I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials, but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside.

When, in “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien tries to exact revenge on Bobby Jorgensen for his failure to treat him competently, he concedes that he is acting irrationally. Though it is difficult for O’Brien to admit, after a certain amount of time in Vietnam he realizes that he is capable of evil. The only way for him to deal with hurt is to hurt back. The terms O’Brien uses juxtapose his previous life—one of intellectualism and striving for success through studying—with his life in the jungle, where accolades like Phi Beta Kappa have no relevance. The foreign, academic terms “Phi Beta Kappa” and “summa cum laude” contrast starkly with the simple, blunt descriptions of life in the “bush,” just as the civility of his college years contrasts starkly with his newfound meanness.