The soldiers ride through Laos with the three women they encountered in the previous chapter. They can now cover far more ground, because they have the aunts’ remaining buffalo pulling some of them in a cart. During Paul Berlin’s time in the cart, he gets to know Sarkin Aung Wan better. He likes her smell, her smile, and her beauty. She tells Paul that she’s sorry to see soldiers in Laos—surely this must mean that the fighting has spread very far. Berlin isn’t sure what to say. He explains that according to Doc, the war is over. Lieutenant Corson, on the other hand, believes that the war is still going on. Sarkin replies that the soldiers will have to continue traveling to “make sure” the war is finished.
In this section, we realize a crucial plot point: the Vietnam War might be (officially) ended, but no one has any way of knowing the truth. It’s entirely possible, then, that Cacciato is deserting for no reason. This adds a layer of bitter irony to everything that occurs—it’s implied pretty strongly that Cacciato’s actions are all for naught. Sarkin seems to intuitively accept the soldiers’ confusion—this is a world of confusion, and Sarkin knows how to survive in it.
Every night, the soldiers set up camp and build a fire, and every night, the two aunts weep for Nguyen. Sarkin does not cry. One day, while she’s walking with Paul Berlin, she asks him if they’re traveling to Paris. Berlin replies that they might be—anything is possible. Sarkin is overjoyed by Berlin’s response, and says she has always dreamed of visiting the city’s famed churches and museums.
Sarkin immediately appears as a “love interest” for Berlin, and also instantly latches onto his goal of Paris. All this seems suspicious—both in that it is unrealistic dramatically, and in that Sarkin seems to be looking to protect herself, not fall in love.
Shortly after Berlin’s conversation with Sarkin, Berlin asks Lieutenant Corson about keeping Sarkin around as a guide—she could be useful, since she speaks French. Corson refuses, and says that they’ll drop Sarkin and her aunts off at the next village. Privately, Berlin acknowledges that the savannah—possibly a war zone—is no place for women. But Sarkin, who seems to sense that the soldiers are planning to drop her at a nearby village, tries to convince Berlin that she’s strong. She lifts her skirt, revealing her powerful, muscular legs, and whispers that Berlin must convince Corson to let her stay. Berlin is very attracted to Sarkin, and plans to talk to Corson again.
Sarkin’s argument for her strength is, of course, an attempt to convince Berlin using her sexuality. This attempt seems fairly effective, too, as Berlin resolves to talk to Corson a second time. There’s no evidence that Sarkin is actually attracted to Berlin at all, so it’s suggested that she is just being wily and practical in order to survive. This seems unfair to Berlin, but it is totally understandable—American soldiers like Berlin have destroyed Sarkin’s country and livelihood, and so it makes sense that she would find it hard to feel tenderly toward them.
Shortly after Corson and Berlin’s conversation, the narrator explains, the soldiers “capture Cacciato.” It remains to be seen how this happens.
O’Brien gives us another cliffhanger, even as Cacciato himself seems increasingly unreal and distant.