The battalion does not see any action until April 22. In the meantime, the days all blend together. The sun rises at 6:00 A.M., changing color from red to gold to white. The mists in the rice fields evaporate, and the dawn breeze becomes a hot wind. When the wind is up, the soldiers cannot look anywhere without seeing clouds of dust. The dust is so thick that it clings to everything it touches. It covers rifles, the leaves on the trees, and skin. The marines eat and breathe dust. Worse, the heat increases every day and threatens to kill Caputo from heat stroke or, at the very least, to “wring the sweat out of him until he [drops] from exhaustion.” The pilots and mechanics escape into the “cool barracks or air-conditioned clubs,” but those on the perimeter have to endure it.
Caputo and the other men become accustomed to their new environment, particularly its heat, dust, and the plethora of parasitic insects. The dust and heat are suffocating and life-threatening, underscoring that the soldiers have to be vigilant about protecting their lives from both the Viet Cong and from the harsh environment. There is a contrast between the harsher conditions that the infantrymen must endure and the relative comfort in which the pilots and mechanics exist, suggesting a kind of hierarchy.
When the elements are not working against them, boredom ensues. There is no adventure but only the “deadening routine” of defending the airfield. The marines stand watch at night and spend the day repairing rusted wire, digging fighting holes, and filling sandbags. The routine feels less like war and more like forced labor. The brigade’s commanding general, General Karsch comes out to the perimeter often with Colonel Bain. While Caputo admires Bain’s ruggedness, as well as the signs of combat on his face, he expresses slight disdain for General Karsch’s polite but insincere manner.
Caputo realizes that much of the war involves not fighting, but creating the conditions in which the marines can sustain combat. He is also still seeking role models. Bain is aligned with Caputo’s childhood ideal of a “tough guy” soldier, like those from TV and movies, which contrasts with the seemingly artificial expressions of General Karsch. His artificiality may also remind Caputo of the enforced politeness of his own suburban upbringing.
Corporal José Gonzalez becomes the first casualty when he is wounded late in the month. He is leading a wiring detail when he strays into a minefield that was supposed to have been cleared. Gonzalez steps on a small antipersonnel mine, a device which is designed to cripple rather than kill, and it turns his foot “into a mass of bruised and bloody meat.” Lance Corporal Sampson clears a path to Gonzalez and carries him out of the field, over his shoulders, and to safety. Sampson is recommended for a Bronze Star for his heroism, and Gonzalez is evacuated to the United States to have his foot amputated and recuperate in the Oakland Naval Hospital.
This is Caputo’s first confrontation with both the ugliness of war (in terms of how it can mutilate the human body), as well as the war’s potential to bring out the soldiers’ noblest traits. Here, Sampson risks his life to rescue Gonzalez; the willingness to risk one’s life for their comrades reveals the marines’ dedication to their oath not to leave a wounded or dead fellow marine on the field.
The company misses Gonzalez after his departure—not only because of his own wonderful qualities but because he is one of them. Peterson, concerned about low spirits among the marines, encourages the platoon commanders to have a talk with their men. Caputo’s men huddle around him “like a football team around a quarterback.” Caputo tries to explain “the hard facts about war.” When he is finished with his speech, someone asks if Gonzalez will be okay, and Caputo assures him that, except for the amputation, Gonzalez will be fine. Then, there are more casualties.
Gonzalez’s absence is deeply felt because the marines regard themselves as a cohesive unit. Thus, when one member leaves, it feels like there’s a gaping hole in their group. In talking to his men about the “facts” of war, Caputo still imagines himself in a role—this time, that of a quarterback—because he is still unequipped to speak with authority on a subject that he has not yet experienced.
The Three-Nine suffers the most casualties, but only a few are from enemy action. The rest are caused by heatstroke and accidents, such as accidental discharges and nervous marines shooting other marines by mistake. In one instance, “a prop-driven Skyrider” crash lands on an airstrip. The pilot gets rid of all of his munitions except for “a two-hundred-and-fifty-pounder,” which remains in the bomb rack. It explodes, “disintegrating him and his plane and injuring several men nearby.” Other causes of casualty include diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, and FUO—fever of unknown origin. The diseases are largely due to the unsanitary living conditions.
The majority of the casualties that the men suffer occur as a result of rather arbitrary incidents. The marines are not only vulnerable to their environment and to their wily enemy, they are also vulnerable to their own weaponry. The incident with the Skyrider reveals the irony of modern warfare: though it is intended to make fighting more convenient and less risky for those involved, it has the equal potential to endanger those who use it.
Though the absence of action makes Caputo and some of the others feel that they are not really combat infantrymen, the mechanics and technicians at the base are grateful for their protection, given the unreliability of the ARVN. Some risk is involved in the small-unit security patrols that the marines run through the villages beyond the MLR, but these really only offer fresh air and exercise. For fun, they go to Da Nang to drink and buy prostitutes. Caputo feels “something of the romantic flavor of Kipling’s colonial wars” during this period in Vietnam, as well as the uniqueness of being the only American brigade in the country at this time. Lieutenant Bradley calls these weeks of relative peace the “splendid little war.”
Caputo still associates his identity as a marine with the ability to perform in combat. However, having not yet demonstrated that ability, he does not yet feel like a marine. The lack of action makes the marines both restless and more likely to indulge in vices, both to desensitize themselves from the fear and anticipation of going to war and to keep their feelings of loneliness at bay.
Things are less “splendid” for the Vietnamese. One day, two Australian commandos, advisers to an ARVN Ranger group, walk into C Company’s area and talk about a fire-fight they were in that morning. The smaller of the two says that their patrol took a “souvenir” off of the body of a dead VC—it is “two brown and bloodstained human ears” strung on a piece of wire. He holds them up like a fisherman displaying a prize-winning trout. Caputo is shocked by the display of such barbarism from a fellow member of the English-speaking world.
Caputo’s comparison of the ears to that of “a prize-winning trout” is an indication of the ability to regard the enemy as a lower form of life. Caputo is less surprised by the act than by the fact that it was committed by someone so similar to him. It suggests that he may not come from the more elevated civilization. It also suggests that he, too, could become culpable of such behavior.
Ten days pass with no action. The lovely green landscape becomes monotonous. Then, in the latter half of the month, someone decides that the battalion will begin to approach the Viet Cong. The new strategy is named “aggressive defense,” which means that the Americans will share in the fighting, no longer making it “their war.” A staff major tells Caputo that he thinks the brigade alone will have the situation “cleaned up in a few months.” The U.S. Marines believe in its own mythmaking and assume that the South Asian guerrillas do not stand a chance against them.
“Aggressive offense” seems to be a method of keeping morale up among the increasingly bored and restless soldiers. At the same time, this radically changes the military policy with the Viet Cong, in favor of direct engagement. Given the more plentiful resources of the U.S., it was inevitable that it would become an American conflict and one that would undermine Americans’ notion of being invincible.
Peterson calls the officers and platoon sergeants into a briefing. B Company’s brief fight emboldens the staff. They want to organize a two-company search-and-destroy operation in which they are to find and destroy the 807th Battalion, thought to be operating “in the foothills around Hoi-Vuc, a village on the far side of the valley.” Delta Company is set “to establish a blocking position near the scene of the previous day’s action while Charley Company [makes] a helicopter assault a few miles farther west.” The marines expect the VC to flee from C Company, only to be crushed against D Company. Peterson finishes by reading instructions concerning rules of engagement, particularly in light of the accidental killing of a farmer the day before, who was mistaken for a VC. Marines are now not to fire at unarmed Vietnamese, unless they are running away.
The mission overlooks and does not anticipate the Viet Cong’s willingness to stand and fight. It also does not anticipate the possibility that the Viet Cong will have its own defensive position. The belief that the Viet Cong will simply “flee” possibly results from stereotypes about Asian men being less tough and capable fighters, especially in response to America’s superior fire power. However, the relatively arbitrary nature of the war, in which the marines cannot distinguish between the VC and the civilian population, makes it more difficult to determine one’s enemy and, thus, more difficult to justify one’s killing.
Caputo is bewildered by this instruction. What if someone has a legitimate reason for running? Peterson’s response is that the authorities of the battalion don’t care: “if he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC.” The marines spend the next few hours preparing, and everyone is cheerful, except for the platoon sergeants. Campbell in particular is in a somber mood. He is writing a letter to his wife and children, and the deep lines in his face make him look much older. Sergeant Colby insists that they are not “morose.” They are instead dismayed to see the company acting as though they are “going on a boy-scout hike.” He insists that the other soldiers do not yet understand the mortal danger that they face. Caputo leaves, unable to understand the mood they are in. He is too full of illusions to realize that these men have none.
The order from Peterson presents Caputo’s first moral quandary in response to the war. Peterson’s response to Caputo’s question reveals that the U.S. military draws no true distinction between the Viet Cong and the civilian population. Equally concerning, the young marines can draw no distinction between their fantasy notions of war and the legitimate danger that awaits them. Caputo misses an opportunity to understand why the elder marines are disappointed by the news. He is too focused on proving his masculinity and value through war to consider how war can undermine these values.