Brace yourselves, people. This is a novel about a very recent war, and things are going to get intense, fast. And we're not talking about intense as in "Wow, I ate that whole pizza and now I feel like I have cheese running through my veins." We're talking blood, explosions, and death.
Okay: now that you've been warned, we're diving in.
Meet eighteen-year-old Robin, who goes by Birdy (get it?). He mostly talks directly to the reader—that's you—but the book is also sprinkled with Birdy's letters to his parents and his Uncle Richie, who was in the Vietnam War. To his parents, Birdy mostly writes cheery letters telling them not to worry. Only his letters to Uncle Richie hint at more of what's really going on, both in the war and in his head.
The novel starts when Birdy's in Kuwait, waiting with his new unit to see if there's going to be a war at all. We meet some of Birdy's unit along with him: a blonde, sassy woman named Marla and a Georgia man named Jonesy, whose dream is to one day open a blues club.
Jonesy and Birdy decide to watch each other's backs…and a bromance is born.
When it comes time to assign people to squads (each squad rides in the same Humvee), Marla, Jonesy, and Birdy are grouped together, along with their immediate boss, Captain Coles. It's a good group all around.
After watching a lot of videos about the war, and reading some very confusing Rules of Engagement about who they can and can't shoot, Birdy's unit is sent into Iraq. And that's where things get very real, very quickly.
In a town called An Nasiriyah, Birdy and his fellow soldiers find a weapon called an RGB launcher (as in a tool to launch a grenade) inside a family's home. It smells like it's been fired recently, so the soldiers are ordered to take the boy from the home outside and shoot him if he runs. Outside, a sniper shoots at them, the boy starts running, and they kill him.
The sight of the dead boy messes Birdy up pretty hard. It makes him feel sick. He almost pukes.
And this is just the beginning.
Next, they drive into a town called An Najaf, where they pick up a prisoner of war, an old man. On their way to the next checkpoint, they ask the man what he did, and he explains that he had a gun in his home that he bought years ago, and that he had no intention to shoot it at the Americans.
We soon learn through Birdy's letters that he made it to Baghdad, and that the war is over (!). Quick, right? He expects to come home soon.
Not so fast.
Problem is, just because Saddam Hussein's troops surrendered doesn't mean the separate religious groups in the country—the Shiites and the Sunnis—suddenly love each other, or that everyone loves the Americans.
Birdy's unit is called Civil Affairs, which means they have to carry out a wide range of tasks involving getting the civilian population to trust the American troops. They're ordered to travel to a village where the U.S. accidentally bombed a school to offer their sympathy and medical assistance. Captain Miller, a medic, complains about the assignment, but they go anyway.
Birdy and a translator try to visit the village chief and buy something from his store, but he refuses their money. Eventually, he agrees to speak to their commander, and gets the women together to yell and spit at Miller, Coles, and the others. Then he takes their money. Yeah. It's not pleasant.
The squad is also sent to a village called Ba'qubah that put out a request for medical treatment for their animals, but when they get there, they find wounded children. A group called the fedayeen had come to the village and forced the villagers to fire at the Americans. Some soldiers don't want to treat children who fired at their troops, but Miller insists on helping, and everyone else joins her.
In between dangerous missions, the soldiers watch a lot of television. On TV, they're making it seem like the conflict is over, which doesn't really match up with what Birdy and the others are seeing on the ground. They wonder if the media is hiding the truth on purpose…which kind of messes with their heads.
As if things aren't complicated enough, the soldiers start witnessing IED (improvised explosive device) bombings. Birdy sees a Humvee of Marines blow up while he and Marla are trying to go shopping, and they can't find any enemies around them. They think IEDs can be set off by a cell phone, or something that doesn't have to be close by. It's terrifying.
There eventually comes a tip about where IED detonators might be—in a civilian house. They search the home of some adults and little kids and almost give up when Marla finds detonators hidden inside a jar of flour.
Occasionally, Birdy's squad gets to do positive work, like when they're ordered to reunite a boy with his family. After searching one morgue and a few hospitals, they find him in a prison and return him to his mother. It's an "aww" moment all around. In another village, Birdy starts kicking around a soccer ball with local kids. Birdy's unit returns a few weeks later, having sharpened their soccer skills, but there are teenagers waiting for them and they get their butts kicked on the soccer field once more.
One day, Birdy's unit is ordered to attend a ceremony to turn over policing of the highway to Iraqis. It's more of a media stunt than something real—the Iraqis do drills for the camera, but on the way back, the media bus is hit by a bomb. A shoot-out between the soldiers and some gunman follow, and another soldier named Pendleton gets killed. His body falls on Birdy as he opens Pendleton's Humvee door.
IED scares keep getting worse. Birdy's unit is ordered to stay in the Green Zone (the part of Baghdad where the army is set up) for two weeks. They get their mail and argue over Looney Tunes (fun) and the war (not so fun).
In a city called Fallujah (title alert!), they're sent out to a village to dine with a sheik to try and foster cooperation between him and the army. That night, they stake out in a hospital, and Birdy catches two Iraqis about to rape Captain Miller. He shoots them both, and they are the first people he kills who he watches die.
Birdy's unit is sent to a rest area that's kind of like a resort. It has alcohol, junk food, and everything. Sounds great, right? Well…sort of. Soldiers tend to get sent there before they go into serious combat, and Birdy can't stop being nervous about what's coming next. Jonesy, his friend, calls it "Hog Heaven," (14.183) comparing it to the place hogs go before they're slaughtered.
So what's next for the unit? It's a mission the First (Birdy's) and Second squads were hand-picked for. They go to a village near the Iran border, a dangerous place. They have to negotiate with village leaders who think their children have been captured by Badr fighters from Iran. Actually, the Americans have the children. Captain Coles tells them he'll get their children back in exchange for IED detonators.
The squads drive back to the camp and get the children. They return and get the detonators from the villagers. So far, so good. But while they let the children off the truck, unseen fighters start shooting at the children. Jonesy shields a blind child from getting hit, but he's hit instead.
When they get back to camp, they realize he's dead.
Birdy has been hit too, and, after Jonesy's memorial service, he is going to be shipped away to Germany to have his wounds treated. The whole squad is being reassigned, and many of them are returning home to train new recruits. While saying goodbye to Marla, Birdy tells her he loves her, but Marla tells him that, "You automatically love everybody that's ducking down with you." (15.41)
She's not sure what they'd have outside of the war.
Birdy's last letter to his uncle, which he plans not to send, gets into what he thinks of the war. He thinks they haven't won, but they haven't lost either, because of the kinds of sacrifices people like Jonesy have made. He appreciates life more, but is having trouble believing in God. Basically, he leaves the war almost as confused as when he started.