The Yellow Birds The Yellow Birds discussion


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Spoiler Alert - So what really happened?

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Alan Stuart I enjoyed the prose and imagery of the novel very much but at the end I was left with one question and can't help thinking I may have missed the answer. Or did I?

Why did Bartle get sent to jail?


message 2: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie I probably won't read this book because as a retired mental health therapist who worked with traumatized vets and their families, I already know what the story is and what the thousands of stories are regarding the hidden costs of war....I listened to them every day at work, something most people are unaware of ...Its time for the rest of the public to get educated about something I saw and heard everyday as a witness.


Judith Hannan In response to Stephanie, no one can argue that not enough people are as aware as they should be about the cost of war. But to claim that one already knows each unique story is harder to accept. I work with homeless families and I still read as many stories that I can because I still find myself making assumptions about the lives of those people I have the privilege of meeting. Even if Powers' story doesn't seem unique--although do all soldiers write to a dead comrade's family as if he were the son because he felt he had broken a promise, do all describe the landscape with the eyes of this particular person, and is it really possible to finish telling the story of war--his writing is the most compelling reason to pick up this book. It is beautiful and evocative, not just a war story but the story of a man wrestling with moral dilemmas and figuring where he belongs.


message 4: by Don (last edited Dec 12, 2012 02:34AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Don Alan: I agree that the novel was beautiful, but it left me in many ways confused. As far as your question goes, I think Bartles was basically a fall guy:

"The captain wouldn't tell me everything, only that there had been an incident. Civilians had been killed, and so on. Sterling had gone on leave just before it had gotten the attention of some higher-ups who felt they needed to come down hard on someone to prove that all these boys with guns out roaming the plains of almost every country in the world would be accountable. And Sterling never made it back to be accountable.

"So it was a rumor that had brought the captain to see me, the underlying truth of the story long since skewed by the variety of a few boys' memories, perhaps one or two of them answering with what they wanted the truth to be, others likely looking to satisfy the imagined needs of a mother, abused and pitied as a result of that day in Al Tafar, which sometimes seems so long ago" (186-87).

Moreover, Murph's mother felt that the official story regarding her son's death wasn't quite right: the explanations for her son going "from MIA to dead so quickly" "never fit" (221). And she knew that the letter Bartles had written, pretending to be Murph, was a forgery. And when the Army traced this letter to Bartles, I guess they felt they had adequate circumstantial against him, evidence of some sort of wrongdoing.

So Bartles was a fall guy. By punishing him, the Army hoped it could (1) get war critics, human rights organizations, etc., to shut up about US war crimes and (2) get Murph's mom to shut up (222).


message 5: by Don (last edited Dec 12, 2012 02:40AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Don The letter, I think, was incriminating, because in it Bartles appeared to be covering up for Sterling. I don't remember if we're ever given access to the entire letter, but here's a portion we get towards the end of the book: "Mom, everything is going well here, Sgt. Sterling is taking care of us..." (185).


Alan Stuart Ah yes thanks for that. I misread the sentence starting "Sterling had gone on leave just before.." and thought that Bartle had been there when the "incident" occurred and not Sterling. Makes more sense now.

I always thought that Bartle was assuaging his general guilt as a survivor by going to jail.


message 7: by Don (last edited Dec 12, 2012 10:20AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Don "I always thought that Bartle was assuaging his general guilt as a survivor by going to jail." That's a great observation.

I also wonder if perhaps he was covering for Sterling, who, we know, actually committed war crimes. We read later in the novel that he thinks Sterling "was not a sociopath, not a man who cared only for himself;" he thinks that Sterling "cared nothing for himself. I'm not even sure he would have realized he was permitted to have his own desires and preferences"(187). Sterling's life "had been entirely contingent, like a body in orbit, only seen on account of the way it wobbles around its star" (188). So perhaps, after being in war, he came to understand and sympathize with Sterling.

Along with this, perhaps, on top of his survivor's guilt, he felt guilt for other reasons (for making a false promise to Murph's mom, for some of his actions in the war) and came to conclude that he wasn't really all that different than Sterling, that a very fine line separated the two men, and thus took the blame for the man.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

I thought it was because they shot the man with the cart in the face...


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

And Stephanie, why answer if you have not read the book?


LindaJ^ I think Bartles decided to take the fall for something he did not actually do because he had done so much that shamed him to stay alive. I guess that is survivor's guilt. I think this book, like Matterhorn, show that for the soldier (sailor, marine, etc), there is nothing glorious or particularly principled about war. As Sterling told Bartles and Murphy before they left, they would have to dig to find that nasty part of themselves in order to survive.


Diane Just finished the book. Beautifully, beautifully written. The Yellow Birds, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (perhaps my favorite book ever), is thematically concerned with truth, memory, and telling stories. Powers writes, "I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true." This is the essential difficulty in distinguishing memoir from fiction (and why do we feel such a need to distinguish them anyway? But I digress:)

Why did Bartle go to jail? If the narrative is to be believed, he was complicit in disposing of Murphy's body; torching a minaret; shooting a civilian in the face; and covering up the whole mess by not coming forward. Yes, Sterling was largely to blame, but Bartle participated and continued to participate in the cover up by writing the fake letter to La Donna and by not revealing what he knew. In addition, with Sterling dead, there was indeed a need for a fall guy, for someone to take the blame. While Sterling was certifiably mad (in my opinion), Bartle participated in the disposal of Murphy's body in the effort to spare his mother the pain of knowing her son was tortured and mutilated. Despite his good intentions, he was partially culpable for terrible consequences. In addition, he had an extraordinary amount of survivor guilt as well as guilt created by his failure to live up to his ill-advised promise to Murphy's mother.


message 12: by Alan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alan Stuart That certainly makes sense. For some reason I didn't connect the letter writing with the disposal of the body although it's obvious that was the motive or at least the cause of it being written. The shooting of the civilian deserves that Sterling be punished and Bartle was an accessory by not speaking up. Thanks for the help.


Dusty Bibliophile Diane wrote: "Why did Bartle go to jail? If the narrative is to be believed, he was complicit in disposing of Murphy's body; torching a minaret; shooting a civilian in the face; and covering up the whole mess by not coming forward. Yes, Sterling was largely to blame, but Bartle participated and continued to participate in the cover up by writing the fake letter to La Donna and by not revealing what he knew. In addition, with Sterling dead, there was indeed a need for a fall guy,..."

This is my interpretation as well. There is no info given on how many people, if any, were in the minaret when it burned so there could be more "civilian" deaths than just the one guy who was shot in the face.


Jacqueline "We assembled quickly, gathered our rifles and prepared to advance into the city of Al Tafar. At every gate soldiers poured out into the alleys and neighborhoods, the last echoes of a hundred chambering rifles ringing through the evening heat." (p. 194)

One can only imagine the brutality of this search. Bartle took responsibility for it all.


Alyss Linda wrote: "I think Bartles decided to take the fall for something he did not actually do because he had done so much that shamed him to stay alive. I guess that is survivor's guilt. I think this book, like ..."
I couldn't have said it any better than you


Nancy Diane wrote: "Just finished the book. Beautifully, beautifully written. The Yellow Birds, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (perhaps my favorite book ever), is thematically concerned with truth, memory,..."

Totally agree with your assessment. No one has mentioned Sterling's death. I do think Bartles was guilty of crimes although I totally understand why he went along with Sterling's suggestion to dispose of the body in the river. Such a tragic and beautiful book.


George Ilsley Alan wrote: "I enjoyed the prose and imagery of the novel very much but at the end I was left with one question and can't help thinking I may have missed the answer. Or did I?

Why did Bartle get sent to jail?"


At least 2 reasons. One was tossing Murph's body into the river (instead of recovering it according to procedure). In the same scene, they murder the innocent civilian who helps them move the body. This is a war crime. No one seems to pay any attention to this murder, which is very briefly mentioned, but I think it is why Bartle is so tormented by grief.


message 18: by Pearl (last edited Jun 15, 2013 08:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Pearl Alan wrote: "Ah yes thanks for that. I misread the sentence starting "Sterling had gone on leave just before.." and thought that Bartle had been there when the "incident" occurred and not Sterling. Makes more s..."

Bartle and Sterling were BOTH there.


message 19: by Chip (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chip I don't remember Sterling dying


message 20: by Melinda (new) - added it

Melinda Roberts Don wrote: "The letter, I think, was incriminating, because in it Bartles appeared to be covering up for Sterling. I don't remember if we're ever given access to the entire letter, but here's a portion we get ..."

We get a hint of the letter early on (pgs 30-32). "And perhaps it was a need for something to make sense that caused me to pick up a pencil and write a letter to a dead boy's mother, to write it in his name, having known him plenty long enough to know it was not his way to call his mother 'Mom.'" (pg. 30).

"I know it was a terrible thing to write that letter. What I don't know is where it fits in with all of the other terrible things I think about." (pg. 31).


Lynda Chip wrote: "I don't remember Sterling dying"

I seem to remember that Sterling committed suicide...


message 22: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Stone I am super confused! I never knew the letter was fake UGH... Also torching a minaret? What is that about? I must have missed that.
And the biggest dumbest question I have is WHAT HAPPENED TO MURPHY?? Did he kill himself and then passer by enemies found an American body and mutilated him? Or was he found wandering by the enemy and tortured? Help I didn't read the book ..just watched the movie and need answers so I don't have to watch it over! THANKS!!!! :)


message 23: by Julie (new)

Julie Yes l would also like to know what happened to Murphy. Movie wasn't very clear THANKS


message 24: by Don (new)

Don Johnson I too only watched the movie. By reading the comments above it sounds like the book was WAY better than the movie. While that is typical, in this particular case, I think the movie was terrible. The writers, directors, and producers left way too much out and assumed the viewer would make inferences about the missing parts. I've watched the movie several times and ended up having to look it up to make any sense out of it. What a shame, because it sounds like the book is a masterpiece. Thanks to all of the readers who commented here; without them, I would still be in the dark.


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