A thick fog rolls in around 2:00 A.M., the time at which the VC usually attacks. Blinded by the fog, the marines rely on their hearing. They hear drumming in the distance, which concerns them. The last two days of the operation are the same as the first: hours of boring walks interrupted by brief skirmishes with hidden snipers. On the afternoon of the fourth day, they pass through Giao-Tri. A few villagers are still there, searching for belongings among their burned homes. Their gazes remain flat and steady, registering the same indifference Caputo witnessed on the first day he entered the hamlet. He compares them to Americans who, he imagines, would do something about the destruction of their village. Caputo despises the villagers for their indifference and acceptance. Only later does he realize that their constant confrontations with disaster makes them able to endure what Americans would consider insufferable.
Caputo has expected to observe some change in the villagers, after burning down their village. Again, he perceives their reaction as “indifference and acceptance,” though it may be more akin to helplessness and a sense of futility about the prospect of resisting the Marines. He forms the Vietnamese in his mind as passive types, whereas he envisions Americans as active. In this regard, Caputo can convince himself that, in a way, the Vietnamese villagers deserve what is happening to them because they lack the will to challenge their circumstances. This view can help Caputo and the other marines feel less guilty about what the villagers are going through.
In the early evening, the marines reach a dirt road that runs past the “French fort,” an old French-Moroccan garrison that the Viet Minh supposedly wiped out in the early fifties. Caputo and the others see a line of peasant girls pass by, hurrying back to their village before curfew. The “rules of engagement” say that Vietnamese caught outside after dark are considered VC and must either be shot or captured. The convoy arrives shortly afterward and the marines mount trucks, happy to have a lift. Caputo rides with Corporal Mixon’s squad and a machine-gun team. The convoy stops in the bulldozed field that serves as an assembly area for companies. Gunnery Sergeant Marquand orders the men to get off the trucks and fall in line.
There are remnants of French colonialism throughout the country. The shells of the former empire’s presence in fail to register with the soldiers as a warning of the ultimate futility of the American presence in the region. The “rules of engagement” have constructed any Vietnamese person as a potential enemy. Caputo contrasts the message from his authorities with the peasant girls’ seemingly harmless presence. In Vietnam, it seems that anyone is a potential threat, despite the expectation that a girl would be excluded from combat.
Caputo examines the marines and realizes that many of them are “not so decent or good.” He has not become critical of them, knowing that he is in no position to criticize. Rather, he sees them as ordinary men who sometimes perform extraordinary acts. They are capable of bravery as well as cruelty. Sergeant Colby has a different view, believing that a nineteen- year-old American boy is one of the world’s most brutal creatures. Caputo refuses to believe this, as he has shared too much with them to have such a negative view of them.
Caputo develops a more morally complex view of his fellow comrades. In witnessing their expressions of kindness and cruelty, he learns that people are complex. On the other hand, Colby thinks that a young man is more inclined to brutality. Colby likely develops this view from the fact that the young marines channel their youthful vitality and sexual energy into violence, as well as the fact that they feel pressure to conform.
Officers and platoon sergeants go to headquarters the next morning for the captain’s daily briefing. First Sergeant Wagoner announces that ten percent of the battalion would be allowed “Cinderella liberty” in Da Nang, so called because it will end at midnight. Liberty call sounds that afternoon, and twenty-five enlisted men from C Company go to Da Nang in trucks. Caputo, McCloy, Peterson, and Sergeant Loker drive in the captain’s jeep. It is their job to ensure that the troops stay out of “serious trouble.” Caputo observes that Da Nang is “teeming with refugees from the countryside, armed soldiers in battle dress, whores, pimps, camp followers, and black marketeers.” There are thatched huts “clustered in dense squalor,” as well as shacks with rusted, sheet-metal roofs. Lance Corporal Reed stops in front of a row of bars with tacky names, and the convoy behind them also comes to a halt.
During their free time the soldiers are allowed to interact with the locals and indulge in personal vices. Caputo describes Da Nang as a seedy place full of desperate people. The American presence is doing nothing to address the crime, poverty, and hunger that plague the local people. Instead, the soldiers are unwittingly capitalizing off of that poverty and desperation for their own entertainment. The refugees have been driven out of their homes due to the escalation of the war.
After six weeks of combat operations, the marines are excited to be released into bars where dark-haired prostitutes coo at the boys to buy them drinks. Outside, cyclo-drivers pimp on street corners, old women peddle black market cigarettes or cheaply made jackets with sayings like I’ve Served My Time in Hell sewn on the backs. Every now and again, a maimed Vietnamese veteran would hold out “a faded fatigue cap” and beg for change. Caputo gives a few coins to one of the beggars. Then, “a mob of small boys with very old eyes” accosts him, McCloy, and Loker. When the marines do not give them money, the children demand cigarettes. When the men still refuse, the children follow them and call them “cheap Charlie.”
The poverty of local women pressures them to sell sex to soldiers who seek local women as diversions. The marines are excited to see women after weeks of being without any female presence. Their sexual needs force them to overlook their complicity in an immoral situation in which they are preying on the desperation of poor Vietnamese women. Worse, the war and the American presence are not rescuing the country from a desperate future; instead, the war seems to be exacerbating the desperation by corrupting the next generation. The maimed South Vietnamese veteran is a symbol of his country’s inability to stabilize itself.
The marines make their way to Simone’s, a bar named after its French-Cambodian-Thai owner. Loker starts talking to Simone right away and is taken with her, though he has no intention of taking her back home with him. McCloy then introduces Caputo to two girls from Simone’s “stable.” They are “plump, pleasant, and reasonable” women named Yum-Yum and Yip-Yap. Caputo is shy, however, about whoremongering in front of his soldiers. Marshall and Morrisson invite him over for a drink. Marshall bores Caputo with his car obsession and Caputo tires, too, of listening to Morrisson’s hare-brained military scheme. Caputo manages to get away from them and leaves the bar with McCloy.
The interaction between Simone and Loker reveals the mutually exploitative relationship between the locals and the soldiers. Though Simone is not Vietnamese, she is a product of French colonialism in Indochina and understands how freely Western men exchange money for sexual favors. However, she also sees a Western man as key to her passage out of Vietnam, due to her inability to afford to make her own way to the West. Loker knows that he has an advantage over Simone and can use her desire for escape to get what he wants.
McCloy takes Caputo to a Vietnamese restaurant and then to a brothel. The prostitutes are half-naked and bored. In one corner, he spies a bony woman of “indeterminable age,” lying on her back and staring at the ceiling “with opium-glazed eyes.” One of the women stands and shuffles toward them. Her mouth is smeared with lipstick and red circles of blush are painted “on her sallow cheeks.” She offers to perform sexual favors, but Caputo tells McCloy that he wants to leave. Just then, three marines from C Company come down the stairs laughing and tucking their shirts into their trousers. They stop when they see the officers. Caputo is embarrassed, but McCloy quickly covers for them, saying that he and Caputo were coming around to make sure the men are using condoms. The men assure him that they have. McCloy tells them to carry on, then he and Caputo leave.
The women in the brothel exhibit a world weariness that Caputo finds shocking. One is addicted to drugs, and another has made herself up in what seems to be a caricature of femininity. He wants to leave because these women offer no illusions of wanting to sleep with the marines. Their desperation reminds him of the tragic circumstances which led to their prostitution, circumstances that disrupt his sexual fantasies. At the same time, Caputo is ashamed to be in the brothel—not because of his exploitation of the women, but because he does not want the other marines to know that he is engaging in activity which clashes with his self-image as a marine.
McCloy and Caputo next go to the Blue Dahlia, a hangout for Australian advisers stationed in Da Nang. The Australians are “champion drinkers.” In the spirit of their alliance, the Australians pour McCloy and Caputo tumblers full of whiskey. Caputo later wakes up in the bedroom of one of the Chinese bargirls. He does not remember how he got there, and his uniform is strewn on the floor. The bargirl is lying naked beside him and offers to have sex with him in exchange for “four thousand piasters,” which is about thirty dollars. Caputo accepts the offer. When they finish, she walks him back across the street to the Blue Dahlia. An Australian warrant officer asks how she was. The young woman’s name is Lang. Caputo says that she was “fine, but expensive.” The Australian commiserates and says that the girls in the Blue Dahlia are “spoiled.”
Whereas Caputo initially registers some shame about going to brothels and engaging in vices that clash with his self-image as a stoic and morally upright soldier, the Australians at Blue Dahlia happily imbibe in both alcohol and prostitutes and encourage the Americans to do the same. These men seem to accept cheap liquor and prostitutes as the perks of going to war in an impoverished country. They are shameless about their indulgences and exploitative tendencies and Caputo, being very impressionable, absorbs this view. Though he earlier criticized prostitutes for marketing themselves, he now decides that he has the right to determine how much value a woman’s body has.
Suddenly, there is pounding on the door. It is the MPs. The Australians order Caputo and McCloy to hide under a couch, as the bar is off-limits to Americans after a certain hour. The MPs search the room for a few minutes, then they leave. Caputo and McCloy thank the Australians for their hospitality and leave as well. They walk to the Grand Hotel where Peterson and Loker are drinking rum on the veranda with a Norwegian merchant sailor. Peterson is drunk. Caputo buys a round of drinks, then the Norwegian buys another. Then, MPs arrive and arrest all of the marines. Lance Corporal Reed is summoned to get the men and they are released. Everyone suffers from crippling hangovers the next day. Three days later, half of the liberty day celebrants find out that they have venereal disease and go to the aid station to get shots of penicillin.
The scenario that Caputo narrates is comical but also reveals the hypocrisy of the American military, which is well aware of the fact that service members at all levels go to bars and brothels but punishes them for engaging in this activity so that the military can retain its image as a morally upright institution. The contraction of venereal disease, which is rampant in brothels due to the prostitutes having limited access to healthcare, is embarrassing but also a warning about the possible consequences of the soldiers’ indulgences and false confidence in their invincibility.
These are Caputo’s memories of his last two weeks with this battalion. Once, he leads a platoon-sized patrol near Charlie Ridge. They hack their way through bamboo and elephant grass ten feet high. When they enter a swamp, Corporal Mixon falls into quicksand and is pulled out covered in mud and leeches. The eight-hundred-foot ridge requires the men to climb hand over hand, clutching at the roots of mahogany trees. Sometimes, someone falls and sends those behind him toppling backward. When they finally reach the crest, Caputo sees that they have only covered a little over half a mile. A few days later, Lemmon is wounded in an operation. A VC tosses a grenade at him, which bounces off of Lemmon’s chest, lands at his feet, then rolls into a hollow, where it explodes. Fragments strike Lemmon in the face and nearly knock over Sullivan, who is behind him.
The final two weeks are filled with physical exertion and near brushes with death. When the enemy is not a threat, the environment is. Caputo describes physical labors that are reminiscent of the challenges that heroes of antiquity, such as Odysseus, endured in exotic lands. Lemmon’s chance brush with a grenade causes simultaneous worries of death, castration, and dismemberment, as it bounces along his body. His escape from all three fates reveals, yet again, how one’s survival during a war is only a matter of chance. Sullivan, for example, escapes death this time but will not be so lucky later.
The platoon rushes into the camp and finds no one, although they do find uniforms, equipment, and AK-47s. They destroy the weapons and gear, then they set fire to the camp. Lemmon escapes with minor scratches. Sullivan, who is now a sergeant and the father of a two-year-old boy, is left shaken. Lemmon, too, is traumatized, because he saw the VC throw the grenade at him. He confides that he initially thought he was going to die. When the grenade rolled between his legs, he thought it would castrate him. Then, he just watched it roll away and go off.
Both Sullivan and Lemmon have been confronted with their mortality. Sullivan worries about the possibility of never seeing his son again, and Lemmon will likely be haunted by the face of the man who tried to kill him. Though their brushes with death were instantaneous, for Lemmon, it will have the life-long effect of forcing him to remember the single moment in which his life may have ended or changed forever.
D Company, which covers C Company’s left flank, runs into trouble later in the day. They are shelled in a place that is appropriately named Mortar Valley. Six men are seriously wounded. In revenge, they kill five VC, including a North Vietnamese political officer. Caputo’s platoon is sent off on an all-night ambush, which is a miserable experience—not for its violence, but for the endless bites the men endure from ants and mosquitos. No one sleeps that night. When the men return to the battalion’s lines the next day, they hear that they are to leave in September and return to Okinawa. Some believe the rumor, buoyed by optimistic reports from higher headquarters or reports in Stars and Stripes. Caputo writes a letter home, expressing confidence that the VC are losing the war.
Caputo and the other marines are simultaneously inundated with the constant threat of shelling as well as the persistent nuisance of parasitic insects. Though the latter issue is mundane, it deprives the men of much needed sleep. They are increasingly eager to finish up in Vietnam and go home, which makes them vulnerable to believing rumors that the conflict will soon come to an end. Caputo, not understanding the Vietnamese’s lengthy history of resistance in the face of foreign powers, believes the reports.
At the end of May, Caputo receives orders from his parent unit, Regimental Headquarters Company. After a week-long course in Yokosuka, Japan, he will be an administrative officer on his staff. Caputo does not want to leave the One-Three battalion and hates the idea of becoming nothing more than a clerk. He tries to get his assignment changed but to no avail. Lemmon, however, cannot understand Caputo’s disappointment. He envies Caputo’s ability to escape from the war front. Caputo packs his bag and says goodbye to the platoon. Campbell is the sorriest to see Caputo go, for he will now have to serve as both the platoon commander and the platoon sergeant.
Caputo’s sense of loyalty to his battalion and his attachments to the other men make him feel guilty about leaving them to fight the war while he will assume a relatively easy job. Furthermore, working as a clerk does not align with his image as a hero in the style of the cinematic soldiers and warriors he sought to mimic when he entered the Marines.