Widener wakes Caputo up at 4:00 A.M. the next morning. Peterson is lacing his boots. McCloy is shaving at a makeshift washstand outside, with only a flashlight to help him see what he is doing. Lemmon and Tester are wiping the condensation from their weapons. Caputo is nervous about making a stupid mistake when the platoon hits the LZ. He has been entertaining himself with fantasies of his personal heroics, but he also worries about the “coldly practical problems involved in securing a landing zone.” He hopes that nothing will happen so that he doesn’t make a fool of himself. He wants action, but he also doesn’t want it.
There is a great deal of anticipation in the day’s preparations for battle. The ritual aspects of shaving and cleaning one’s gun, which are efforts to improve one’s presentation, seem absurd in the context of possible death, in which it does not matter how well-shaven one is or how clean one’s gun is. Caputo also wants to appear as the best possible version of a soldier but continues to worry over his lack of experience.
The marines form helicopter teams of eight men each and gather at “a wide, level place in the saddle between [their] hill […] and Hill 327.” Looking in the opposite direction, they see helicopters taking off from the airfield, around the same time that the marines hear the sound of bombardment—shells explode and re-echo through the mountains. The helicopters arrive when the bombardment lifts. The aircrafts land three at a time and then fly the men who get onboard westward, along the course of the Song Tuy Loan. Widener and the six riflemen on Caputo’s team sit stiffly with “their weapons propped upright between their knees.” The Tuy Loan narrows until it becomes merely “a thread bordered by galleries of bamboo jungle.” This scene gives way to “creased and yellow foothills.” The LZ comes up ahead—“a circle of brightness in the gloom of the jungle.”
Everything seems exceptionally well-coordinated, and the men sit stoically, awaiting their time to perform. Caputo’s description of how they hold their guns “propped upright between their knees” has a phallic connotation, particularly when considering that Caputo and the other marines define their masculinity within the context of being strong, capable soldiers who are willing to kill. The imagery of sleek machinery and uprightness contrasts with the “creased” and mysterious jungle. Caputo’s language suggests that the men will never be quite prepared for what awaits there.
The other two squads come in easily, due to there being no enemy fire. No wind blows either, and the air is heavy and wet. The jungle smells “like a damp cellar.” The soldiers can hear creatures “slithering and rustling in the underbrush,” but they cannot see them, as there are too many vines and trees. Caputo tosses a grenade to clear a way. When the helicopters fly off, the soldiers feel abandoned. Caputo feels utterly American—comfortable with machines but not with the “rank and rotted wilderness.”
Ironically, now that he is in the “savage” setting that he coveted in his youth, he longs for helicopters and other machines—signs of civilization and control. The “rank and rotted” smell of the wilderness may be a psychosomatic reaction to the death Caputo anticipates.
The platoon moves cautiously into the village. There are only a few elderly people around—old women chewing betel nut and “a couple of idle old men in white cotton shirts and conical straw hats.” The platoons break up into teams and start the search for the VC battalion. They enter huts and rummage through villagers’ belongings. The marines have been told that the VC sometimes hide small clips of ammunition in the walls. A young woman sits and watches the marines, while nursing her baby. The indifference in her eyes irritates Caputo. It seems to him like a denial of their existence. Before leaving, Caputo smiles stupidly and makes “a great show of tidying up” to show that American soldiers are not as careless or brutal as the French were. The woman still regards them indifferently.
The presence of no one other than elderly people indicates that there is no clear and present danger to the marines. The relative helplessness of the villagers, which Caputo misconceives as indifference, is contrasted with the force of the soldiers. Caputo is as concerned with the Vietnamese’s perceptions of him as he is with that of the other marines. By rummaging through the huts, he and the others seem more like vicious villains than like the heroes Caputo wishes for them to be.
The search of the hut results in nothing. The marines go to lunch, but they prepare themselves to move out again in half an hour. The heat becomes unbearable. Caputo dips his helmet into the river and pours the water over his “throbbing head.” On his way back, he sees a corpsman treating an infant with skin ulcers. A few yards away, a Vietnamese marine lieutenant roughly questions a woman and waves a pistol in her face. He raises his arms as though to pistol whip her, suspecting her of being VC, but Peterson stops him. The skipper will not allow the torture of an old woman. The perceived enemy, who looks like “a sack of bones covered by a thin layer of shriveled flesh,” shuffles away.
Caputo observes how the conditions created by the war simultaneously inspire both tenderness and inhumanity. Contrary to common expectations, it is the American soldier who shows compassion toward the Vietnamese, while one of their own people demonstrates brutality. Here, Caputo complicates the popular image of brutal Americans who went to war with a relatively helpless country—an image that could be embodied by the thin old woman.
When the marines move out, they cross a “furrowed field outside the village.” Suddenly, snipers shoot at them. The plan is for them to patrol a short distance along the south bank. They move about one hundred yards before the snipers start again, “this time with a brief but heavy burst of automatic fire.” The marines respond with fire, and Caputo leaps into a trench. Sergeant Campbell orders a cease fire, arguing for more “fire discipline” due to the futility of shooting into the trees. Caputo emerges from the trench and Campbell says, perhaps reproachfully, that he did not know the lieutenant was in there. Peterson then comes over the radio and warns Caputo against using up all of their ammo on a couple of snipers. He then tells them to move out.
The snipers cause a moment of panic within the platoon. Caputo, due to his lack of experience and the fact that his only understanding of war comes from movies and TV, believes that he should immediately respond to fire with fire. Though he outranks Campbell, the more experienced sergeant seems slightly contemptuous of the fact that he must defer to a younger man who knows so little about how to conduct himself and his platoon.
Fifteen minutes later, while crossing a field of rice paddies, the platoon is again “pinned down by a small group of guerrillas.” Caputo figures there are three of them, “two with carbines and one with an automatic rifle, probably an AK-47.” Caputo spots a VC. He runs over and gets one of the machine guns into action. Caputo is shot at, but the bullet hits a branch about six inches above his head, sending a “severed twig” down on his helmet. Caputo’s first reaction is rooted in the illusion that the sniper is trying to kill him out of personal hatred. He then realizes that there is nothing personal about it—he and his enemy are trying to kill each other because that is their job.
Caputo realizes that combat is not personal, though it demands personal sacrifices from its participants. He and the VC guerrillas do not know each other, but they have both been dispatched by their respective states to destroy their perceived enemy in order to preserve the political values that each holds dear. They are willing to sacrifice their health and, possibly, their lives to perform their assigned tasks.
Peterson comes up again on the radio and asks Caputo why he is waving his arms around while the platoon is under fire. Caputo says that he is doing a hand-and-arm signal, like the one he learned at Quantico. Peterson explains that all that will accomplish is getting himself shot. Caputo registers that he understands and realizes that this is the reason why a VC shot at him in the first place. When the fire fight ends, a squad searches the tree line and only finds a “a few spent cartridges.” Late that afternoon, C Company meets up with D Company and they fly back to base camp.
There is a disconnect between Caputo’s military training and the practice knowledge that he learns on the field. Indeed, it makes no sense at all to wave one’s arms around while being shot at, for Caputo is merely inviting the enemy to target him. It seems that the formalities of military training are incompatible with the actual work of conducting a war.