The Yellow Birds


Kevin Powers

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Themes and Colors
War, Violence, and Detachment Theme Icon
Memory and Trauma Theme Icon
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Yellow Birds, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

War, Violence, and Detachment

Kevin Power’s novel The Yellow Birds describes a soldier’s experience in the Iraq War—from the moment he learns that he will be sent to battle, to his difficult return to civilian life. Over the course of the conflict, protagonist John Bartle realizes that war is neither glorious nor just, but rather characterized by cruelty and the unpredictability of death. In this context, remaining sane and performing one’s job well requires adopting a strategic attitude toward…

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Memory and Trauma

After leaving Iraq, John Bartle realizes that war has left indelible wounds on his mind, and that reintegrating into regular society might prove just as difficult as combat itself. Plagued by vivid memories of violent killings, Bartle finds himself unable to focus on the present and start a new life as though nothing happened. The anger and guilt he still feels at having been unable to prevent tragic events such as his companion Murphy’s…

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Companionship vs. Solitude

Following a traditional conception of the army as a place of camaraderie and solidarity, Bartle initially believes that war will bring his fellow soldiers and him together. However, he soon realizes that true solidarity in war is rare, existing only in extraordinary fighters such as Sergeant Sterling. By contrast, for most soldiers, war generates isolation, as all learn to focus primarily on their own survival. This particular form of solitude becomes both the cause…

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Justice, Morality, and Guilt

At odds with many civilians’ perception of war as a noble enterprise, Bartle knows from experience that war does not promote fairness and justice but, rather, arbitrary violence and death. Episodes such as Bartle’s participation in killings and his companion Murph’s cruel death uproot Bartle’s principles, as he finds himself conflicted about taking part in potentially immoral acts. At the same time, though, many of the actions he feels guilty about are not the…

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