Although O’Brien isn’t there when Rat Kiley sustains the injury that gets him sent to Japan, Mitchell Sanders relays the story later. When the platoon is in the foothills west of Quang Ngai City, they receive word of possible danger, so they sleep all day and march all night. The tension affects the men in different ways—Jensen takes vitamins, Cross takes NoDoz, and Kiley simply retreats into himself. For six days he says nothing, and then he can’t stop talking. He begins scratching himself constantly and complaining of the bugs. It is sad, Sanders later remembers, and strange, but everyone feels the effects of the operation. They are chasing ghosts. One afternoon, Kiley almost breaks down, confessing to Sanders that he doesn’t think he is cut out to be a medic, always picking up parts and plugging up holes. He mentions Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, incredulous that they could be so alive one moment and so dead the next. He says that he is haunted by images of body parts, especially at night. He sees his own body and he imagines bugs chewing through him. The next morning, he shoots himself in the toe—an injury large enough to earn his release from duty. No one blames him, and Cross, the biggest critic of Kiley’s cowardice, says that he will vouch for him.
“Night Life” pits the drive for survival against the desire for social acceptance. O’Brien mentions that though most soldiers knew it was an option, they did not deliberately shoot themselves in the foot, out of a sense of shame, since shooting oneself would be an act of cowardice. “Night Life” both supports and refutes O’Brien’s contention that men are too afraid of shame to leave the kill-or-be-killed life of war. Like Curt Lemon in “The Dentist,” Kiley is less afraid of abject and unnecessary physical pain than he is of the unknown. This fear drives him to risk showing his cowardice—his fellow soldiers know that his wound is self-inflicted, and they know that fear drove him to do it. In the end, Kiley decides to give himself a minor wound instead of facing the decision of killing or being killed.
Read more about Bob “Rat” Kiley.
The Alpha Company’s reaction to Kiley’s shooting himself in the foot is consistent with its reaction to death: to these men, refusal to serve is as undesirable as death itself. Instead of addressing the situation, whether or not they agree with Kiley’s action, they use a similar tactic to the one they use to confront death—they begin thinking and talking of something else, something completely unrelated. They dwell on the night life in Japan for the same reason Cross carries the picture of his unrequited love and Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck—women lie in a realm of comfort and distraction far away from the horrors of the war.
Read more about the role of women in The Things They Carried.
Kiley’s breakdown is both shunned and desired by the other soldiers. Only because Kiley is so close to the edge can he, in the end, let himself go, openly lament the loss of his friends, and scream in incredulity about the unfairness of the war. Kiley’s breakdown to Mitchell Sanders, which includes references to the deaths of Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, makes more clear the others’ simultaneous scorn and envy. Of course the soldiers must realize how close each has come to this same breaking point. In this way, they live vicariously through Kiley as they wave him goodbye. For they are at least a bit jealous: unlike O’Brien, whose fear of embarrassment delivers him to Vietnam in the first place, Rat Kiley, in the end, is willing to take the certain shame for relief from the harrowing experiences of war.
Read more about what happens to Rat Kiley.