In late October, an enemy battalion attacks a helicopter base, inflicts fifty casualties on the company guarding it, and destroys or damages over forty aircraft. Two nights later, another VC battalion overruns a post manned by eighty marines from A Company, killing twenty-two and wounding fifty more. The fighting has become more intense and more vicious. One of the 1st Battalion’s radio operators, for instance, is tied up, beaten with clubs, then executed. His body is found floating in the Song Tuy Loan three days later. Adam Simpson’s twenty-eight-man patrol is ambushed by 200 VC and almost annihilated. Only two marines, both seriously wounded, survive. More might have survived if the VC did not go down the line of fallen marines, pumping bullets into those who showed signs of life, including Simpson. The two who survived had crawled under the bodies of dead comrades and feigned death.
The Viet Cong are becoming more vicious in their attacks against the American Marines. However, Caputo is clear about the fact that neither side is innocent. Neither the Viet Cong nor the Americans have rules of engagement, which make atrocities increasingly common. It seems, too, that the Viet Cong are as disinclined to take prisoners as the Americans are and prefer to coldly murder those whom they capture. Caputo’s recollection of the murder of his former classmate, Adam Simpson, exemplifies how the killing during the war took on a personal dimension. The thought of the VC “pumping bullets” into those who showed signs of life contrasts sharply with the distant war conducted with shells and rifles.
On the other hand, few captured VC ever make it to prison camps. Some line companies kill every VC they see, as well as those who are only suspects. There is no orderliness to this war and no solid rules of engagement. In the middle of November, Caputo requests to be transferred to a line company in 1st Battalion and his request is granted. He feels useless and a little guilty for doing relatively nothing while other men risk their lives. He is also still fascinated by life on the front, where he experiences “a headiness that no drink or drug could match.” Fear of madness is another motive. He is sure that another few months of examining bodies will land him in a psychiatric ward. Finally, he feels a hatred for the VC and a desire for getting revenge for the deaths of Simpson and Levy.
Caputo longs for action and the excitement of war. The routine drudgery of reporting on deaths desensitizes him, but it also deprives him of the chance for retribution. He resents passively hearing about the deaths of his comrades and watching their bodies show up mutilated from war. As long as he remains the “Officer in Charge of the Dead,” he will be incapable of helping to prevent future deaths. Though Caputo is not convinced that his presence would make any difference, he remains emotionally attached to the idea of saving his fellow soldiers.
Jim Cooney is brought in to replace Caputo. Kazmarack drives him to One-One’s headquarters, but not before Sergeant Hamilton sees Caputo off. Caputo runs various errands to ensure his transfer then meets with the commanding officer at Battalion HQ, Lieutenant Colonel Hatch. He tells Caputo that he will get a platoon in C Company, Levy’s old company. Captain Neal is the skipper, and McCloy is the executive officer. Neal assigns Caputo to the second platoon, where he will take over for Levy. The whole division is now on the defensive, trying to prevent another VC attack on the airfield by holding the MLR. Mines and booby traps account for all of the company’s casualties. Caputo tries to keep a lookout for immersion foot, due to the men being constantly wet. They are also often tired and hungry, due to poor rations.
Ironically, Caputo takes the place of his old friend, Levy. Though Caputo is joining a new company in a new battalion, he is rejoining some of the soldiers from his first assignment. The effect is similar to that of being reunited with family members. The task, too, remains the same—to prevent another attack on the airfield. The persistent attention to this mission reinforces the repetitive nature of war, in which little changes other than the reshuffling of bodies into new positions. Caputo’s other job is to help maintain the health of the soldiers so that they can continue to fight.
Captain Neal assigns Caputo to go up on the line that night. At about 7:00 P.M., Caputo goes to the line with his new platoon. He crawls into the command post—a foxhole encircled with sandbags and covered by a leaky poncho. Caputo listens for mortars but cannot hear anything. It is soon dark, and the wind is blowing. Around midnight, automatic fire spatters into one of the positions near the hamlet. The squad leader says that twenty rounds have been fired into his team’s right side, but there are no casualties. Then, there is another burst. Caputo goes through the village along with a rifleman. Bullets stream past them, and Caputo goes down on his stomach. One of the riflemen shoots into the trees, and then some grenades are thrown in. They wait for about thirty minutes and then head back toward the command post.
While he was allowed a period of adjustment when he started his previous assignment as an adjutant, now Caputo is immediately put back into the field and is confronted right away with the danger that he longed for when he worked as a clerk. Again, Caputo is threatened with shelling and possible illness due to the climate. However, his responses in the field are active and instinctive. He knows how to listen for mortars and when to go down on his stomach when the bursts are too close. This is very different from his passive attitude at regimental headquarters, when he took little interest in what he was doing.
On the way back, an old Vietnamese farmer tries to sell them pornographic photos. The marines sleep uneasily that night and awake to “a drizzling dawn.” For a month, there is little action and endless misery. The men spend their days avoiding snakes and insect bites. At the end of the month, the VC stage a small attack on the village. Caputo and Sergeant Coffell are talking to each other to stay awake. Automatic rifle-fire crackles behind them, then they are inundated by hand grenades. Caputo crawls up to the road embankment to see if he can spot the enemy. He sees VC in the village, shooting in every direction. He tells Coffell that the VC are behind them, and that he should face his soldiers toward the road and have them shoot anything that moves.
Caputo has settled into the duller and more aggravating aspects of his routine as an infantry soldier. Typically, there is a moment of excitement when the Viet Cong attack. There is a contrast between Caputo’s image of the “drizzling dawn,” which evokes a feeling of calm, and the noise and tension that arise during the Viet Cong attack. There is a contrast, too, between the natural beauty the men experience in Vietnam and the terror created by warfare and modern machinery.
Caputo tries for fifteen minutes to get through to Captain Neal. Neal says that he has not heard anything and Caputo knows why: he was asleep in the company’s base camp, which is where he is every night while the men are out fighting. The skirmish ends by the time Caputo finishes talking to Neal. The next morning, Caputo sits with a cup of coffee. He is exhausted just like everyone else—they stayed up all night because they were on alert to an enemy battalion moving in their direction. Neal meets Caputo in the mess and says that, according to his service record, Caputo has never had a rest-and-relaxation period during his nine months in Vietnam. He asks Caputo if he would like to go to Saigon for three days. Caputo says “yes” without hesitation.
Neal’s authority as a captain gives him the privilege to avoid the unpleasant aspects of war, such as staying up late due to an alert on an enemy battalion. Caputo’s tone suggests resentment of this exercise of privilege while lower-ranking men go without sleep and other comforts. This contrasts, too, with his admiration for officers who forgo their privileges to demonstrate loyalty both to the cause and to their soldiers. As though to make up for his absence, Neal offers Caputo a period of rest.
Caputo stays at the Meyercourt in Saigon, a hotel reserved for soldiers on R-and-R. He sees shellfire flickering on the horizon and guns boom rhythmically. There is no complete escape from the war. He goes to a sidewalk café for breakfast. An old woman with a missing left arm hands him a note, saying that she is fifty years old, and lost both her arm and her husband in a bombardment, during a battle with the VC in 1962. She asks for 20 piasters; Caputo gives her 100.
The dismembered old woman is a consequence of the war. Out of sympathy (and possibly guilt), Caputo gives her more money than she asks for. Though he tries to separate himself from the war and acts as much like a civilian as he can, the shellfire in the distance reminds him of why he is in Vietnam.
On his second day in Saigon, Caputo converses with an Indian silk merchant and, in the evening, has dinner on the terrace of the Continental Palace Hotel, a mainstay of the French colonials who have stayed on in Vietnam. Caputo orders a bottle of wine and a Chateaubriand, despite the meal being for two. He watches the Frenchmen nearby and sees them as people who are living, not merely surviving. He fantasizes about staying in Saigon and living life again but feels guilty about the possibility of deserting.
Caputo models his behavior after the French colonials. He indulges in good food and wine and mingles with the locals. He imagines what his life would be like in Saigon if he were not a soldier. However, both of the contexts in which he imagines his life, as a colonial and as a soldier, are inseparable from an experience in which the Vietnamese are subordinated. Furthermore, his loyalty to the Marines makes civilian life seem unfathomable.
At the end of his stay, Caputo is standing on the tarmac, waiting for a C-130 to taxi to a stop. He jokes with an old gunnery sergeant who tells him jokes and stories about fighting on Iwo Jima and in Korea. The hatch of the plane opens and corpses are carried off in green rubber body bags. The mood changes and no one speaks. The gunnery sergeant, a veteran of three wars, shakes his head and curses this one.
Whereas the gunnery sergeant feels a sense of glory in the previous conflict, he suggests that there is a senselessness to the war in Vietnam. More young men are dying and, unlike the other conflicts, the Americans and the South Vietnamese are not making any progress.