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.
Companionship vs. Solitude Theme Icon

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 and the consequence of soldiers’ unease: during war, it makes them lose trust in the nobility of their fight (since they are primarily concerned with surviving, not defending high-minded ideals), and after war it keeps them from reintegrating civilian life (since, unlike them, many people still see war as an elevated enterprise). The novel thus denounces a central hypocrisy: the way in which a nation celebrates soldiers’ achievements without actually understanding how soldiers might feel about their experience. Instead of holding on to the idea that war is always glorious, the novel suggests that recognizing the deep psychological toll that war has on soldiers is necessary to keep them from succumbing to solitude and alienation.

Although Bartle initially believes that war might bring companionship, he soon realizes that the inherent selfishness of war leads to various degrees of solitude and alienation, with potentially fatal consequences. At the beginning of the novel, Bartle reflects on the gap between his expectations and the reality he has come to accept: “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?” The self-interested nature of fighting thus keeps soldiers from becoming a unified group and condemns them to fear and isolation.

Back at home, too, Bartle is alone, as the gap between the noble goal civilians ascribe to war and the selfish reality he has witnessed as a soldier keeps him from sharing his experience with others. “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,” he says. Bartle does not want his war actions to be celebrated, since he feels that nothing he did was inherently generous or noble. Rather, he would want people to recognize that war is more painful than virtuous, and then to change their attitudes accordingly.

This feeling of being misunderstood and isolated can have fatal consequences. At home, Bartle begins to feel that he would rather die than continue living this way. Although he does not actually commit suicide, two of his war companions do. His fellow soldier Murph finds war so cruel and alienating that he deserts and essentially commits suicide by walking naked into enemy territory, where vengeful Iraqis brutally mutilate and kill him. Even Sergeant Sterling, a fighter whom Bartle admires for his self-sacrifice, commits suicide as soon as he realizes that he can be the master of his own actions, instead of a tool serving the army’s interests. Soldiers’ suicidal thoughts and/or actions reveal that war leaves soldiers mentally isolated, unable to find comfort in the collective enterprise of the military or society.

Although Bartle does not end up killing himself, his unwillingness to accept help reveals how isolated and misunderstood he feels. Despite feeling lost and confused, Bartle does not want to rely on others for help. For example, while in Germany, on his way back to the U.S., a perceptive priest notices that he looks distraught and offers to pray for him. However, Bartle feels that the priest is doing this out of obligation and refuses, suggesting that he does not believe in spiritual absolution. Even meeting with Murph’s mother in prison does not bring Bartle any sense of peace or reconciliation, although the two of them talk about Murph’s death for six hours. “She hadn’t offered forgiveness and I hadn’t asked for it,” Bartle explains. These episodes suggest that Bartle has not been given (and has not accepted) the opportunity to express his thoughts to others in a way that might make him feel relief.

The novel highlights another way in which Bartle might have been able to recover from the stress and pain of war: medical care. Bartle’s refusal to seek such care derives in part from his belief that no authority will be able to help him, but also from the lack of subtlety with which the military approaches psychological support. For example, after Iraq, Bartle is given a form in which, when asked how he feels after a “murder-death-kill,” he is given only two options: “delighted” or “malaise”—two extremely simplistic conceptions of the psychological life of soldiers. Similarly, when Bartle tells a captain that he has found it hard to readapt to civilian life, the captain calls Bartle’s attitude cowardice and asks him if he has seen “the doctors,” which Bartle says he has. These episodes suggest that post-combat resources are ill equipped to handle Bartle’s complex mental state. Feeling that no one is able to understand his situation, Bartle is forced to rely on no one but himself to heal from the wounds that war has left him with.

Even though isolation might be in part the consequence of inadequate support, it does allow Bartle to process his experience at his own pace. In Germany, for instance, he discovers that he cannot communicate with many locals yet finds “peace in the absence of talk.” In prison, too, he does not feel oppressed or lonely but, instead, happy to be “pleasantly forgotten by almost everyone.” These episodes reveal the pleasure Bartle takes in not having to explain himself to anyone. By the end of the novel, after leaving prison, Bartle feels comfortable living on his own in the hills, far from family and friends. To cope with his own past, this ending suggests, Bartle needs to be given the time and space to decide how he might want to reintegrate ordinary society, instead of having social interactions forced upon him.

Although Bartle ultimately succeeds in finding peace and comfort after war, the military and civilian support he receives after the war proves inadequate, as it is capable of condemning him to isolation and suicidal thoughts. The novel suggests that truly helping soldiers overcome the psychological effects of war involves understanding the complexity of their experience, far from rigid, idealized visions of war as a glorious enterprise.

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Companionship vs. Solitude ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Companionship vs. Solitude appears in each chapter of The Yellow Birds. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Companionship vs. Solitude Quotes in The Yellow Birds

Below you will find the important quotes in The Yellow Birds related to the theme of Companionship vs. Solitude.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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:

I felt as if I’d somehow been returned to the singular safety of the womb, untouched and untouchable to the world outside her arms around my slouching neck. I was aware of all this, though I am not sure how. Yet when she said, “Oh, John, you’re home,” I did not believe her.

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Bartle’s Mother
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

“I was really happy it wasn’t me. That’s crazy, right?”

“Naw. You know what’s crazy? Not thinking that shit.”

Related Characters: John Bartle (speaker), Daniel “Murph” Murphy (speaker)
Page Number: 121
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: