Caputo is sitting on the roof of the outpost’s command, sunning his legs. The heat is suffocating, as it always is between monsoon storms. Lance Corporal Crowe goes to Caputo to make his report. He says that the patrol has picked up some intelligence. He reminds Caputo of the three VC suspects they found in Giao-Tri two weeks ago. The men were carrying papers that were obvious forgeries, and their ages were falsified. Lieutenant McCloy, who now speaks fluent Vietnamese, interrogated them along with an ARVN militia sergeant. The men were released when the sergeant determined that they falsified their ages so that they could stay in school and out of the army. They just seemed to be draft dodgers. The younger of the three, Le Dung, later tells Crowe that the two older ones are actually VC who have been making mines and booby traps.
Caputo’s sun-tanning is reminiscent of his more leisurely days in Okinawa. When Crowe, however, confronts him with news about the three Viet Cong who were found a couple of weeks ago, he is jolted back into the constant necessity of remaining alert to those around him—a pain that he did not need to endure when he was in Japan. The deception committed by two out of the three men whom the marines found a few weeks before makes it seem as though they can trust no one in Vietnam, and that anyone in the country, even in South Vietnam, could be a potential enemy.
Caputo asks why Crowe did not capture the two men and bring them in. Crowe says that McCloy already cleared them. Caputo calls HQ with Crowe’s report, dreading the lecture he thinks he will get from Captain Neal. Neal has lost about thirty percent of his men in the past month, and C Company’s kill ratio is below standard. He wants bodies. He tells Caputo that he is not aggressive enough in his pursuit of the Viet Cong. Neal even adopts a policy saying that any marine who kills a confirmed VC will be given an extra beer ration and time to drink it. However, McCloy answers the phone and is the one to ask why Crowe did not bring the VC in. Murph says that he will pass the info to battalion S-2. Caputo knows that the intelligence will merely end up in a file cabinet.
In Caputo’s new battalion, bodies are still measured in terms of tally marks. Neal is worried about his battalion underperforming in the war because this could hurt his chances of getting a promotion. He no longer thinks simply in terms of defeating the enemy but in terms of collecting “bodies,” which could include those of South Vietnamese people whom the marines choose to identify as Viet Cong.
Only a month remains in Caputo’s tour of Vietnam, and he hopes to leave alive and in one piece. Caputo recognizes how the war has dehumanized him and other marines. He remembers how McKenna shot an old woman in the chest after she had accidentally spat some betel-nut juice in his face. McKenna admits that he doesn’t feel guilty about it. Caputo’s thoughts and feelings are jumbled. His only clear thought is retaliation. He decides that he’s going to get the two VC whom Crowe did not bring in. If they resist, the patrol will kill them. That way, Neal will get his bodies.
Caputo recognizes that the killing is now arbitrary, and that no punishment comes to marines who shoot civilians. This emboldens him to go after the young men whom Crowe identified, even though they were cleared by McCloy as civilians. He is still tied to the idea of doing something heroic by bringing in the young men who thought that they could fool the Americans and continue to mount an offensive against them.
Caputo organizes Allen, Crowe, Lonehill, and two other riflemen that night. They wear bush hats and blacken their faces with shoe polish. He tells Allen, the patrol leader, to go into town and get the VC then bring them back. If he has any problems, he is to kill them. Caputo quietly wants the VC to die and hopes that Allen will find some excuse to kill them. Allen smiles in response to Caputo’s order, as though reading his quiet desire. The patrol leaves and then calls in a short time later: they have killed one of the VC and captured the other. Caputo calls Neal, who congratulates them.
The soldiers’ preparations are elaborate. They camouflage themselves to resemble the threatening figures in the bush who have haunted them throughout the war. Caputo does not want to take the duplicitous young men prisoner but instead wants to ensure that they get killed so that he can exact the revenge that he desires. Neal is satisfied because they have avoided future mine attacks and collected more bodies.
The five patrolmen arrive back with the body, and Caputo examines it. The back of the man’s head was blown out. There are no documents on him, and nothing to prove that he was VC. Caputo turns to Crowe and asks if he is sure that this is one of the men whom Le Dung pointed out. He says “yes,” but he looks away. Caputo asks why they shot him, and Allen says that the man whipped a branch in his face. It seems that the men are covering for themselves. Caputo tells them that, if anyone asks, they are to say that the two VC walked into their ambush, and that they killed one and captured the other. When the prisoner tried to escape, they shot him. Caputo tells them not to tell anyone that they snatched the dead man out of the village. They all agree to the directive.
One of the men whom Crowe ends up killing is Le Dung. His inability to tell his informant apart from his enemies strongly suggests that he cannot tell the Vietnamese apart. Caputo gets the killings that he quietly wished for and now helps the soldiers stick to a cohesive story that justifies their murder. Though he has technically not conspired to kill the guerrillas, he is helping to obfuscate the circumstances in which they were killed. Still, there is inconsistency from the Marines, which desires the capture of the VC but does not want to be burdened with the responsibility of accidentally targeting a South Vietnamese.
Shortly thereafter, Caputo is sitting in a hut with his defense counsel, Lieutenant Jim Rader. He looks at the calendar. Beneath its pornographic drawing is the date—June 30, 1966. Today, Lance Corporal Crowe is to be tried on two counts of premeditated murder. Caputo will appear as a witness for the prosecution. Then, he will be tried on the same charges by the same prosecutor the next morning. The marines taught the men to kill, encouraged them to kill, and are now going to court-martial them for killing Le Dung and Le Du. Caputo realizes that the marines have to punish him to avoid confronting the moral ambiguity of the war. Meanwhile, the battalion is establishing new permanent positions forward of the old front line. C Company suffers steady losses of men.
The Marine Corps is going to use Caputo and Crowe as scapegoats to distance itself from the fact that it has been encouraging its soldiers to kill with little attention to any rules of engagement. This reveals hypocrisy on the part of the institution, which has failed to acknowledge the unique nature of guerrilla warfare and the particularities of conducting a war in the jungle. Instead of changing itself and training its soldiers to meet the needs of this particular war, the high-ranking officers have abdicated from responsibility.
Caputo is frightened at the prospect of being charged with murder, but he also knows that there is murder in his heart, and that he wanted those Vietnamese men to die. He determines that his feelings are a direct result of what the war has done to him and the other men. He realizes, too, that he lied to the investigating officer: he did tell his patrolmen to stick by their statements. The colonel tells him that the original statement was made under oath and will, therefore, remain on the record. The colonel seems quite pleased with this, for now he has Caputo on another charge.
Caputo honorably takes responsibility for his immoral act. He recognizes the change in himself from a man who goes to war wanting to preserve democracy and fight Communism to one who is bloodthirsty for an enemy that he barely understands. The colonel is pleased because getting Caputo on another charge could benefit his own career and further exempt the Marines from responsibility for Caputo’s wrongdoing.
Caputo and Rader have the first of many long interviews. Before they start, Caputo hands Rader a long essay about front-time conditions in a guerrilla war; Rader crumples it up and tells Caputo to stick with the facts. He asks if Caputo ordered an assassination. Caputo says no. He confirms that he gave orders to capture and to kill if necessary. Rader says that this a lawful order in combat. They prepare testimony. Caputo hopes for an acquittal, knowing that what happened to him could have happened to anyone. Besides, the enlisted men have good reputations. While Caputo awaits a verdict, the South Vietnamese begin an intramural war, and General Thi is placed under arrest. Caputo is transferred from the battalion to regimental HQ, where he is assigned as an assistant operations officer. Along with Captain Greer, he goes to interview survivors of a disastrous insurrection in the Vu Gia Valley.
Caputo’s narration of the emotional turmoil that led to his action is not of any interest to Rader, who knows that this will also not be of any interest to the Marine Corps. The focus on objectivity fails to account for the subjective and complex conditions that lead to actions as extreme as those of Caputo and the riflemen. While, their actions of capturing and killing are permissible within the context of war, the problem is that Caputo and the other marines did not kill men who are verifiably members of the Viet Cong. The fact that the guerrillas were once cleared makes the Marines vulnerable to accusations of killing civilians.
The insurrection ends on May 25. General Walt sends a message to all Marine units in I Corps, saying that the rebellion has been crushed, and they can look forward to good relations from now on with the South Vietnamese, their fellow comrades-in-arms. A few days later, Caputo is ordered to take part in a parade in honor of a visiting dignitary, and he refuses. Caputo’s antiwar sentiments are beginning to take shape, and he lectures others on the futility of the conflict.
Caputo is developing a moral conscience in response to the war. General Walt’s conclusion is clearly false but is exactly the kind of message that Caputo would have believed several months before. The message reinforces the United States’ self-image as an indomitable power.
Later, Rader tells Caputo that he and Crowe have been found not guilty on all counts. The general is also thinking about dropping charges against the others because Crowe was acquitted. However, Caputo will have to receive a letter of reprimand from the general to avoid court-martial. He agrees, and Rader returns to tell Caputo that he can go home in a week, ten days at the most. Before getting on his plane, Caputo watches the replacement marines arrive. He boards his plane, which is heading toward Okinawa and “freedom from death’s embrace.”
Caputo witnesses the war machine, which expels him, Crowe, and others and replaces them with fresher, more confident, and obedient soldiers. Watching the new soldiers come through must remind Caputo of how he felt when he first arrived from Okinawa. He is returning to the place from which he came but with a very different outlook on the United States’ role in Vietnam.