battle, the nervous soldiers march toward the orchard at dawn, where they are suddenly attacked. One of the American soldiers, fatally wounded, dies surrounded by his companions. This death deeply affects Bartle and Murph. Bartle, who thought that the soldier might say something before dying, discovers that in these circumstances, death is an inherently solitary and physically revolting process. Murph, on the other hand, is troubled because he felt relief at seeing this soldier die instead of him. Bartle tries to reassure Murph that this is a normal reaction, since it reveals that Murph still wants to protect his own life, but Murph remains disturbed. This episode marks the beginning of Murph’s mental suffering, as the young soldier finds himself unable to reconcile soldiers’ selfish attitude, based on their own survival, with nobler moral principles, and soon finds himself disillusioned with the cruelty of war.
The next day, the soldiers discover a body bomb on a bridge. This body, an Iraqi man whom the enemy killed and stuffed with explosives, proves to be the first victim in the next attack. During a particularly intense shooting exchange, Bartle feels sick at seeing so much death and violence around him. In this moment, he realizes that he must mentally abandon his memories of home and his previous civilian identity, because he cannot reconcile what he is currently doing with the law-abiding citizen he used to be.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Bartle realizes that Murph is becoming more distant. He does not talk to anyone anymore and often disappears to spend time on his own. Worried about his friend’s mental health, Bartle goes to Sterling, who cynically predicts that Murph is going to die because he is thinking too much of home. Becoming distracted in this way, Sterling explains, is the most dangerous thing that could happen to a soldier, because it keeps one from focusing on the daily tasks of fighting and surviving, which require aggressiveness and concentration.
When Bartle finds the abandoned photograph and casualty feeder card that Murph has been keeping safe in his helmet until then, Bartle becomes nervous, convinced that Sterling might be right and that Murph is indeed giving up on his life as a soldier—and, perhaps, on his life as a whole. Bartle goes to look for his friend and finds him by the medics’ station, where he learns that Murph frequently goes there to observe a doctor’s daily routine. Reflecting on this situation, Bartle concludes that Murph is trying to stay in touch with ideals of kindness and compassion, which this doctor’s actions demonstrate. In taking time to observe this medic, Murph is also choosing the memories he wants to form in his mind—a small act of rebellion against the brutal unpredictability of war, which leaves soldiers with very little control over their own lives.
However, when this doctor is suddenly killed in a mortar attack, Murph experiences a complete emotional breakdown, goes insane, and decides to desert the military posting. Taking off all his clothes and escaping through a hole in the wire, he walks toward the city of Al Tafar, where he condemns himself to the near-certain fate of being killed by vengeful locals.
Sterling discovers Murph’s absence and the soldiers all go out in search of him. After following the indications of some local inhabitants, Sterling and Bartle discover Murph’s lifeless body at the bottom of a minaret. Murph has been tortured to death, and his body is so horribly mutilated that Bartle feels sick. He also feels sorry for Murph’s mother, who will have to see her son’s body so horrifically destroyed, and concludes that they must keep this from happening. Bartle convinces Sterling to keep quiet and, together, they throw Murph’s body in the river, pretending that they never discovered it.
Later, overwhelmed by Murph’s death, Bartle remembers his promise to Murph’s mother to bring her son back alive and, without truly knowing why, writes her a letter in which he pretends to be her son. Although he knows that it is wrong to lie in this way, he feels that he has taken part in so many immoral deeds that he no longer knows how to evaluate his own actions morally.
When the soldiers finally leave Iraq, after over a year of service, they pass through Germany, where Bartle begins to notice that he feels guilty for Murph’s death. Upon returning to the United States, he also realizes that his experience of war as an inherently cruel experience is at odds with most civilians’ attitudes, who insult the Iraqi enemy and celebrate Bartle for his participation in a noble cause, using the yellow ribbon as a symbol of their support for the war. Bartle, who knows that war leads members of both sides to commit atrocities, finds that he cannot share his emotions of guilt, pain, and grief with anyone, and begins to suffer from social isolation. In addition, he finds himself unable to control his violent memories of battle, which make him feel isolated and displaced in his own home. Over the course of a few weeks, he becomes convinced that he no longer feels at home in Richmond, Virginia, and that his state of mind is so intolerable that he would rather die.
During this period, a captain from the Criminal Investigation Division comes to Bartle’s home, and the veteran soldier knows that he is going to be tried for writing Mrs. Murphy a fake letter. When Bartle realizes that the army is in fact accusing him of being responsible for Murph’s death, he tries to defend himself by exposing other people’s lies, but soon concludes that the army is only interested in using him as a scapegoat, so that Mrs. Murphy might feel as though justice has been done. Bartle also learns that Sterling, so famous for his obedience and self-sacrifice, has committed suicide—an act that Bartle interprets as the only selfish act Sterling ever took part in in his life.
As Bartle anticipated, he is sent to prison for a few years for Murph’s death. There, he finds peace in the absence of social interactions, as he is free to explore his mental life at his own pace. As the days pass by, he tries to analyze his memories of the war and to identify the war’s overarching significance. Eventually, though, he is forced to admit that he cannot find any grand patterns in his experience of war. On the contrary, he concludes that the events that marked his time in Iraq were defined by chance and unpredictability. Although this conclusion emphasizes the absurdity of war, it allows Bartle to finally let go of the past and stop trying to impose order on a series of events that followed no visible logic. When Mrs. Murphy comes to visit him and they talk for many hours about the events that led to Murph’s death, Bartle finally feels that he can resign himself to what has happened, and start moving forward.
After leaving prison, Bartle moves into an isolated cabin by the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, he leads a tranquil life, making sure to remain in an environment over which he has agency and which does not risk bringing him too many painful memories of the war. Over time, he begins to feel more comfortable with himself and his past. In the novel’s concluding lines, Bartle finally confronts the fact of Murph’s death. As he imagines Murph’s body floating down the Tigris river and entering the sea, he lets Murph’s body float away from him both physically and mentally, finding peace in the absence of guilt or pain, and the evidence that both Murph and he, in different ways, are finally at rest.