Wars are pretty much all about sides. Good vs. bad. Us vs. them. The Rebel Alliance vs. Stormtroopers. (Yep, even fictional wars are all about sides.)
But, despite the fact that this is a book about war, Myers doesn't take sides. The book paints a sympathetic picture of both the Iraqis, whose country is suddenly torn apart, and people like Birdy, who are soldiers trying to do their best in—understatement of the year time—a difficult situation.
Just check out the descriptions. It's all there, especially in the statements about what war has done to Birdy's mental state:
What I was supposed to do was chill, and I realized I was working on it way too hard. I kept reaching for the weapon I had left back in Baghdad. (14.193)
It's subtle, sure, but the way Birdy can't relax, even when he's basically on a resort compound, shows the effect the war is having on him. It might be years until he feels completely safe. None of the characters leave the war unaffected by it.
The next time someone—probably a snooty-looking kid who wears a beret in order to look tres French—suggests that YA lit isn't hard-hitting, give them a copy of Sunrise Over Fallujah.
Because this book doesn't sugarcoat anything. Myers keeps it really, really real. This is a novel about war, after all, and a lot of people die in gruesome ways. The gore isn't sensational, but Birdy's reaction to seeing it happen, in real time, is pretty heart-wrenching.
Let's put it this way: while this book is about a young adult—Birdy's a teenager—and has a difficulty level that makes it accessible for a YA audience, it's not for the faint of heart. In fact, we think most adults would have a hard time getting through Sunrise Over Fallujah without getting misty-eyed or shocked.
Birdy doesn't even make it to Fallujah, the Iraqi town mentioned in the title, until more than halfway through the book. Our main man spends more time in places like Baghdad. So why does this particular town (at sunrise) get a title cred?
Because although crazy, intense things go down in all of Birdy's missions, in Fallujah it gets up-close and personal.
Birdy catches Miller about to get raped, and he shoots the two men trying to rape her. On one hand, he prevented something awful from happening, but on the other, he literally blew two peoples' brains out.
That's why his ride back to camp is title material. It's different from all the others:
But here, on this bright morning, I rode for the first time as someone who had killed. All the times before that, I had fired my weapon into the darkness, or some fleeting figure in the distance. I could say that maybe I had missed, that maybe it was not my bullets that hit them.
No more. I wanted to be away from Fallujah, away from Iraq. I wanted to be alone in the dark with my grief. I wanted to mourn for myself. (14.140-141)
Even though there's a beautiful sunrise—the world is moving on, like nothing happened—Birdy has changed. Now that he's killed, he's a different man now, and he can never go back to the person he was before.
Everyone lives happily ever after? They all go to the beach? There's a wedding and everyone does the Chicken Dance?
No such luck, guys.
Birdy's time in Iraq is summed up by the final letter he writes to his uncle (which he says that he won't send). Maybe because it's kind of a downer: Birdy has a lot of conflicting feelings about the war, and many of them are dark.
But they're not all dark. Birdy says he doesn't think we've won the war, but he doesn't think we lost it, either. Or at least, he doesn't believe his squadmates died for nothing:
Because once you have seen a Jonesy or a Pendleton desperately reaching for the highest idea of life, offering themselves up, you don't think about losing or winning so much. You think there is more to life and you go on and you want to find that something more. (15.53)
In the end, Birdy says he understands why his uncle barely talked about Vietnam. When trying to describe war, words don't even begin to cover it.
There's no clear conclusion Birdy reaches in this letter. He's just trying to sort out his own complicated feelings. But for this book, that makes sense. It would be weird if a novel that presented all the complicated details of a war ended with a simplistic conclusion. It just wouldn't fit.
Birdy's story isn't about making a decision about the Iraq War. It's more about helping readers to understand what it was like to be in the middle of it.
For Birdy, a teenager from Harlem, Iraq might as well be the dark side of the moon. The hustle and bustle of New York City is about as far from the desertscape and ancient buildings of Iraq as you can get.
It's all foreign, and he's totally bowled over by both how strange he finds it, and by its distinctive mixture of old and new.
In this book, we don't get one vision of Iraq—we get many: the modernity of Baghdad; the old, impoverished villages they travel to; the vastness of the desert; and the danger and wildness of the marshy area near the border of Iran.
Iraq is not a country that looks the same throughout. It's full of completely different landscapes…and completely different sorts of people.
Birdy's not the kind of guy to examine his feelings much, so often his description of whatever setting he's in betrays how he feels. After Pendleton's death, Birdy's narration reads,
The smell from the river drifted over us like the stink of doom. (12.202)
Yeah. That's not exactly the smell of roses and freshly-baked bread.
The sunrise over Fallujah, while beautiful, comes to symbolize the dawning of a new part of his life, after he has killed and watched his victims die. Birdy continues to emphasize the beauty of the country, but as the book goes on, his descriptions get more and more tinged with his feeling of depression.
Poor Birdy. He's never seeing just Iraq. He's seeing a very specific side of the country: Iraq in the middle of a war.
Seriously: the hardest part of reading this book is keeping track of all the generals, lieutenants, and specialists, and places. Especially the places. Birdy's unit travels from village to city to city. They're passed around to where they're needed.
So don't get too caught up in that stuff. (Or, better yet, refer back to Shmoop when you want to reference a name or place.) The storytelling—the day-to-day of the book—is simple and straightforward. It matters more what mood Birdy's in than where he is.
Just follow along with Birdy, and you're going to be all right.
Let's face it: you don't usually think of "soldiers" and "poetic language" at the same time. "Poetic language" conjures up images of people lying around wearing billowy blouses and watching the waves. "Soldiers" makes you think of clipped, direct sentences—"Go, go, go!" or "All right, men: here's the deal."
After all, it's not the best idea to waste your breath when there's urgent information to be relayed.
There isn't a lot of philosophizing in this book, unless one of the characters is thinking out loud. The writing is all physical descriptions and dialogue, and much of the dialogue involves officers giving orders to privates like Birdy.
And even the descriptions aren't flowery—they're factual. Like this one:
There was a small building that could have been a mosque, very plain looking, and about fifteen two-story buildings. Most of the buildings had been hit and two of them were nothing more than a pile of rubble. There were two Humvees patrolling the area, just tooling through the streets. (6.57)
No wasted words here; no hint of how you should feel. Myers just sets the scene. The book feels like a real, factual account of the Iraq War.
Why did Myers write it this way? Why no flowery passages? We think its to make his readers fill in the gaps. He doesn't take a political position, and neither does his main character. He leaves it up to his readers to decide for themselves what they think about the war.
The blues, like it's name suggests, is all about the tough stuff: the things that make your life feel like a long, rainy Monday afternoon when there's nothing new on Netflix and nothing in the fridge but a sad Tupperware full of week-old lasagna.
And that's when it's a happy blues song. The depressing blues songs take it way, way darker.
The blues evolved from African American spirituals during slavery, just to give you a taste of how bleak the issues that blues touches on can be. And it became popular in the 1920s and '30s, when slavery had been abolished but lynchings and Jim Crow Laws were a regular part of life for Black Americans…to, again, give you an idea of some of the insanely rough things that blues addresses.
So it's no surprise that the blues would rear its depressing-yet-cathartic head in a novel that takes place smack dab in the middle of wartime.
Jonesy's a blues singer—dude brings pretty much everything back to the blues. (Fair enough: he's stationed in a war zone.) And the First Squad is glad to have him. Besides providing free entertainment, Jonesy's blues allows him to talk about the war honestly, in all its irony and darkness.
Because the situation in Iraq looks a little something like this: you've got soldiers, many of whom grew up poor, killing some rich people but also civilians—all oppressed people, just like the people who started the blues.
Dang. Just the thought of that is enough to make us want to spend the next hour listening to Bessie Smith.
But the blues isn't just a way to express the painful realities of life. It's also a way of bringing people together. When the squad meets all the injured children, Jonesy sings the blues and drums on the back of his helmet to make a kid smile. (Aww.) And when the squad is arguing about having to travel to a village and apologize for a bombing that killed civilians, Jonesy breaks up the fight by singing:
Well the bombs are falling, yes the bombs are coming down
Baby, them bombs are falling, they're really coming down
Sometimes they on target, and sometimes they runnin' wild
But I'm so glad they ain't falling on my mama's child
And that's the truth!
We all started clapping for Jonesy. The guy could really sing. (6.50-56)
The song, however bleaktastic, brings the unit together. It emphasizes that they're all scared of the same thing—bombings. It takes something dark and turns it into art.
That's what the blues does, again and again. It acknowledges the tough stuff, and puts it into a form that makes people smile…against all odds.
Symbols are tricky things. Red can sometimes represent violence, and other times represent passion. Birds can sometimes represent freedom, and other times represent frailty.
But there's one symbol pretty much always means the same thing—probably because the idea of this symbol tugs on our heartstrings and makes us break out in a collective "Awwww." We're talking about children: pretty much everyone agrees that kiddos are universal representations of innocence, purity, and adorably pinch-able cheeks.
And that's no different in Sunrise Over Fallujah.
If there's anyone the soldiers feel especially sympathetic toward, it's the Iraqi children that they meet. From the moment Birdy joins another soldier in giving candy to children on the same street where a boy was shot, he feels guilty about the way the war is affecting them.
While the civilian adults in Iraq have learned to be wary of the American soldiers, many children walk right up to them. (Innocence: check.) The soldiers try to do what they can for them, like when Miller goes against orders to treat children who have been injured. After Ahmed helps dig a grave for a child who has died, Birdy thinks:
There was something that Ahmed knew that we all knew: The children belonged to all of us. It was a message the heart wanted to sing. (6.240)
He and his unit feel a responsibility for the children, and the way that they are affected by the war that the unit had a part in bringing.
But not everyone shares that feeling. Captain Roberts was involved in having Iraqi children kidnapped as part of a plot to get detonators. He feels the kidnapping is justified, because IEDs kill American soldiers.
But Jonesy ends up giving up his life for one of the kidnapped children. He's basically the opposite of Roberts. He sees all that innocence and purity as so important that it's worth protecting, even by putting himself in the line of fire. And, by giving his life for the ideals Birdy cares so much about, Jonesy is the closest this book has to a clear-cut good guy.
He bids on what he thinks could be a good luck charm—a tiny stuffed monkey—on Ebay. And what does he get? A huge taxidermied monkey. The guy doesn't like attention, but guess what being mailed a giant monkey gets him?
Luckily for him, Marla's there to take the monkey off his hands. She dresses it in soldier clothes, puts it in the First Squad's Humvee, and names it Captain Yossarian, after the main character in the book Catch-22.
Catch-22 is also about war—specifically a rule of war that's designed to prevent soldiers from getting out of combat. The character Yossarian spends his time trying not to get killed and finds his commanding officers can be as dangerous as the enemy.
So it's kind of fitting when Jonesy tells Birdy the monkey's theme song:
"Survivor!" he said. He was always rocking when he drove and also hunched forward toward the wheel. "When you were peeing, Marla said that was the monkey's theme song. Destiny's Child put it out." (10.55)
Marla must have read Catch-22 (after all, she's the one who named the stuffed monkey), so she's got to know "Survivor" would have been the perfect theme song for that character. Yossarian, like Marla, Birdy, and Jonesy, is less concerned with the larger ideals of what they're fighting for than he is with staying alive.
So Yossarian the monkey riding with these modern-day soldiers is kind of a bad omen, a physical manifestation of the tough situation they're in. Like the character, the First Squad is limited by their orders. And after they get Yossarian, they get sent on some really dangerous missions...and all they can do is try not to get killed.
The narrative point of view in Sunrise Over Fallujah is as straight as a line of soldiers standing at attention: it's all Birdy, all the time.
Robin (a.k.a Birdy) is a private, the army's lowest enlisted rank, so his perspective is very limited. Birdy doesn't get a full explanation of the politics in Iraq, or the reasoning behind his orders. He just receives orders and has to carry them out.
What we do get by seeing the war through Birdy's eyes is a lot of confusion. That confusion is just a little bit alarming, because Birdy, like many real-life privates, is doing a lot of the day-to-day work of the war.
But that's all just part of how Myers brings the story to life.
Robin Perry, a.k.a. Birdy, is in Kuwait, waiting to be sent into Iraq…maybe. They still don't know if dictator Saddam Hussein will surrender and they'll get sent home. And they don't know what they'll do if they do go into Iraq. All they get are some very confusing Rules of Engagement and a bunch of vague speeches.
No wonder Birdy's nervous.
There's no room for love—or even a vague crush on squadmate Marla— in Birdy's life. He's too busy trying to carry out his missions and stay alive when there are people trying to kill him. (Yeah: that would take up a lot of headspace.)
Each time his squad goes on a mission, neither Birdy nor the reader knows whether it will end in gunfire or a soccer game with some Iraqi children. The conflict is a constant, lurking threat.
Birdy's squad is sent to a resort-like complex for a few days…which would be nice, except that everyone talking about how soldiers are sent there when they're about to do something dangerous.
Yikes. That makes the whole idea of free junk food and extra nap time less appealing.
Then they're given vague orders and are sent to a camp near Iran, where they negotiate a staged "rescue" of village children in exchange for detonators. It doesn't end well.
Jonesy's dead, killed while heroically trying to save a blind kid. Shortly after, there's his funeral. It all seems to happen way too fast:
There weren't enough tears within what was left of our squads to wash away the moment; and all the prayers and words of comfort were not enough to hold the griefs we shared. (15.34)
Birdy's squad disperses, each person getting a new assignment. Many of them are done with combat and move into training roles.
Birdy doesn't even know what his next assignment is, only that he's going to be treated for his injury. It feels like things will never be resolved, and Birdy writes a letter to his uncle that he'll never send.
Um, you were looking for a happy ending? Yeah. Try a different book.