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 death lead him to try to sort out his memories of the war, in search of a greater significance that would give meaning to his experience. However, Bartle soon realizes that he cannot control his flow of memories and that there is, in fact, no underlying meaning to many of the horrors he witnessed. Although this initially generates feelings of helplessness, as well as the desire to end his life, he eventually realizes that the only way for him to move on is to let go of his guilt. Instead of trying to find peace by ascribing meaning to past events, Bartle gradually finds peace by accepting the past as it is: a disordered, tragic series of events he had no control over—and therefore should not feel guilty about. The only thing he does have control over is his present life. By focusing on the little areas of existence over which he does have agency, Bartle is gradually able to feel comfortable again with his own self and build a new life in the United States.
Back at home after the war in Iraq, Bartle finds himself unable to escape his memories of violence. When Bartle’s mother drives him home from the airport, Bartle looks out at a field and wonders where he could hide from an enemy’s attack, only to realize that he is projecting his memories of Iraq onto the familiar landscape of home. Days later, in his own backyard, he physically braces for the impact of shells when a crow’s caw reminds him of mortars. These memories prove so strong that they impact his current life, making him feel a distinct sense of dislocation even in familiar places. Although thinking of home used to comfort him during difficult moments during the war, he no longer feels emotionally attached to the concept of home upon his return. “My muscles flexed into the emptiness I still called home,” he says, understanding that although nothing at home has changed, he has changed too much to fit back into his old life.
Though Bartle might be physically present in Virginia, it’s clear his mind remains elsewhere. When his mom encourages him to at least think about joining his friends on an expedition, Bartle, who feels disconnected from his former acquaintances and his old lifestyle, explodes: “Goddammit, Mama. All I fucking do is think.” Bartle feels helpless and trapped specifically because he does not know how to escape his own mind and the oppressive nature of his memories.
To counter this feeling, Bartle tries to organize his memories chronologically. His goal is to establish a relation of cause and effect between different events, so that he might grasp the overarching significance of what he has experienced. However, he soon realizes that war follows no hidden logic. In prison for a crime he did not actually commit, Bartle covers his cell’s walls with writing, making a mark for every memory that comes back to him, hoping that he will find order in this process. However, this effort proves futile: “Eventually, I realized that the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern. They were fixed in place. Connecting them would be wrong. They fell where they had fallen. Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated.”
After realizing that he cannot bring order to an inherently incoherent series of events, Bartle ultimately decides to give up on trying to organize the past. Instead, he looks toward the future and attempts to make his present life as small and manageable as he possibly can. After leaving prison, Bartle moves to a small cabin in the hills, where he tries to live peacefully. “I don’t want desert,” he says. “I don’t want anything unbroken. I’d rather look out at mountains. Or to have my view obstructed by a group of trees. […] Something manageable and finite that could break up and fix the earth into parcels small enough that they could be contended with.” Bartle’s desire to regain control over his life involves eliminating anything that might remind him of the war, such as the desert, and dividing his experiences into manageable, orderly chunks that stand in stark contrast with the chaotic swarm of wartime memories. His attitude toward trees is symbolic: all he wants is to be given the physical and mental space to live a life in which he has full control.
Rebuilding the present in small steps goes hand in hand with letting go of harmful memories. In the novel’s final scene, Bartle imagines Murph’s body floating down the Tigris river in Iraq, all the way to the sea. This becomes a symbolic moment in which Bartle reconciles with his own past: Murph’s body flows away from him both physically and mentally, suggesting that Bartle can finally let go of his grief and move on. Bartle might not be able to change, reorganize, or forget the past, but he can modify his emotional attitude toward it, thus making his post-war life more bearable.
Therefore, when imposing an artificial order on his memories fails, Bartle realizes that his true power lies not in having control over their emergence, but in modifying the attitude he might adopt toward them. Feeling guilty or angry about Murph’s death will only make the rest of his life painful, whereas accepting it as an unfortunate yet irreparable event ultimately allows him to move on. Bartle, the novel suggests, must accept that he is not responsible for all the tragedies he has witnessed. Instead, he must focus—with the help of a lot of time and patience—on taking small steps toward rebuilding a peaceful life, free from suffering about the past.
Memory and Trauma ThemeTracker
Memory and Trauma Quotes in The Yellow Birds
We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be. When we finished our work we went to sleep, calm and free of regret.
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.
But things happened the way they happened without regard to our desire for them to have happened another way. Despite an age-old instinct to provide an explanation more complex than that, something with a level of profundity and depth which would seem commensurate with the confusion I felt, it really was that simple.
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.
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.
[…] cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now […]
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.
He wanted to choose. He wanted to want. He wanted to replace the dullness growing inside him with anything else. He wanted to decide what he would gather around his body, to refuse that which fell toward him by accident or chance and stayed in orbit like an accretion disk. He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.
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.
Eventually, I realized that the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern. They were fixed in place. Connecting them would be wrong. They fell where they had fallen. Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated.