Summary: Chapter 17
Richie returns to his unit and learns that Sergeant Simpson has finally gone home. The new squad sergeant, Dongan, is a racist who consistently puts black soldiers in the most dangerous positions during patrols. Lobel approaches Peewee and Richie to tell them that he is on their side if a serious race problem breaks out within the squad. Richie receives a letter from Peewee’s old girlfriend, Earlene, apologizing for marrying another man. Afraid that Peewee will find the letter and be hurt all over again, Richie burns it. Kenny writes and reports that he has taken a part-time job. He also mentions that Johnny Robinson, a neighborhood boy, has been killed in Vietnam. Richie is shocked that someone who looked so young could have been in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese allies find a woman walking with two children along the rice paddies surrounding the base camp. American soldiers bring her to the camp, but there is no interpreter around to question her. Most of the American soldiers are sympathetic to the mother, thinking that she is being unfairly detained at their camp. Peewee hurries to make the woman’s children a doll out of grass. Just as he finishes the doll, the woman hands one of her children to a soldier. Seconds later, the child explodes in the soldier’s arms, killing him. The child had been equipped with mines by his mother, made into a weapon, and sacrificed. The American soldiers then shoot down the woman and her second child.
Summary: Chapter 18
Johnson tells Richie that Dongan approached him to inquire whether Lobel was a homosexual. Johnson reports that he did not give an answer, since he feels that what Lobel does in bed is not his concern. Johnson considers each man fighting by his side an appreciated ally. Richie reflects that Johnson is a born leader who has also learned much by fighting alongside others.
Tensions between the American soldiers and their Vietnamese allies heighten when a Vietnamese colonel insists that the Americans try to capture a crucial hill. Richie’s company climbs the hill without encountering enemy soldiers and then returns to regroup with the Vietnamese soldiers. When they climb the hill again, the Vietnamese soldiers take the lead. This time, enemy soldiers attack the squad members. The squad attempts to secure a nearby village in order to evacuate the area, and Dongan is killed during the fight.
Summary: Chapter 19
Richie’s company has still not been evacuated, but he and his fellow squad members know they need to leave as soon as possible because a North Vietnamese battalion is coming to the village. The company strips the tags and gear off dead American soldiers and burns the bodies. One soldier is still alive, but his wounds are clearly mortal, so one of his friends shoots him out of mercy while everyone scrambles to escape. All of the dead soldiers’ identification tags are lost in the confusion. Richie imagines writing a letter to the families of the dead, telling them how their sons’ bodies were burned in the forest while their comrades fled in fear and panic. During the race to the choppers, Jamal freezes in sudden panic until Gearhart shouts at him to start moving again. Richie feels as if there is someone else in his body running for his life. He wishes he could watch the rest of the war like a movie.
Analysis: Chapters 17–19
One of the most torturous aspects of war is the common soldier’s lack of control over his life. We feel this utter helplessness of the soldier in the face of fate vividly when the army forces Richie to return to his unit after a peaceful period of recuperation. He desperately wants to avoid this fate, feeling that he is psychologically and emotionally unable to face any more combat. Yet he has no choice but to return, since he has effectively relinquished control over his life upon joining the army. The soldiers are similarly helpless in the face of the dangerous careerism of men like Captain Stewart and the racism of Sergeant Dongan. Stewart forces his company to take the most dangerous missions so that he can be promoted to major, and Dongan forces minority soldiers in his squad to take the most dangerous jobs because he considers them expendable. Though the soldiers know that Dongan’s treatment of the black soldiers is unfair and that Stewart’s treatment of the entire company is selfish, they cannot change these men’s decisions. The army is a rigid hierarchy in which inferiors can never question or challenge the orders of superiors.
The camaraderie among the members of the squad begins to overcome their social prejudices. Lobel declares that he will side with the black soldiers against the racist Dongan should the need arise. Monaco displays similar loyalty to the black soldiers. Johnson is indifferent toward Lobel’s sexual orientation, declaring that any soldier who fights beside him is an ally, regardless of his personal preferences. This statement of tolerance illustrates the squad members’ need to support one another, despite their differences. By living and fighting so closely, the soldiers become able to look past superficial differences and appreciate one another for their fundamental human qualities. Richie says that they are “trying to keep each other alive,” suggesting that they fully appreciate each other’s humanity above anything else.
Myers also suggests that wartime standards of morality are dramatically different from civilian standards of morality. The incident with the exploding child reminds us that there are aspects of war that are unthinkable during peacetime. In the madness of the war, a mother will sacrifice even her own child for the sake of killing just one enemy soldier. The incident redraws the blurred lines between the side of good and the side of bad, as the American soldiers believe that their side would never encourage a mother to use her child as a weapon. In this sense, the incident helps the soldiers regain the feeling that they are on the side of good. Yet the incident does not satisfy Richie’s questions about the moral ambiguity of war. After all, the mother would never have been compelled to perform such a horrible action if the Americans were not fighting in Vietnam. Like all the other portrayals of battle in the novel, the mother’s sacrifice of her child neither condemns nor justifies the war in Vietnam, but it raises a new set of difficult and important questions.
The loss of the dead soldiers’ dog tags has similarly profound repercussions for Richie’s emotional state. The loss of these tags is highly symbolic: with the bodies burned and the dog tags lost, there is literally nothing left of the soldiers who have died. Their identities have been erased as if they never existed at all. Richie instantly recognizes that the event represents the tragedy of any lost soldier. Although the idealized version of war may claim that each soldier dies with dignity and meaning, in reality most soldiers die in obscurity, with no meaning behind their deaths other than bad luck. Every soldier’s situation is almost as drastic as that of the soldiers whose bodies and dog tags are lost forever—their sacrifices are anonymous and quickly forgotten.
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