. . . 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.
O’Brien recalls that he was shot twice—the first time, images from Gene Autry movies race through his head, and he ends up on the lap of Rat Kiley, the medic. During and after his treatment, O’Brien appreciates Kiley’s skill, courage, and ease. When O’Brien returns from his recovery almost a month later, Kiley has been wounded and shipped off and a new medic named Bobby Jorgenson has taken his place. When O’Brien is shot the second time, Jorgenson is incapable of treating his shock, and the result is a harrowing, painful experience for O’Brien.
The realization that he was near death for no good reason leaves O’Brien seething—he vows to exact revenge on the frightened, incompetent Jorgenson. He spends more time in the hospital and then is transferred to the battalion supply section, a far more comfortable and less dangerous assignment. Meanwhile, his backside hurts and he is forced to sleep on his stomach and smear antibacterial ointment on himself several times a day. During the miserable nights, he renews his vow to make Jorgenson pay.
When the company comes for a routine operation to where O’Brien is recovering, O’Brien meets the helicopters. He listens to stories from his friends—especially one about a soldier who decided to go for a swim and ended up with a disease that was later treated by Jorgenson—but he is most concerned with finding Jorgenson. Mitchell Sanders encourages O’Brien to leave Jorgenson alone, saying that he is one of the Alpha Company now and implying that O’Brien is no longer a member of the company. The next morning, O’Brien runs into Jorgenson, who apologizes for his inept treatment of O’Brien, saying that he was scared and that since O’Brien was shot, he has felt a great deal of remorse. O’Brien begins resenting Jorgenson for making him feel guilty.
O’Brien attempts to enlist his friends in his plans for revenge, but the only one who will concede to get involved is Azar. The two go to spook Jorgenson as he serves all-night duty. O’Brien says the amount of fear one feels multiplies as one sits alone, wondering and worrying. At midnight, they jerk some ropes, which gives the illusion of the enemy in the bush. O’Brien identifies with Jorgenson and feels his fear. Later, they set flares, and when Jorgenson bursts from his position and rolls toward a heap of sandbags, O’Brien finally feels vindicated. He tells Azar that he’s had enough, but Azar, who loves to make trouble, wants to finish what they’ve started. O’Brien has a flashback of being shot, thinks about being in shock, and once again resents Jorgenson’s deficiencies. He resolves to follow through.
Azar and O’Brien set off flare after flare and make a white sandbag move to spook Jorgenson further. But Jorgenson does not lose his cool—instead he advances toward O’Brien, calling out his name. Azar kicks O’Brien in the head, declares him pathetic, and goes off to bed. He later reconciles with O’Brien. The two men shake hands, and Jorgenson compliments O’Brien’s dramatic touch and asks him if they’re even now. The two jokingly decide to scare Azar.
Like Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley, O’Brien has wartime fears that are sometimes more acute than the actual pain of war itself. O’Brien speaks in specific terms about getting shot—he leads us through the experience and makes it real for us—in order to illustrate that despite the movies and war legends, the pain of being shot is a survivable pain. Like Curt Lemon, whose fear of pain finds him provoking a dentist into pulling his tooth, O’Brien realizes that the actual pain surrounding a wound is nowhere near as frightening as grappling with the notion of being shot.
O’Brien’s second experience being shot reveals the extent of his disillusionment. This time, the novelty of the situation has worn off, and what remains is frustration, anguish, and anger at Bobby Jorgenson who, neither qualified nor certain, does not help O’Brien the way he wants to be helped. As a result, O’Brien’s second experience being wounded doesn’t need the mantra or the movie images—it is all too real, as he falls into shock and later almost dies of gangrene. Despite time and healing, he can’t forgive the wrong he feels Jorgenson’s ineptness has done him. When he finally gets the opportunity, he feels only the desire for cold, vicious, unmerciful revenge.
“Ghost Soldiers” demonstrates the tension between a soldier’s need for camaraderie and the difficulty of finding it. O’Brien’s anger can at least partially be traced to his newfound alienation. After he is wounded the second time he is stationed near the rear of “Headquarters Company” in a much safer and more comfortable company. But instead of the relief that we think he might feel as a result of being in a safer place, O’Brien is upset about missing the adventure of combat. When his company visits, he is no longer part of the group. For the first time, he is the listener of war stories instead of the teller. Creeping up on him, perhaps stirring up the evil feelings and desire for revenge, are feelings of alienation, nostalgia, and envy.
“Ghost Soldiers” recounts a progression in O’Brien’s perspective from prewar idealism to postwar disillusionment. In “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien, innocent and untouched by pain, feels obligation to people and a driving need to do the right thing. By the time of “Ghost Soldiers,” however, the cruel, inexplicable ambiguity of war has clouded O’Brien’s worldview. He not only feels no obligation to other people, he feels an intense need for unfounded revenge. After being mistreated by Jorgenson, O’Brien finds a new evil lying within him—an absolute desire to inflict pain on another human being and fellow soldier. Like Mary Anne Bell in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” O’Brien finds an inner truth as he feels anger and yearns for revenge. Against his better judgment, his good grooming, and his rational thinking, he is forced to hurt in order to avenge hurt.