The chapter begins, well before the events of Chapter 1, with Doc Peret trying and failing to save the life of a wounded soldier, Jim Pederson. A helicopter arrives and carries Pederson’s body away while the soldiers watch. The soldiers are near a village called Hoi An. Cacciato—still a soldier at this time—works with Harold Murphy, Oscar, and Vaught to prepare marching on.
O’Brien describes the deaths of soldiers in a matter-of-fact way. This isn’t to say that the passages aren’t emotional—on the contrary, they’re more tragic precisely because they’re described so coolly. It’s as if O’Brien is trying to convey the emptiness of feeling that comes after a traumatic experience.
Paul Berlin marches alongside his fellow soldiers, trying not to think about what’s happened to Pederson. As he marches, his lieutenant—not named at this point—uses the radio to order a strike on the village. Helicopters drop white phosphorus gas on the villagers, causing fire and suffocation. Afterwards, the soldiers walk away from the village, silent. They make camp in the jungle, and eat their dinner. As the soldiers eat, they begin talking about Pederson, because “it was always better to talk about it.”
One of the signature “rules” of the troops is that it’s always better to joke and laugh about horror than it is to repress the horror and keep it bottled up. This is an important survival strategy, one that allows the soldiers to (supposedly) maintain their sanity, no matter how much chaos they witness or participate in. It also connects to the idea of Berlin processing his trauma by reimagining events.