These are the kind of names we think of when we think "soldier nicknames." They're tough sounding names, for tough battle-hardened dudes.
Which is why it's super-accurate that Robin Perry gets the nickname "Birdy."
During his first role call in Kuwait, he goes by Robin, and the people around him just can't accept that. First Captain Coles demands, in front of the whole new squad:
"What kind of name is that? Your mama didn't know if you were a boy or a girl?" (1.15)
Okay, dude. Ever heard of Batman's sidekick?
Marla starts calling him Birdy, and the nickname sticks, both because a) it's kinda cute and b) Robin feels like he's at the start of something new, and needs a new name to go along with it. In fact, Robin becomes a memory: just the name of the person Birdy was before he became a soldier.
And because this is a book about during-war Birdy, we don't learn much about pre-war Robin. We just get hints from his letters home, and the occasional thought that pops into his head. We know he played high school basketball, because of an analogy he uses when he wishes war had a scoreboard. We know that his first major disagreement with his dad happened when he decided to go to war instead of applying for college, and that his father won't forget about their disagreement.
In fact, Papa Birdy is a little bit of a jerkosaur about it.
We can see why a dad would rather send his kid to college than Iraq, but sending a picture of a college when your son asks for some photos from home? That's harsh.
But you know what's not harsh? Birdy's narration.
Birdy's not an in-your-face kind of narrator. Instead of making statements about what he thinks about the war, he tells you the facts of what he sees, and what other people are saying.
He's so quiet, in fact, that the other characters tease him about it. Like when Marla tells Jonesy,
"Don't ask Birdy anything. You'll just give him a headache." (8.30)
From time to time, Birdy worries that he isn't much of a soldier. He doesn't have the same drive to fight that men like Harris have before the war begins. But that might be a good thing.
He's in Civilian Affairs, after all. The goal of his unit is to put a human face to the American side and gain the trust of Iraqi citizens. Birdy's ability to understand the other side helps them accomplish that goal, like when he plays soccer with a village boy:
I said that next time we would win. It was something to say. I patted the boy on his head and he pushed my hand away and stood up straighter, almost defiantly. Okay, I could deal with that. (9.104)
If Birdy had more violent, warlike emotions, he might have gotten all offended. But Birdy gets why a boy wouldn't like being talked down to by a soldier whose side had killed men in his village. He knows the boy isn't being rude for no reason…and he doesn't feel the need to put him in his place. He's sympathetic like that.
And he's thoughtful. He can feel bad for searching Iraqis (10.87), while at the same time, understanding that "they were in a family that probably would have killed me if they had the chance" (10.109). He can see both sides of the war.
Dude's an observer, not a fighter.
Don't get us wrong—Birdy's no angel. His attitude isn't always enlightened, especially when it comes to the ladeez.
For one thing, Birdy definitely feels threatened by Marla being so tough. When Marla calls him Birdy at first or makes fun of his aim, he resents her. But she's smokin' hot, so the resentment doesn't last long. Plus, they're in the same squad, working together in such a tough situation. Birdy can't help but like her.
But he doesn't always get where she's coming from.
He thinks Marla is joking when she's upset by the idea that a fellow soldier was raped when taken prisoner (8.13-15). He calls Barbara "uptight" when a marine lieutenant jokes about trading Birdy for the girls like they're literally his property (8.54). Both are kind of jerkish moves—or at least, clueless moves.
He does admit (to himself—not out loud) that he knows nothing about women. He can be friends with women, like Marla and Captain Miller, but when he starts to fall for Marla, his bravado comes out. He talks about "sort of" having a girl back home, and Marla calls him on it. And in the middle of a mission, when Marla asks him how he's doing, he straight-up lies and says,
"When the rest of the world is nervous," I said, "you can bet that I'm still cool." (14.108)
Okay, Birdy. We're sure you have Marla totally fooled.
The first time Birdy watches an Iraqi get killed, he can't handle it. He cries, and feels like he's going to throw up.
But as his time in Iraq goes on, he changes. It's not that Birdy becomes hardened to the sight of death—when he watches an IED blow an American soldier's body in half, he "retched and was a heartbeat from vomiting" (7.62). But his sympathy for the other side goes down as he strives to keep his side alive.
When an Iraqi villager named Halima tells his squad about how the men of her village were killed by Americans, Birdy feels conflicted:
The sadness in Halima's voice bothered me, but then I thought about the village men who had been killed, and remembered her saying that they were going to Baghdad to get ready to fight Americans. There was a lot less room in my heart for grief, too. (9.88)
Birdy can't bring himself to feel sorry for the village men, the way he felt sorry for that first Iraqi boy. He's since watched Americans get killed by IEDs, and knows what the men could have done to people like him. He only has enough energy to do his job and protect himself and his friends.
It's this changed Birdy who is able to shoot Miller's attackers at close range in Chapter 13. He doesn't stop to think—he's all action:
I pointed my piece at him and pulled the trigger. Nothing. Safety! I pulled the safety off and shot a burst into his face. (13.123)
Sure, Birdy feels bad about it afterwards—terrible, actually. But he's able to push that aside enough to keep doing his job. And his #1 job is to stay alive.
Birdy goes from being green at war to being a survivor. And for him, that process isn't as upbeat as the Destiny's Child song he keeps listening to.