In his helmet, Murph keeps a photograph of his girlfriend and him, as well as a casualty feeder card that contains all the information necessary to identify his body if he dies. Throughout the course of the novel, these two objects represent Murph’s gradual detachment from life (culminating in his emotional breakdown and death), as well as Bartle’s attempt to come to terms with Murph’s death (culminating in the decision to let go of the past). Although Murph initially keeps the picture and the casualty feeder card in a Ziploc bag, revealing how much he cares about his home life and the protection of his own body, he later discards them, leaving them in a laundry bucket—an act that shows how disillusioned he has become with the war and that highlights his intention to die. When Bartle finds these objects, he decides to save them. However, after trying to keep Murph’s memory alive, Bartle ultimately throws the photograph and casualty feeder card in the river, revealing that he wants to feel free from the pain and guilt that Murph’s death evokes. Through their alternation of protection and abandonment, these objects thus reveal the evolution of Murph and Bartle’s relationship with memory, as each character initially wants to hold onto the past, before deciding—for various reasons—that they need to let it go. In making Murph and Bartle’s difficult relationships with the past and the future more visible, these concrete objects reflect the two characters’ potentially fatal struggles to remain sane without giving up on their essential identity as human beings.
Murph’s Photograph and Casualty Feeder Card Quotes in The Yellow Birds
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.
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.
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.
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.