Analysis: Chapters 13–16

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.