The narrator and protagonist of the collection of stories. O’Brien is a pacifist who rationalizes his participation in Vietnam by concluding that his feelings of obligation toward his family and country are stronger influences than his own politics. When the war is over, he uses his ability to tell stories to deal with his guilt and confusion over the atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam, including the death of several of his fellow soldiers and of a Viet Cong soldier by his own hand.
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The lieutenant of the Alpha Company, who is responsible for the entire group of men. Cross is well intentioned but unsure of how to lead his men. He is wracked with guilt because he believes that his preoccupation with his unrequited love for a girl named Martha and his tendency to follow orders despite his better judgment caused the deaths of Ted Lavender and Kiowa, two members of Alpha Company.
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One of the most likable soldiers in the war. Sanders strongly influences the narrator, O’Brien. He is kind and devoted, and he has a strong sense of justice. Because of these qualities, he is a type of father figure. Though his ideas of storytelling may or may not agree with O’Brien’s in the end, his ability to tell stories and to discuss their nuances makes a profound impression on O’Brien.
O’Brien’s closest friend and a model of quiet, rational morality amid the atrocities of war. Kiowa’s death, when the company mistakenly camps in a sewage field, is the focal point of three stories. Since it is a prime example of arbitrary, unforgiving cruelty in war, Kiowa’s death is given more prominence than his life.
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A man who embodies the damage that the war can do to a soldier long after the war is over. During the war, Bowker is quiet and unassuming, and Kiowa’s death has a profound effect on him. Bowker’s letter to O’Brien in “Notes” demonstrates the importance of sharing stories in the healing process.
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The proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River near the Canadian border. Berdahl serves as the closest thing to a father figure for O’Brien, who, after receiving his draft notice, spends six contemplative days with the quiet, kind Berdahl while he makes a decision about whether to go to war or to escape the draft by running across the border to Canada.
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Mary Anne Bell
Mark Fossie’s high school sweetheart. Although Mary Anne arrives in Vietnam full of innocence, she gains a respect for death and the darkness of the jungle and, according to legend, disappears there. Unlike Martha and Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend, who only serve as fantasy reminders of a world removed from Vietnam, Mary Anne is a strong and realized character who shatters Fossie’s fantasy of finding comfort in his docile girlfriend.
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The platoon’s machine gunner and resident gentle giant. Dobbins’s profound decency, despite his simplicity, contrasts with his bearish frame. He is a perfect example of the incongruities in Vietnam.
Bob “Rat” Kiley
The platoon’s medic. Kiley previously served in the mountains of Chu Lai, the setting of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” O’Brien has great respect for Kiley’s medical prowess, especially when he is shot for a second time and is subjected to the mistreatment of another medic, Bobby Jorgenson. Though levelheaded and kind, Kiley eventually succumbs to the stresses of the war and his role in it—he purposely blows off his toe so that he is forced to leave his post.
A childish and careless member of the Alpha Company who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round. Though O’Brien does not particularly like Lemon, Lemon’s death is something O’Brien continually contemplates with sadness and regret. The preventability of his death and the irrational fears of his life—as when a dentist visits the company—point to the immaturity of many young American soldiers in Vietnam.
A young, scared soldier in the Alpha Company. Lavender is the first to die in the work. He makes only a brief appearance in the narrative, popping tranquilizers to calm himself while the company is outside Than Khe. Because his death, like Lemon’s, is preventable, it illustrates the expendability of human life in a senseless war.
Another soldier in the platoon and a minor character. A struggle with Dave Jensen over a jackknife results in Strunk’s broken nose. In begging Jensen to forget their pact—that if either man is gravely injured, the other will kill him swiftly—after he is injured, he illustrates how the fantasy of war differs from its reality.
A minor character whose guilt over his injury of Lee Strunk causes him to break his own nose. Jensen’s relief after Strunk’s death is an illustration of the perspective soldiers are forced to assume. Instead of mourning the loss of his friend, Jensen is glad to know that the pact the two made—and that he broke—has now become obsolete.
A soldier in the Alpha Company and one of the few unsympathetic characters in the work. Every time Azar appears, he is mean-spirited and cruel, torturing Vietnamese civilians and poking fun both at the corpses of the enemy and the deaths of his own fellow soldiers. His humanity is finally demonstrated near the end of the work, when he is forced to help unearth Kiowa’s body from the muck of the sewage field. This moment of remorse proves that a breaking point is possible even for soldiers who use cruelty as a defense mechanism.
The medic who replaces Rat Kiley. The second time O’Brien is shot, Jorgenson’s incompetence inspires O’Brien’s desire for irrational revenge. Although Jorgenson’s anger prompts him to kick O’Brien in the head for trying to scare him, he later apologizes, redeeming himself as a medic by patching things up with O’Brien.
O’Brien’s daughter and a symbol of the naïve outsider. Although O’Brien alludes to having multiple children, Kathleen is the only one we meet. Her youth and innocence force O’Brien to try to explain the meaning of the war. Frustrated that he cannot tell her the whole truth, he is inspired by her presence since it forces him to gain new perspective on his war experience.
A medic in Rat Kiley’s previous assignment. Fossie loses his innocence in the realization that his girlfriend, Mary Anne, would rather be out on ambush with Green Berets than planning her postwar wedding to Fossie in Cleveland.
O’Brien’s first love, whose death of a brain tumor in the fifth grade is O’Brien’s first experience with mortality. From his experience with Linda, O’Brien learns the power that storytelling has to keep memory alive.