I had to read this book twice to grasp its power. In its richness, it honestly deserves a third reading. The book jacket describes The Yellow Birds as "…the unforgettable story of two soldiers trying to stay alive." And it is that, but it’s also, and I would argue even more so, a cautionary tale.
Bartle, Murph, and even Seargent Sterling are still very young men when they are sent to Al Tafar, Iraq with the U.S. Army. Of the three, Sterling is the oldest at twenty four and has been to Al Tafar twice before. As a seasoned, higher-ranking soldier, Sterling pairs Bartle with Murph telling them, "All right, little man, I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there. Do you understand?" Of course, Murph rogers that. Of course, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t understand. And he won’t understand until much later. In Al Tafar, the boys watch people get murdered (in Murph’s words). And when they see this "there was no grief, or anguish, or joy, or pity….There was no judgment made. [Murph] was just surprised, like he was waking from a long afternoon nap, disoriented, realizing that the world has continued uninterrupted in spite of the strange things that may have happened while you slept." And Bartle is "not surprised by the cruelty of [his] ambivalence" towards the killing. He explains that "we only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare."
In response to an excited reporter, asking what kind of rush the soldiers get, as if it is somehow comparable to the winning play of a football game in overtime, Murph explains, "It’s like a car accident. You know? That instant between knowing that it’s gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do sh*t about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not. It’s kind of like that," he continued, "like that split second in a car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days."
The Yellow Birds should be required reading for anyone considering a career in the armed forces, anyone who is old enough to vote, and anyone holding a public office.