The morning after Kiowa’s death, the platoon wades in the mud of the sewage field with Jimmy Cross leading the way. Cross thinks of Kiowa and the crime that is his death. He concludes that although the order to camp came from a higher power, he made a mistake letting his men camp on the dangerous riverbank. He decides to write a letter to Kiowa’s father saying what a good soldier Kiowa was.
When the search for Kiowa’s body gets underway on the cold, wet morning, Azar begins cracking jokes about “eating shit” and “biting the dirt,” and Bowker rebukes him. Halfway across the field, Mitchell Sanders discovers Kiowa’s rucksack, and the men begin wading in the muck, desperately searching for the body.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Cross finishes composing the letter in his head and reflects that he never wanted the responsibility of leadership in the first place—he signed up for Reserve Officers Training Corps without giving thought to the consequences. He blames himself for making the wrong decision, concluding that he should have followed his first impulse and removed the men from the field. He feels that his oversight caused Kiowa’s death. In the distance he notices the shaking body of a young soldier and goes over to speak to him. The soldier too blames himself for being unable to save Kiowa and becomes determined to find the body because Kiowa was carrying the only existing picture of the soldier’s ex-girlfriend.
After the platoon has spent a half a day wading in the field, Azar ceases his joking. The men find Kiowa’s body wedged between a layer of mud, take hold of the two boots, and pull. Unable to move it, they call over Dobbins and Kiley, who also help pull. After ten minutes and more pulling, Kiowa’s body rises to the surface covered with blue-green mud. Harrowed and relieved, the men clean him up and then try to take their mind off him. Azar apologizes for the jokes.
Cross squats in the muck, revising the letter to Kiowa’s father in his head. He notices the unnamed soldier, still searching for the missing picture. The soldier tries to get Cross’s attention, saying he has to explain something. But Cross ignores him, choosing instead to float in the muck, thinking about blame, responsibility, and golf.
“Speaking of Courage” gives Bowker’s view of Kiowa’s death, and “Notes” gives O’Brien’s view. “In the Field” allows the other company members to comment. Like “Speaking of Courage,” “In the Field” is told in the third person, but instead of focusing on one character’s account of Kiowa’s death, it gives many different points of view. We can relive the situation not only from Norman Bowker’s point of view but also from that of Lieutenant Cross, Azar, and a young, unnamed soldier.
Through the character of Cross, “In the Field” addresses how a direct experience with death can change a person. Cross is not angry with the young soldier, who is more frustrated by the loss of his ex-girlfriend’s picture than by the loss of his fellow soldier. However, Cross, more than most of the other soldiers, understands the power of pictures and tokens to elicit memories and keep thoughts away from war’s atrocities. In “The Things They Carried,” he feels his obsession with pictures of his unrequited beloved so distracting that he burns them all in a foxhole. In Cross’s matter-of-fact response to Kiowa’s death in “In the Field,” O’Brien illustrates that war has shown Cross the importance of focusing on the task at hand rather than love far away. In times of war, O’Brien suggests, priorities become clear.
“In the Field” marks Azar’s transformation from an immature soldier who mocks death into a sensitive comrade who feels the tragedy of death acutely. Azar’s callousness and immaturity is illustrated once again in this story, but unlike in previous stories, here he actually sees the error of his ways and apologizes. Whereas before he uses his jokes and crassness as distancing tactics, now that he is forced to contend with Kiowa’s body, buried deep in the muck, he feels guilty for his “wasted in the waste” comments. The sight of the actual body and the feeling of pulling it out of the earth that threatens to swallow it makes him feel guilty. Suddenly, death has been transported from the realm of the abstract and impossible into the realm of the concrete and probable. As an attempt to make himself feel better, he apologizes to the men who for so long have tried to shut him up. He finally feels the guilt and pain that the other men have been carrying with them about this incident and about Vietnam in general.
In spite of the gruesome images of death and the horrible task at hand for the company, this story, like several of the others, suggests that optimism cannot be quashed, even in the most tenuous of times. At one point in the story, as the men are trying to unearth Kiowa’s body, Henry Dobbins comments that things could be worse, suggesting an undefeatable hope against hope. Though Dobbins doesn’t articulate how specifically things could be worse, the answer is implicit in the life-celebrating tone O’Brien uses in the rest of the story. The men feel giddy about being alive and being lucky, about being able to strip down and change clothes and start a fire. Each experience of death brings each man closer to life.
The guilt Jimmy Cross feels suggests that the weight of responsibility is debilitating for the inexperienced soldiers of Vietnam. We learn that Cross never wanted to be in charge of the men in the first place—he is only twenty-four years old, innocent, uninformed, and leading though his heart isn’t in it. Sometimes he listens to instinct but other times, as in the case of setting up camp on the banks of the Song Tra Bong, he follows questionable advice from his superiors and later regrets it. Also, by this stage of the war, Cross understands that a part of taking responsibility is accepting blame. In the case of bad judgment, the blame is on him. Cross uses a technique for dealing with this burden of blame that is very similar to O’Brien’s technique for dealing with survivor’s guilt: he mentally composes a narrative. By writing a letter in his head to Kiowa’s father and taking the responsibility for Kiowa’s death, he successfully uses O’Brien’s storytelling tactic to alleviate some of his feelings of guilt.