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Christmas is approaching and rumors of peace have reached a fever pitch. The North Vietnamese have supposedly called a truce for their new year, called the Tet, and this truce is expected to lengthen into a permanent cease-fire. Everyone is convinced that the American troops will be returning home in a matter of weeks. Richie writes a letter telling his mother the good news. Meanwhile, the squad hears reports of considerable racial tension at home. Though the squad makes sure to steer clear of the subject, everyone is very aware of the race-related incidents. There have been riots in New York over the killing of a Black teenager by a white police officer, and Richie hopes that Kenny is being careful. During his first patrol with the squad, Gearhart accidentally exposes the squad’s position to the enemy, and a new member of the squad, Turner, is killed as a result.
Gearhart writes a letter to Turner’s parents blaming himself for their son’s death. At Captain Stewart’s request, Richie rewrites the letter. Instinctively knowing what Stewart wants him to write, Richie claims in the letter that Turner died while valiantly trying to save his fellow soldiers. In his official report, Stewart once again exaggerates the number of enemies killed during patrol. Monaco’s girlfriend proposes to him in a letter, and the squad votes that he should marry her. Monaco invites everyone to the wedding.
Soon after, Richie’s company is sent back to the village they recently tried to pacify, since the Vietcong have been harassing the village again. When they arrive, the Vietcong have already struck, leaving behind mutilated bodies and burnt huts in their wake. Richie enters a hut where a Vietcong takes him by surprise. The Vietcong’s gun misfires and Richie shoots him point blank. Back at camp, the soldiers find it difficult to calm down after seeing so much carnage and destruction. Richie is especially shaken after watching a man die by his hands. Peewee and Richie sleep in the same bed for mutual comfort that night. Soon thereafter, Richie’s company is ordered to a new base near Tam Ky. The day that they are supposed to leave, Peewee wakes up with a swollen face. The others hound him, and he finally admits that he put the Vietnamese hair serum on his lip in the hope of growing a mustache.
Richie tries to write a letter to Kenny about killing the Vietcong, but he cannot find the right words. He cannot explain the war in terms of good and bad or of stopping the spread of Communism, so he simply gives up.
The new base at Tam Ky is far more primitive than the one at Chu Lai, and night patrols there are also more dangerous. While on patrol, Richie wonders about the man he has killed, focusing on the question of what his victim thought he was fighting for. He wonders whether the Vietcong soldier would have said that he was trying to stop the spread of what the Americans stand for. During the patrol, Richie’s squad runs into dozens of enemy soldiers. The squad members silently hide because they are far too outnumbered to try an ambush. Under pressure from Stewart, Simpson extends the tour of duty by thirty days. Tensions build between the Americans and their Vietnamese allies at the camp. During a battle, Brew is mortally wounded and Richie is hit in the leg and wrist.
The medics load Brew and Richie into an evacuation helicopter. While the medics work on Richie’s wounds, he holds Brew’s hand as Brew dies. Richie is transferred to a recovery hospital, where life is routine and quiet. In a letter to his mother, he tries to joke about his injury because he does not want to tell her what the experience of being hit was really like or how terrified he was of dying. Richie finds that Judy Duncan is stationed in the hospital’s nursing unit, and they share a short chat. The army awards Richie a Purple Heart for his injury. He sends the medal to Kenny, along with a letter outlining all the things he plans to do with him when he gets home. Richie receives orders to return to his unit and briefly considers going AWOL (absent without leave) because he does not think he can tolerate the fear and uncertainty of battle anymore.
Since his arrival in Vietnam, Richie’s experience with the violence and brutality of the war has become more and more personal and traumatic. At first, he is shaken by Jenkins’s sudden, senseless death, even though he never knew Jenkins well. Later, seeing Monaco kill an enemy soldier forces Richie to question the morality of war. Because Richie does not kill this enemy soldier himself, he is able to contemplate these moral questions with some emotional distance. When Carroll dies, Richie is forced to consider the war in light of losing people he cares about and knows well. However, after Richie kills an enemy soldier face to face, he must wrestle with the fact that he himself has taken the life of another person. Though he knows that he has killed the soldier only to save his own life, he cannot help thinking that a man is dead by his hand. Richie does not think of himself as a hero now that he has killed a Vietcong. He cannot yet tell Kenny about the incident because he is still emotionally and morally conflicted about it. He no longer has distance from the brutality and moral ambiguity of war—he has become a part of it.
As the horror of war increasingly pervades the squad, the love and friendship between the soldiers deepen, and these bonds keep the young men sane and give them reason to fight. The squad becomes like a family, with each soldier trying to save not only his own life but also the lives of all his brothers. Monaco trusts and respects his fellow soldiers so much that he allows them to vote on important decisions in his life; when the squad votes that he should marry his girlfriend, he takes the result as non-negotiable. The love and tenderness between the soldiers become even more apparent when Richie’s first killing traumatizes him. Peewee embraces Richie like a mother, father, or brother would, and they fall asleep holding on to each other. The bond growing over the course of these chapters culminates with Brew’s death. As Brew struggles to live, he extends his hand toward Richie, who grasps it, trying to communicate through his grip all the sentiments that he feels unable to communicate through words. Richie begins to realize, as he grips Brew’s hand, that the only unambiguous virtue in war is loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers.
Peewee’s faith in the hair lotion he puts on his lip emphasizes the fact that the soldiers, despite their war experience, are still largely innocent boys. The event is somewhat jarring in its placement, since it reminds us of the soldiers’ innocence just when they are about to be sent on a dangerous and important mission, taking their own lives and the lives of their friends in their hands. They face their new mission stoically and seem like men, but the episode with Peewee reminds us that they are still boys. Peewee does not even have a mustache yet, and his attempt to grow one with the hair ointment is so silly and immature that it is hard to believe he makes life and death decisions every day. This episode underscores the fact that war expects boys to do a job that few grown men can accomplish.
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