The Yellow Birds

by

Kevin Powers

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Yellow Birds can help.
The Yellow Ribbon Symbol Icon

In the United States, in times of war, yellow ribbons are used as a symbol of support to U.S. Army troops. However, in The Yellow Birds, yellow ribbons come to represent a more uncomfortable fact: most civilians’ ignorance of the realities of war. After Private John Bartle returns to the U.S. from the war in Iraq, he grows annoyed by the yellow ribbons around him. When an American bartender points to a yellow ribbon in a bar to explain why he wants to pay for Bartle’s beer, Bartle becomes frustrated, because he feels that he has not taken part in the heroic enterprise the bartender assumes war involves. Another time, Bartle angrily wants to burn all the yellow ribbons in the country, as he feels that he is being celebrated for being a murderer.

Bartle’s dissatisfaction with this symbol thus proves paradoxical. Although one might expect that he, as a veteran soldier, would feel grateful for the signs of civilian support he sees around him, Bartle’s resentment derives from his realization that people’s perception of the war (symbolized by the yellow ribbon) is overly simplistic and at odds with how the war truly is—brutal, destructive, and inelegant. Yellow ribbons thus begin to represent the lack of knowledge that people actually have about soldiers’ experience, as well as Bartle’s inability to reintegrate ordinary civilian life, where he feels like an impostor. The yellow ribbon thus acquires a meaning that clashes with its official definition: instead of highlighting the glory of war, it reveals the gap that exists between public narratives about war (which involve visions of camaraderie and grandeur) and the experience of war itself, which is infinitely more complex and unsettling.

The Yellow Ribbon Quotes in The Yellow Birds

The The Yellow Birds quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Yellow Ribbon. 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:

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:
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:
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:
Chapter 8 Quotes

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:
Get the entire The Yellow Birds LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Yellow Birds PDF

The Yellow Ribbon Symbol Timeline in The Yellow Birds

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Yellow Ribbon appears in The Yellow Birds. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5: March 2005 – Richmond, Virginia
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
...the beers but the bartender insists on giving them to him for free, showing a yellow ribbon as an explanation. However, Bartle, who is annoyed to be treated with deference for his... (full context)
Chapter 6: September 2004 – Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
...this story, Bartle turns around to throw up, noticing that the bile comes out in yellow ribbons . (full context)
Chapter 7: August 2005 – Richmond, Virginia
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
...Iraq. He feels that he wants to burn the country down and destroy all the yellow ribbons , even though he knows that joining the military was his own decision—one he made... (full context)