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
A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head
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.
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.
[…] 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 […]
[…] 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 […]
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.