In a grim and violent book, one gentler theme is the importance of friendship in life. The men of the platoon bicker and tease each other, but more often provide support and understanding in a way no one else can. When the character of Tim struggles to understand how he came to commit murder in “The Man I Killed,” Kiowa gently guides him through his despair, saying, “You feel terrible, I know that.” After the war is over, characters still provide friendship and understanding to each other, as when Lt. Cross tells Tim to write about them, or when Norman writes Tim a long letter about his work. Tim’s friendship with his daughter, who tries to understand what he’s been through, is another reinforcement of this theme.
The characters of the platoon are repeatedly shown to have no real understanding of why they’re being sent on any particular mission, nor how their actions fundamentally change the conflict in which they’re embroiled. Lt. Cross calls in air support after a member of the platoon dies, and a village is heavily bombed. Tim kills a man who posed no real threat to him. Mary Ann is corrupted by the war, becomes a killer, and disappears into the jungle. There’s never any point or result to these actions. The war grinds on, and the men either survive or are ground up with it. They never speak of the rationale for the war, and when one of the men shoots his own foot to get sent home, they do not judge him because they know the war is pointless.
In “The Lives of the Dead,” Tim remembers having to collect the bodies of 27 enemy combatants, after which his friend Mitchell tells him, “Death sucks.” Over and over in the stories, the horror of death – its inevitability, violence and unexpectedness – is depicted, particularly in the violent ways Ted Lavender, Dave Jensen and Kiowa die. Yet O’Brien concludes the book with his realization that remembering the dead by telling their stories allows them to very briefly be alive once more. Writing about people who have died, the book implies, is the only way to conquer death.