One afternoon, the platoon comes across an abandoned pagoda that seems to function as a church. Every day during the men’s stay there, which lasts more than a week, two monks bring them water and other goods. One day, while the monks clean and oil Dobbins’s M-60 machine gun, Dobbins says that though he isn’t a religious man and wouldn’t enjoy taking part in the sermons, he might like to join the church because he would enjoy interacting with people. Kiowa says that although he carries a Bible everywhere because he was raised to, he wouldn’t enjoy being a preacher. He does say, though, that he enjoys being in a church. When the monks finish cleaning the gun, Dobbins wipes off the excess oil and hands them each a can of peaches and a chocolate bar. Making a washing motion with his hands, he says that all one can do is be nice to them.
The abandoned pagoda in this story is a microcosm of American-Vietnamese relations. Dobbins and Kiowa’s questioning of their presence in this makeshift church stands in for Americans’ questioning of their army’s presence in Vietnam. When the soldiers happen upon the church, they discover that it is occupied by well-intentioned monks who welcome them by offering favors. The irony in the story is that frequently during the Vietnam War, American soldiers committed atrocities against innocent civilians. Dobbins’s comment that “[a]ll you can do is be nice” is made ironic by his gesture of washing his hands. Although this action can be construed as a sign of respect for the monks, who have called Dobbins “Good soldier Jesus,” it also alludes to the New Testament account of Pontius Pilate’s symbolic washing of his hands after Jesus Christ was sentenced to be crucified. Keeping with the church-as-Vietnam symbolism, the monks perhaps do not know what sort of destruction the American soldiers might inflict.
Read more about the historical context of The Things They Carried.
In “Church,” O’Brien uses Kiowa as a foil—a character whose actions or emotions contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character—for Dobbins. Kiowa’s Native American thoughtfulness contrasts with Henry Dobbins’s sweeping American ambition. While Kiowa is the more religious of the two men, he can’t conceive of wanting to take a leadership role in church. For him, religion is as close to his heart as the New Testament he carries with him through the jungles of Vietnam. He says he can’t imagine wanting to preach because for him, unlike Dobbins, religion is not about demonstration or even about participation—it is about inward reflection and the power of belief.
Read more about Henry Dobbins.
Although both Dobbins and Kiowa agree that setting up camp inside a church is wrong, the two men are trapped by the inevitability of their situations. Dobbins tries to improve the situation by giving the monks a tin of peaches and some chocolate—this small gesture lends a touch of humanity to offset the impersonal and selfish invasion of the monks’ place of worship. Similarly, later, in the story “Style,” Dobbins admonishes Azar for poking fun at a Vietnamese girl’s suffering. Perhaps believing that his presence in the war is wrong, he operates under the belief that the one small thing he might do in this impossible situation is to “be nice” to those who deserve no harm.
Read more about ambiguous morality as a motif.