January 2017 Round Up: Sunrise Over Fallujah

Published five years into the Iraq War, Walter Dean Myers’s Sunrise Over Fallujah tells the story of Harlem-born, 18-year-old Robin “Birdy” Perry’s experience as a United States soldier in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Written as a successor to Fallen Angels, which details Birdy’s Uncle Richie’s narrative of the Vietnam War, Sunrise Over Fallujah reminds readers of any generation about timeless issues of war, such as bravery, the violence of combat, and war’s psychological impact. In particular, the Books Unbound (B.U.) members were struck by the ever-changing rules of engagement, which often seemed to lack the rigidity and usefulness of regulation at the U.S. troops’ expense. For deeper insights from main discussion topics and the B.U. members’ rating, read the round up below!


Main Discussion Topics and Insights

Defining Heroism

Throughout Sunrise Over Fallujah, Birdy struggles to come to terms with whether or not he is a hero. He second-guesses convictions from family and friends, who regularly insist that he is heroic because of his military service. Birdy’s uncertainty reminds us that while soldiers are frequently deemed heroes by the public for standing up for their country, convincing themselves of the designation is an inner battle that soldiers often fight alone.

Birdy often notes that his fear while being in a war zone doesn’t make him feel like a hero at all. In one email to his mother, he writes, “I’m not the brave type. Not over here where the booming goes through you, where explosions in the distance shake your whole body.” As conflict in Iraq intensifies, Birdy constantly questions if his orders are just, and if the U.S.’s rules of engagement are any less shady than the Iraqi opposition.

In contrast to Birdy’s quiet nature, the B.U. members and I discussed how Sergeant Harris is always eager to fight. He is bursting with bravado, so much so that he comes across as foolhardy. Briefly, I explained Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean, and that true courage, according to that theory, lies between cowardice (a lack of bravery) and foolhardiness (an excess of bravery). Though Birdy doubts his ability to be brave, the B.U. members and I agreed that he is closer to embodying the golden mean of courage than Sergeant Harris.

We also talked about how defining a hero is ultimately a subjective judgment, implying that anyone could be regarded as heroic. Indeed, one B.U. member proudly proclaimed his grandmother as his hero, a figure who is no doubt a far cry from possessing typical hero traits like a strong jaw and super strength.

The Subjectivity of Right and Wrong

Just as the B.U. members determined that what constitutes a hero varies from person to person, they also decided that what is considered right and wrong often changes depending on time and place. For instance, while taking another person’s life is usually considered taboo in contemporary America, it is justified in war because the intent can be argued to support a broader narrative. In other words, to injure or kill someone abroad during war is considered less deplorable than the same act would be in non-war zone because the act is deemed a means to a noble end rather than an end in and of itself.

In contrast, one situation that has clearer boundaries of right and wrong to most contemporary Americans is harming someone as a reasonable act of self-defense. The B.U. members stated that regardless of whether or not it occurs in a war zone,  injuring someone to protect yourself or a loved one is permissible. For example, when Birdy kills two Iraqis who try to sexually assault his colleague Miller, the B.U. members felt he was justified. However, they frowned heavily upon Sergeant Harris, whose overzealous tendency toward violence regardless of the situation seemed to smack of something less than honor.

Literary Themes Across Walter Dean Myers’s Works

While this was the first time the B.U. members had read Sunrise Over Fallujah, they are well-versed in Myers’s other works. Besides having read Monster for our October 2016 book discussion, other books by him that they’ve read include Scorpions and Slam! As a result, we were able to consider constant themes present throughout his novels. Like all great literature, Myers’s works contain timeless issues like death, violence, negotiating difficult situations, and identity. But what makes his books appealing to young adults is that he sets these classic themes in contemporary contexts. In particular, the B.U. members noted his tendency to feature urban youth from low-income families — in short, kids similar to themselves. That parallel isn’t lost on them. As we discussed Myers’s books, they recalled with bright eyes his tense dramas played out during basketball games, and with somber faces, conflicts in court or crossfire. Most of all, they expressed gratitude for reading stories with characters who seem authentic, approachable, and familiar. Because the B.U. members can relate to the characters, Myers’s books make literature tangible.

Favorite Moments

I was thrilled to be able to talk with the B.U. members about constant themes in Myers’s books. Perhaps what I loved even more than the discussion itself was that the very basis of it rested upon how voraciously they read his books, both for and independent of Books Unbound. It also marked an interpretive shift from analyzing novels individually to analyzing a body of work, an exercise in critical thinking that will serve them as they continue to develop intellectually.

Books Unbound Member Rating

4 out of 5.

The B.U. members’ gave this book a high rating because they thought the story was extremely authentic, from its plot to its characters. They especially liked Jonesy, Birdy’s blues-talking confidant from the South. However, they found it difficult to wade through the military terms and acronyms, even with the help of the glossary at the back of the book.

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