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.
in-depth analysis of Tim O’Brien.
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.
in-depth analysis of Jimmy Cross.
- 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
in-depth analysis of Mitchell Sanders.
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.
in-depth analysis of Kiowa.
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.
in-depth analysis of Norman Bowker.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
in-depth analysis of Elroy Berdahl.
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.
Mary Anne Bell
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
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.
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.