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 brutality—namely, accepting violence and death as ordinary aspects of life, without reflecting on their moral or emotional significance. Although Bartle mostly succeeds in doing this, his friend Daniel Murphy becomes overwhelmed by the cruelty of war and goes insane, ultimately dying after deserting the camp. Bartle and Murph’s conflicting fates suggest that, to remain mentally strong, soldiers must suppress their human sensitivities. The novel argues that survival during war involves a form of dehumanization, as soldiers are forced to sacrifice their capacity for reflection and introspection in order to protect their physical and mental selves.
In war, death can strike at any moment, killing soldiers arbitrarily and unpredictably. Faced with this senselessness, soldiers are forced to accept that they have little control over anything, including their own lives. As such, when Bartle and Murph’s translator, Malik, is killed suddenly in front of them, they watch the scene with apparent indifference. Bartle explains his lack of surprise or sadness as a form of self-protection: “I needed to continue. And to continue, I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.” To keep fighting, Bartle must learn to focus exclusively on things that affect his own survival—and, in turn, actively shut out those things that don’t.
To further distance themselves from the destruction all around them, Bartle and Murph begin to count the number of dead. Their goal of reaching one thousand deaths allows them to turn war into a kind of game—one that affects impersonal numbers rather than real human beings. This capacity to detach themselves from violence allows the men to feel invincible—Bartle says, “We never considered that we could be among the walking dead as well”—but also keeps them from examining the morality of their actions. Bartle notes, “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.” Like counting deaths, obeying orders takes on a mechanical quality. The repetitive, routine nature of the soldiers’ actions further numbs them to the brutality of war, thus allowing them to obey violent orders without a second thought.
Bartle views even Sergeant Sterling’s aggressiveness as a necessary strategy to ensure survival, rather than a display of sadism, since staying focused is so crucial to staying alive. In combat, Sterling yells hateful words at the enemy and seems to take pleasure in shooting at them, delivering his shots and insults with a rage-filled energy that he means to communicate to his companions. “I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me,” Bartle explains, noting that his own survival instinct is not sufficient to make him want to fight.
Regardless of the moral validity of doing so, the novel argues that soldiers are able to insulate themselves from the senseless horrors of war by becoming indifferent to the violence of their surroundings. In turn, soldiers who fail to cultivate this emotional detachment put themselves in a vulnerable position. When Murph begins to daydream of being back home, for example, Sterling says: “Murph is home, Bartle. And he’s gonna be there with a flag shoved up his ass before you know it.” Sterling argues that Murph’s distraction (the fact that he thinks of home too much) is keeping him from concentrating on the war and protecting his own life, which is likely to lead to his death.
Bartle also realizes that Murph is losing his ability to remain purposefully indifferent toward other people’s deaths. When one of their fellow soldiers is killed, Murph feels distraught, instead of simply counting it playfully as he might have done before. “I was really happy it wasn’t me. That’s crazy, right?” he asks Bartle, who tries to reassure his friend by saying that not feeling relieved to be alive would be crazier. However, this episode suggests that Murph is no longer thinking as a typical soldier. Instead of focusing exclusively on fighting and surviving, Murph now interrogates his own emotions as well as the moral validity of his actions.
Through introspection, Murph is desperately trying to regain control over the soldiers’ inherently unpredictable lives. In his free time, he goes off on his own to watch a doctor’s daily routine, as she tends to wounded soldiers. Murph finds comfort in the fact that he is choosing to watch her, when he has so little control over everything else in war. As Bartle explains: “[Murph] 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.” However, Murph’s illusion of choice soon shatters when the doctor is suddenly killed, and Murph once again finds himself face-to face with the arbitrary violence of war. Unable to withstand how helpless he feels, he goes insane, deserting the camp completely naked and condemning himself to being brutally tortured and killed by the nearby Iraqi enemy.
Murph’s desertion and death confirm Sterling’s prediction that Murph’s inability to detach himself from the brutality of combat would be his undoing. More generally, the young soldier’s story illustrates that, in a context of near-constant violence, soldiers can only survive if they remain emotionally distant from both their own actions and the destruction around them. Paradoxically, then, ignoring one’s compassion, fear, or moral instincts—that is, everything that makes a person truly human and complex—proves necessary to become a successful soldier, capable of surviving the horrors of war.
War, Violence, and Detachment ThemeTracker
War, Violence, and Detachment 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
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.
Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed. […] I needed to continue. And to continue, I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.
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.
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 was really happy it wasn’t me. That’s crazy, right?”
“Naw. You know what’s crazy? Not thinking that shit.”
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.
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.