Insisting that sometimes war is less violent and more sweet, O’Brien shares disconnected memories of the war. Azar gives a bar of chocolate to a little boy with a plastic leg. Mitchell Sanders sits under a tree, picking lice off his body and depositing them in an envelope addressed to his Ohio draft board. Every night, Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker dig a foxhole and play checkers. The narrator stops the string of anecdotes to say that he is now forty-three years old and a writer, and that reliving the memories has caused them to recur. He insists that the bad memories live on and never stop happening. He says his guilt has not ceased and that his daughter Kathleen advises him to write about something else. Nevertheless, he says, writing about what one remembers is a means of coping with those things one can’t forget.
O’Brien describes when the Alpha Company enlists an old Vietnamese man whom they call a “poppa-san” to guide the platoon through the mine fields on the Batangan Peninsula. When he is done, the troops are sad to leave their steadfast guide. Mitchell Sanders tells a story of a man who went
“Spin,” with its unconnected anecdotes delivered in scattered phrases and half-realized memories, stylistically echoes the fragmentation of the war experience. Like the anecdotes in “The Things They Carried,” the anecdotes here are static and seemingly unrelated. They jump in time, purpose, and magnitude in the same way that a soldier’s mind might jump around his past. In this story, it becomes clear to us that all the stories O’Brien is telling originate from his memory. A shift in tone accompanies the fragmentation; O’Brien transitions from a balanced to a disillusioned evaluation of the war. He argues that the war is unlike Dobbins and Bowker’s well-ordered, rational games of checkers. The war has neither rules nor winners, and men witness horrific acts juxtaposed with random acts of kindness.
“Spin” is like a map of the uncharted territory of war for readers who have never experienced it. The story allows us to feel the boredom of war by describing the things that happen when nothing is happening: jibes, songs, stomachaches, and despair. It also addresses the way men choose to deal with fright, uncertainty, and devastation. Unable to cope with stress, Azar brutally kills Ted Lavender’s adopted puppy and uses his immaturity and youth as an excuse for his actions. O’Brien’s decision not to explain or elaborate on this event conveys the message that sometimes the facts in a true war story need no further commentary.
Although the plot of “Spin” is not complicated, the story establishes the identities of the characters who appear throughout
O’Brien’s relationship with his daughter Kathleen reveals the importance of storytelling. An outsider to O’Brien’s experience, Kathleen cannot begin to imagine what her father went through when he was a soldier in a foreign country long before she was born. She is therefore convinced that her father’s obsession with Vietnam is an easily curable condition. She suggests that he write something happier, something entirely different, failing to realize that there is a reason that he needs to tell these stories, and to tell them to her, specifically. O’Brien says the function of telling stories is delivering the past into the future, for giving perspective and understanding. His act of telling, which bridges the gap between past and present, helps both him and Kathleen more fully understand his war experience.