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 result of individual will but, rather, constitute orders that he was meant to follow—a situation that makes it difficult to identify who is truly responsible for the crimes committed in combat. As Bartle realizes that ordinary conceptions of human justice is unable to account for the horrors that he has witnessed or taken part in, he becomes convinced that such actions are not necessarily individuals’ fault, but can be seen as the product of war itself. In breeding immoral actions and encouraging soldiers to behave violently, war itself sets the foundation for horror and injustice.
Although many civilians believe that the war in Iraq defends a noble cause, Bartle discovers that the actions he takes part in do not conform to traditional ideals of justice and fairness. This causes him to lose faith in the moral justification of war. In battle, Bartle does not consider the enemy inherently evil. Instead, he realizes that soldiers on both sides are fighting for nothing more than their own survival. As a result, he becomes disillusioned with the moral value of the actions he takes part in. For instance, when he sees an enemy escape fire during a violent battle, his reaction is to feel compassion for the man: “My first instinct was to yell out to him, ‘You made it, buddy, keep going,’ but I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that.” The rivalry that Bartle reminds himself of thus proves artificial and arbitrary, since it does not reflect his actual feelings toward the enemy—whom he sees as fellow human beings, even if they are fighting on the opposite side. Wondering about the ethics of shooting a soldier who is, in essence, a person just like himself, Bartle wonders: “What kind of men are we?”
Bartle’s experience thus strips the war of moral prestige. By contrast, civilians in the novel often retain an idealized vision of war as a grand fight between good and evil. When an American bartender asks Bartle if Iraq is “full of savages,” Bartle replies evasively, “Yeah, man. Something like that.” Bartle’s unwillingness to agree fully with the bartender reveals his aversion to overly simplistic depictions of the war. Unlike most civilians, Bartle knows that it is not necessarily the enemy that is savage, but that both sides can commit atrocious acts. In this way, war itself is savage, as it forces people on both sides to commit potentially abhorrent acts.
As Bartle loses faith in the moral validity of this war, he struggles to define what actually constitutes right and wrong more broadly. After Murph’s death, for instance. he writes Murph’s mother a letter in which he pretends to be her son, thus making her believe that Murph is still alive. Although Bartle knows this is wrong, he is too overwhelmed by sadness and grief to judge his action in ethical terms. “I know it was a terrible thing to write that letter,” he confesses. “What I don’t know is where it fits in with all of the other terrible things I think about.” The cruelty of war makes him lose track of what truly constitutes fairness and justice. Since he is so often forced to take part in actions that he would normally find reprehensible, such as killing other human beings, he no longer knows how to judge his own actions, and consequently remains plagued by a vague, generalized sense of guilt.
Faced with the burden of what he has witnessed and performed during war, Bartle finds that ordinary civilian justice is unable to account for his experience. The incapacity for human institutions to account for what happens in war suggests that it is war itself—rather than the individuals who take part in it—that is responsible for injustice.
Bartle is ultimately tried and sentenced to a few years in prison for Murph’s death. Although Bartle is not actually responsible, he accepts punishment because he feels guilty about other things he has done in the war, such as writing a letter to Murph’s mother. He concludes, “If writing it was wrong, then I was wrong. If writing it was not wrong, enough of what I’d done had been wrong and I would accept whatever punishment it carried.” Bartle’s self-critical honesty contrasts with the hypocrisy of the justice system, which only seeks a scapegoat; “Someone has to account for some of it,” the captain explains, admitting that Bartle’s trial is not actually meant to find out the truth about Murph’s death, but to make someone responsible for it—in other words, to account for the inherent injustice and unpredictability of war.
Bartle’s resignation to being sent to prison highlights his belief that no one is truly responsible for what has happened, but that everyone (himself included) is probably guilty of something. Guilt, then, can emerge even in the absence of a desire to harm. For example, Bartle’s decision to write a letter to Murph’s mother was not meant to cause her pain but, rather, to spare her the pain of learning about her son’s death—a noble cause, even if the means to achieve it is dishonest. Similarly, although Bartle feels guilty for killing people during the war, he never actively wanted to harm others, since he was merely following orders and protecting his own life. In these circumstances, determining the extent of Bartle’s agency and responsibility becomes particularly difficult, since the logic of war itself has led him to commit some of his most violent acts.
Bartle’s experience thus highlights the way that war corrupts ordinary human beings, forcefully turning them away from ideals of justice and morality. Although Bartle never directly mentions the government’s responsibility in starting the war, it becomes obvious that war itself—more than individual soldiers, who are obligated to follow orders—might be the true culprit, responsible for the injustices that are perpetrated in its name.
Justice, Morality, and Guilt ThemeTracker
Justice, Morality, and Guilt Quotes in The Yellow Birds
The war tried to kill us in the spring. […] While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
There were no bullets with my name on them, or with Murph’s, for that matter. There were no bombs made just for us. Any of them would have killed us just as they’d killed the owners of those names. We didn’t have a time laid out for us, or a place. […] I believe unswervingly that when Murph was killed, the dirty knives that stabbed him were addressed “To whom it may concern.” Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying.
A man ran behind a low wall in a courtyard and looked around, astonished to be alive, his weapon cradled in his arms. My first instinct was to yell out to him, “You made it, buddy, keep going,” but I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that. It was not long before the others saw him too.
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.
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 […]
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.
It probably wouldn’t matter what our level of culpability was. I was guilty of something, that much was certain, that much I could feel on a cellular level.