In retaliation for receiving aid from American soldiers, the Communist Vietcong attack the nearby village that Richie’s squad has recently pacified. Richie’s company creeps up on the village to set an ambush for the Vietcong. Feeling exposed and vulnerable, Richie wonders how Kenny would feel if Richie died, and ponders his own motivations for joining the army, trying to decide whether they were selfless or selfish. He tries to take his mind off these weighty and upsetting thoughts by fantasizing about beautiful women. But he begins to worry about the fact that he is still a virgin, feeling inadequate because of the hypersexualized stereotypes of black men. During the ambush, Richie fires blindly into the darkness. Lieutenant Carroll is hit by enemy fire and dies shortly after they reach the hospital at Chu Lai.
We spent another day lying around. It seemed to be what the war was about. Hours of boredom, seconds of terror.
The squad members are in shock after Carroll’s death, since they have lost someone whom they all loved and respected. At Simpson’s request, Richie writes a letter to Carroll’s pregnant wife informing her of her husband’s death. Richie wonders how his mother and Kenny would react if they received a letter about his death. Stewart praises Richie for the letter he writes to Carroll’s wife and offers him an office job, but Richie refuses.
As usual, there are hours of inactivity after the brief but traumatic periods of combat. During a slow period, Lobel approaches Richie and admits that he holds himself responsible for Carroll’s death. He was too afraid to fire his weapon during the ambush, and he believes, irrationally, that his ineptitude is what caused Carroll to die. Richie consoles Lobel by admitting that, even though he fired, he fired blindly.
Every squad member is promoted one rank for his valiant performance in a dangerous situation. Richie spends tortured hours trying to find a meaningful reason for Carroll’s death. He wonders why he and his fellow soldiers are so far from home. He starts but does not finish a letter to Kenny trying to give a reason for his own death in case he is killed. The platoon is assigned a new leader, Lieutenant Gearhart, who has been in Vietnam for only two months. Richie’s mother writes to Peewee and asks him to tell Richie that she loves him very much. Richie is sad that she is unable to express her feelings directly to him, and writes a letter telling his mother that he loves her too. Richie realizes that though they have never gotten along well, he desperately needs his mother now. When the news feature about Richie’s squad airs, no one mentions the fact that Lieutenant Carroll is shown walking among them, still alive.
Brunner expresses his anger at the “faggots and Commies” back in the United States who burn their draft cards. He blames them for the constant shortage of men in the squads. Johnson later asks Richie for his opinion about the war protesters. They both admit that neither has thought much about his decision to enlist. Richie confesses that he is no longer sure who the good guys and bad guys are, since all the talk about freedom and Communism ceases to mean anything in the heat of combat. Johnson tells him that there is no meaning to Vietnam and suggests that Richie stop thinking about these larger issues. As he falls asleep later that night, Richie wonders whether people can still be good.
In the absence of any rational explanation, Richie struggles to understand the war. The newspaper and television rhetoric that justifies the war means nothing to a soldier who comes face to face with an armed enemy. The war appears to be futile: Richie’s company continually tries to pacify villages with gifts of food and medicine, but the Vietcong torture and kill villagers who accept these gifts, and the American army is unable to protect them. The war has no simple divisions between heroes and villains, good and evil, or right and wrong. Instead, the war is a messy, brutal tangle of deadly mistakes and confrontations in which blind chance often determines who lives and who dies. The other soldiers in the squad accept the irrationality and meaninglessness of combat and force themselves not to ponder questions that have no answers. Johnson, in fact, regards Richie’s philosophical struggle as a dangerous distraction. Johnson does not care why he is in Vietnam; his only goal is survival, and he is not fighting for anything other than his own life. Yet Richie cannot stop thinking about the war’s meaning and is compelled to find meaning and order amid the chaos.