When Louie meets the other prisoners, they tell him not to call Watanabe by his real name. If he hears the prisoners using his name, he will beat them for fear that they are plotting against him. Instead, the prisoners call him the Bird because it carries no negative connotations in case he finds out about the nickname. At Omori, the Japanese register the POWs with the Red Cross, but they don’t register Louie. The Japanese military has bigger plans for him.
The Bird is Watanabe’s wartime nickname – it is the name that represents his identity during this period of cruelty and violence. With this nickname, Watanabe is no longer just a real-life person, but also a symbol for humankind’s utmost capacity for violence. It is fitting that his name is of a kind of animal, as Watanabe is himself like a kind of animal in the savagery he displays.
In defiance of the Geneva Convention’s law that protects POW officers from having to work, the Bird makes the officers, including Louie, into slave laborers, forcing them to clean the toilets in the barracks. To get back at the guards, the prisoners stage a secret war against their captors. They sabotage machines used in the war effort, pee in the Japanese food, and steal tremendous amounts of food.
In the wild, birds represent freedom, so the Bird’s nickname emphasizes the freedom he has in comparison to the POWs, who Hillenbrand describes as slaves. Specifically, the Bird has the freedom to torture the POWs without consequence. The men, however, are not completely powerless: their “secret war” of resistance makes them feel like soldiers again, helping them preserve their pride and dignity.
One guard in the camp, Yukichi Kano, tries to help the prisoners by giving them food and blankets and by protecting them from the sadistic Japanese doctors. But Kano could do nothing to protect Louie from the Bird’s violent attacks.
Kano is a foil, or contrast, to the Bird. Though the Bird is “free” to torture the men, he is also liked a bird that is caged in a personal prison of dishonor, unable to escape the humiliations of the past and experience the deeper joys of mercy, friendship, and benevolence that Kano can.
Watanabe’s attacks intensify. When the Bird demands that Louie look him in the eyes, Louie refuses, prompting more vicious attacks. To Watanabe, Louie’s defiance is a personal offense. The other prisoners tell Louie that he must show deference and respect to Watanabe in order to stop the attacks, but Louie refuses. Like when he was a boy who never cried in front of a bully, Louie refuses to give Watanabe the satisfaction of seeing him cower or submit.
Louie’s defiance spurs Watanabe’s anger, but it also gives Louie the strength to demand that the guards respect his humanity and independence. If Louie were to give in, he’d save himself the beatings but would also acquiesce to the idea that he is somehow lower, less human, than the Bird. Louie would rather die, than give up his human dignity. It is interesting to contrast Louie’s behavior here with those of the guards, who in order to protect their positions as guards and to save themselves from being punished, give in to orders and clearly mistreat the POWs.