This is Birdy's first war. The only combat experience he previously had was at training, when he knew nothing was real. Sometimes, training only involved shooting on a screen, like in a video game.
Real war? Completely different.
In Sunrise Over Fallujah, Birdy has to get used to seeing people die, up close and personal. People he or his squad killed. Sometimes, innocent people. And one of the things that's complicated about the Iraq War is that Birdy and the American troops don't always know who their enemies are. Some people have weapons in their house because they bought them a long time ago, but others used them to kill Americans.
With a situation like that, hurting or imprisoning at least a few innocent people is pretty much inevitable.
Nothing short of going into combat could have prepared Birdy for war.
The guerilla tactics of the Iraqis who set off IEDs are what makes the Iraq War different from wars of the past.
From the American Revolution on, women have served in support roles for the army, but they weren't accepted into active combat until after the Vietnam War. So by the time of the Iraq War, they'd only been in the army for thirty years. (Source)
The women in Sunrise Over Fallujah are (for the most part) good soldiers—sometimes tougher than the men around them. But there aren't that many of them compared to men, and they're in an army that is still learning to adjust to them. Plus, they're soldiers in a country where women's roles are much more limited.
What does that add up to? All sorts of casual sexism.
The women in Sunrise Over Fallujah represent a minority of the military but prove to be strong enough to hold their ground against their male companions.
Sunrise Over Fallujah reveals deeply-rooted sexism still present in modern day, particularly through Birdy's well-meant but misguided perception of women.
As a Black American, Birdy's position in the Iraq War is complicated. He's an American, but often, he looks more like the Iraqis than some of the people in his own unit. He also understands what it's like to be oppressed, so he sometimes feels weird playing the role of the invader.
Birdy isn't alone in this. Plenty of other soldiers in Sunrise Over Fallujah are Black, including his best friend Jonesy. And then there's Ahmed, who might feel even more in the middle, with his Islamic name and ability to speak Arabic. Race isn't a major subject in this book, but in little ways, it keeps coming up.
The author uses Jonesy's character and dialogue to compare the plight of the Iraqis to what's it's like to be Black in America.
The soldiers are being a little racist when they keep feeling the need to point out Birdy's Iraqi-like dark skin.
Like most American soldiers, Birdy sees Iraq as an outsider looking in. His impressions are mostly first impressions—he doesn't have a deep understanding of the country.
They're also visions of a very specific Iraq, the country during wartime. Plenty of times in Sunrise Over Fallujah, Birdy's blown away by the beautiful, open desert land and sky, or the picturesque villages.
But there are also plenty of ruins and destruction from the bombings. And let's not forget that Birdy's visions are constantly clouded by the fear that he could die at any moment. It sounds paranoid but, in his case, it's the truth.
The dust storm that happens early in the unit's trip into Iraq symbolizes the war.
As Birdy gets depressed about the war, his descriptions of the landscape grow sadder.
Being surrounded by death has the tendency to make a person think about religion, since most religions usually have ideas about how the soul lives on after death. Birdy doesn't think about the soul that much, but he does think about God, and how to make sense of his belief in God and the horrors he sees.
Jonesy, a preacher's son, is having the same struggle. He tries to pretend he doesn't care, but he's not fooling anybody.
Just to complicate things even more, Iraq is a predominantly Muslim country. There are plenty of citizens who are trying to live a peaceful version of Islam, but there are others who think of the Americans as godless enemies.
All these issues are shown in Sunrise Over Fallujah, but none of them have easy answers. The author simply gives his readers a lot to think about.
Jonesy is more religious than he lets on to the others.
For Jonesy, blues is a religion.
People keep calling Birdy a hero-type, which bothers him. You might say the guy can't take a compliment, but really, he doesn't see it as true. He's never felt more afraid than he does during the Iraq War, and he spends a lot of energy trying to hide that fear and sadness from others.
But whatever your definition of heroism is, there are plenty of small, brave acts in Sunrise Over Fallujah, like when Miller decides to treat wounded Iraqi children even though it might be a trap, or when Jonesy runs into fire to help the blind child.
Those acts take courage, and Birdy gets to witness them.
All of the soldiers in Birdy's unit—Jonesy, Miller, Marla, and even Harris—are heroes.
Jonesy rushing toward the blind children was not an act of heroism.
For Birdy, guilt is a feeling that goes along with war. He can't have war without guilt. Throughout Sunrise Over Fallujah, he feels bad that others die while he doesn't, and that he didn't treat his fallen peers better when they were alive. He feels for the Iraqi civilians too. He knows a lot of children are getting hurt, and that it's often his army's fault.
We wish we could tell Birdy it's not his fault. It's not like he started the war, or that people wouldn't be doing what he's doing if he hadn't decided to go. But even if we could talk to fictional characters, it probably wouldn't help. Guilt is a natural reaction to intense situations like war.
Captain Miller is right that the American army lets itself off too easily when it comes to killing civilians.
Guilt is a natural reaction to serving in a war.
In Sunrise Over Fallujah, most of the manipulation comes from the media. Birdy and the other soldier notice it pretty quickly, since they are seeing things in Iraq that the media isn't reporting. The news reports are pretty rosy. They show low death counts on the American side and Iraqis cheering for them. The message they're trying to send is clear: America is winning by a landslide.
But is that really what's happening?
The American media reports had to skew positive to protect the soldiers from the enemy.
The overly positive media reports of the war contributed to the war failing, not succeeding.