The Yellow Birds Summary

Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds

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The Yellow Birds Summary

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The Yellow Birds is a heartbreaking tale of friendship and loss. The narrative is set within the historical context of the Iraq War, though the novel also focuses on the development of relationships both before and after this period of conflict as well. The main narrative involves three soldiers and the outcomes they each face based on their actions in relation to one another.

The first soldier is Sergeant Sterling, a veteran who has served in three tours of duty. Sergeant Sterling assigns Private John Bartle, who is twenty-one years old, to be a guide and mentor to another young soldier, eighteen-year-old Private Daniel Murphy, who is also known as ‘Murph’. In the beginning of the narrative, Private Bartle does not wish to be responsible for Murph. In time, however, Bartle comes to view Murph as a close friend and enjoys being a guide for the younger private.

The narrative reveals how the context of training and fighting in war actually brings the two soldiers closer together. Ironically, this very same context of war, and its resulting effects on Murph, is also what drives the pair apart. Moreover, it causes an irreparable wedge between the two friends, resulting in tragedy for all three soldiers, albeit in different ways.

As the narrative progresses, it is clear to the reader that, though Bartle has indeed promised to both Sergeant Sterling and Murph’s mother to keep the young man safe, he is increasingly concerned that he will be unable to keep this promise. As the war rages on, Murph becomes distant, and in time, admits to Bartle that he does not want anyone knowing that he was in the war. Moreover, he does not want to maintain any of the relationships he made with soldiers during the war once he returns home.

Though Murph’s shift in character is disheartening to Bartle, what really wears on him is what Sergeant Sterling says of Murph’s attitude. Sterling says that the kid’s conviction, or lack thereof, indicates that he will not survive the war. The odds are against him as he has already given up. Bartle refuses to believe Sterling’s words and wants to help his friend survive, but soon finds himself unable to change Murph’s fate. Murph indeed succumbs to a horribly tragic death when he wanders away from the Army outpost.

The tragedy itself, as well as the steps leading up to it, is told in a back-and-forth manner, switching from scenes in Iraq, such as the beginning scene of a battle in Al Tafar, and then moving to later scenes when the soldiers are at a base in New Jersey, and then postwar scenes in Virginia and Fort Knox, Kentucky. It is during the postwar period, back in the states, that Bartle must deal with the tragedy of Murph’s death, as well as the unthinkable act that both he and Sterling are complicit in relating to Murph’s death.

Not only did Bartle feel he had failed to protect Murph, he did not want Murph’s mother to see her son’s crippled, tortured body. Attempting to still “save” Murph, this time from the humiliation of wandering away from the camp and being killed, and having the world know what happened, Bartle and Sergeant Sterling dump Murph’s mangled body into the Tigris River and tell everyone that they never found Murph’s body.

Bartle tries to live with the guilt of letting Murph down. This guilt is of course compounded by the fact that he and Sterling did find the body, but disposed of it and lied about their actions. Bartle attempts to avoid people and begins drinking heavily after returning home. His escape mechanisms, however, are unable to save him. In time, the Army locates and arrests him, then convicts him.

Sterling is also attempting to cope with the events of war and Murph’s death, but does not fare as well as Bartle. As his involvement with the events surrounding Murph’s body being dumped come to light, Sterling is unable to cope and commits suicide. He does, however, attempt to “save” someone again when, after being questioned by investigators, does not tell the truth about Bartle’s involvement.

Bartle’s arrest and conviction gives Murph’s mother some sense of justice, as she has been relentlessly inquiring of the Army to reveal the truth about her son’s death. It is actually when talking to Murph’s mother, just before his release from prison, that Bartle is able to come to terms with his experiences during war and the horrible events surrounding Murph’s death. He is able to forgive himself for it all, though the novel reveals that Murph’s mothers does not tell Bartle that she forgives him. When Bartle is released, he moves to a cabin in the woods. Alone and isolated, he begins writing this story, and by doing so, begins the healing process.

The Yellow Birds is also a story about redemption. Throughout the novel, the soldiers are constantly involved in acts of “saving” one another. Indeed, there seems to be more saving taking place postwar than anywhere else. In this sense, the actions of Bartle and Sterling are symbolic of their natures. Both men want to protect Murph, as well as their fellow soldiers. They were not able to protect Murph, in the end, but their act of dumping his body was a way of saving him from posthumous embarrassment. Likewise, Sterling’s decision not to tell investigators about Bartle’s involvement is an attempt at saving Bartle. This action, coupled with his desire to save Murph posthumously, speaks to his character as a soldier, friend and sergeant.

Bartle is viewed as a true friend, not even wanting to cause hurt to Murph’s mother, even though his actions ultimately do. His actions are viewed as questionable in a moral sense, but there exists a fine line between right and wrong here. He thought he was honoring a friend and his friend’s mother, and in this sense, shows how deep and lasting friendship can be, and how devastating war is and how it remains on the psyche of those involved and those who come through it.