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Kevin Powers’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ is a novel concerning modern warfare and the pressures soldiers undergo during and after the war. It is also a novel about the friendship between two men: John Bartle and Daniel Murphy. They both come from Virginia, and despite not knowing each other prior to signing up, they are put together by their Sergeant, primarily because they are both Privates and are of a similar age; Bartle is twenty-one and Murph just eighteen. Murph is assigned to Bartle to look after, but he does not see this as a blessing, instead he “didn’t want to be responsible for someone” and he thought that some things Murph did were “irritating”. Although their friendship starts with the basic fact that they are both in the same place at the same time, it evolves into something much more significant than that in the ten months they know each other. The two boys are together constantly and they become each other’s anchor in a totally unfamiliar environment providing “a steady comfort”.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the rash promise that Bartle makes to LaDonna Murphy, promising to “keep [her] son safe” Bartle feels a sense of kinship and family with Murph. He realises that he should not have made this promise to “bring him home to” her, and so he instantly feels more responsible for him as he would have to live with the guilt of letting his mother down. This is also a driving factor for him deciding to forge the letter to her, from Murph, as to keep his promise for as long as possible. The two boys have limited contact from anyone from home, and they cannot describe to their families the reality of their experiences, giving them instead “assurances that were as much for us as for them”, so they rely on each other for the emotional support that they would normally get from their families.
As the novel progresses we learn that Murph and Bartle do everything together and focus only on protecting each other from everything they are going through, especially the mental stress they have to deal with by the constant fighting. Bartle’s promise to Murph’s mother becomes a factor in the strength of ‘brotherhood’ they feel for each other as Murph becomes more disengaged with the war around him and Bartle must do whatever he can to try to keep him safe. This complete trust that the boys feel for each other strengthens their bonds of friendship. They know they can depend completely on each other and they have someone there who understands what each is going through. They learn about each other lives, before the war; who their friends back home were, who their girlfriends are. They share care packages and become the focus of each others reminiscences, trying to have normal conversations as they would at home so that “for a moment [they] forgot [their] predicament and were just two friends drinking under a tree”.
Powers often talks about the pointlessness of war for the soldiers fighting it; they would “go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly”. Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times explains this as a “loop in which there is no destination, no progress”, which is reflected in the two men’s behaviour. This in turn makes the men ponder on what they are in fact fighting for, and it ends up being for each other, solidifying their trust for each other and strengthening their friendship. Being a solider requires each person to have complete trust in their superiors and in the “men to [their] left, and to [their] right”. This need for absolute trust in order to survive intensifies relationships and as a result forms the bonds between men dramatically faster than one would in normal situations. This is reinforced as they are forced to “stay awake and on amphetamines and fear” for such long periods of time in extremely confined places. Bartle and Murph exemplify the reality that war can “bring people closer together than every other activity on earth”.
Studies have shown that sharing these intense situations, being under enemy fire or killing a human being, is what bonds soldiers so strongly. In a kill or be killed situation, Bartle and Murph simply focus on protecting each other. Their joint fear of dying and fixation of not becoming the “thousandth death” also drives them closer together. They are both pessimistic throughout and expect to die. They are able to relate to each other in places they cannot with Sterling. Murph and Bartle understand each other more than other soldiers and more than a normal civilian would ever be able to. They set out to achieve the same thing: it was not that they intended to go and kill other people, they merely wanted to escape the small lives they had in America, they wanted to achieve something greater for themselves. They also both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, even before they return home, Bartle having to look after the “naïve and emotionally fragile 18-year-old” as Kakutani puts it; as well as having to deal with his own traumas. They spend a very long time in each other’s company and this leads them to believe that if they “remained ordinary, [they] would not die”. Powers shares his own views on survival through Bartle, stating in an interview with GQ “Why did I survive? I’m clearly no more worthy of surviving as these people”. This is exactly what the protagonist feels when he returns home without his friend.
In conclusion, the two protagonists’ friendship in ‘The Yellow Birds’ begins because they are forced to spend all their time together. Throughout the novel they learn to rely on each other for emotional support, for camaraderie, for family bonds. Friendships such as theirs grow out of facing death together, fighting side by side. Murph seems as much alive in Bartle’s mind when he is dead as when they were together in Iraq. At night he dreams about their time in Iraq, dreaming “Murph was there, Murph and me”.
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