One morning on patrol Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get into a fistfight over a missing jackknife that Jensen thinks Strunk has stolen. Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose, hitting him repeatedly and without mercy. Afterward, Jensen is nervous that Strunk will try to get revenge and pays special attention to Strunk’s whereabouts. Finally, crazed by apprehension, Jensen fires his gun into the air and calls out Strunk’s name. Later that night, he borrows a pistol and uses it to break his own nose in order to even the score. The next morning, Strunk is amused by the news, admitting that he did steal Jensen’s jackknife.
Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk learn to trust each other. They resolve that if one gets seriously wounded, the other will kill him to put him out of his misery. In October, Strunk’s lower leg gets blown off by a mortar round. Jensen kneels at his side and Strunk repeatedly begs not to be killed. Strunk is loaded into a helicopter, and later Jensen is relieved to learn that Strunk didn’t survive the trip.
In these two brief stories, the pressures of war distort social codes, causing two men on the same side to act violently toward one another for no real reason. O’Brien explains that this behavior results from the immaturity of Jensen and Strunk, and of the immaturity of grunts in general. Amid the chaotic war in Vietnam, soldiers often battled one another, to relieve the tension of waiting and because such close confines inspired contentious relationships.
In this story, social codes and contracts become arbitrary. In most societies, those who steal are punished by others in order to inspire guilt about, and fear of, committing wrongs. However, in “Enemies,” the lack of an attempt by Jensen and Strunk to resolve their conflict using peaceful dialogue demonstrates that social contracts have begun to break down. While Jensen assumes that Strunk will inflict eye-for-an-eye revenge on him for breaking his nose, Strunk assumes Jensen was somewhat justified in his rash action and in the end Strunk feels that he’s gotten what he deserved, since he did steal Jensen’s jackknife. Strunk’s acceptance of the matter and the relief Jensen takes in his exaggerated gesture of settling the score show that both men are willing to take responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, with the breakdown of the social code, each is taking responsibility out of guilt rather than integrity.
The irony in these two stories is expressed by their titles. At the beginning of “Enemies,” Jensen and Strunk are violently opposed to one another although they are fighting on the same side of a brutal war. At the end of “Friends,” Jensen is relieved rather than aggrieved to learn of Strunk’s death, although the two are supposed to be friends. These titles emphasize a wartime distortion of the notion of friendship, especially when compared with the notion of fidelity and promises. Jensen’s relief at Strunk’s death signals that he operates under a strict code of right and wrong, putting more stock in fidelity and promises than in friendship. Just as he assumes, in “Enemies,” that he has broken a social code by wronging Strunk and must therefore feel bad, so too in “Friends” does he feel he has broken a social code by not honoring the terms of his pact with Strunk, even though Strunk is the one who waves off the pact.
O’Brien contends that war is a time when fantasies are shattered and notions of honor are rendered obsolete in the frightening face of death. When Jensen and Strunk make their pact, they are thinking of both grave injury and death as abstract, distant things, remnants of their notions of heroism from before the war, that have yet to become real because of their relative inexperience with death since their arrival. But when Strunk is actually injured, he immediately wants to rescind the agreement made in a time when the prospect of its being enacted seemed unlikely. Being alive and injured is better than being dead, he realizes. As Strunk begs for his life, Jensen is forced to grant an escape clause to the pact. Still, although Jensen doesn’t take action to kill Strunk, the relief he feels upon hearing of Strunk’s death suggests he believes that there was a right—honoring the pact—and a wrong—honoring Strunk’s revised wishes—in this situation.