The next operation takes place in a desolate area south of Da Nang and lasts for four days. The marines attempt, yet again, to trap the VC between two rifle companies. They are hit with automatic-weapons fire that nearly kills Peterson. The next morning, C Company is airlifted out to make a helicopter assault in the south. They are airborne for less than ten minutes before they head toward the LZ. A few bullets ring out—enough to make the soldiers worry, due to being trapped in the helicopters. Once on the ground, the men head toward the woods. Tester’s platoon is the last to arrive. The VC turn the rifles on the entering aircraft but none are hit. A column forms and marches into the brush. Peterson orders Caputo to halt and head back to the LZ with his men to assault some VC up on the ridge.
It is ironic that the marines scheme to trap the VC between two rifle companies but nearly become trapped themselves in helicopters, which would have made them vulnerable to an assault. The operation seems haphazard, despite the careful planning. On the other hand, the battalion is fortunate; none of their skirmishes result in death. Caputo’s description of this operation exemplifies how life and death during battles were often a matter of chance. The soldiers are also much more accustomed now to the sound of gunfire than they were earlier in the memoir, suggesting that they are becoming desensitized to the violence.
Heading back, they cover about a hundred yards when machine guns and grenades begin to fire. Sixty or seventy yards ahead, Lemmon’s men move up the ridge. Sergeant Johnson’s mortar crew runs out into the middle of the LZ and sets up a tube to hit the VC with mortars. Peterson orders Caputo’s and Tester’s platoons to move up and sweep around the guerrilla’s flank. The bombardment then lifts, and C Company is ordered to move down into the swamp—they are to kill any remaining guerrillas and look for enemy corpses. After fifteen minutes of searching they find their first body. Its brains are spilling out of a giant hole in its head.
The scene is one of action and pursuit. It ends, however, in the relatively uneventful (though gruesome) discovery of the corpse of a VC. Caputo’s description of a head with “a giant hole” and brains “spilling out” helps the reader understand the fragility of the human body and the ease with which one of nature’s most remarkable organs—the brain—can be blown apart by modern weaponry.
They learn how the VC whose brains were blown out died: the mood of the company had turned savage, and one of the marines, PFC Marsden, shot the man in the face with a pistol. However, there are two versions of the incident: that the VC was already dead when Marsden shot him, or that the marine fired in self-defense after the VC attempted to throw a grenade. Marsden does not seem to know why he shot the man. Either way, they are fulfilling General Greene’s command to kill as many VC as possible.
Marsden’s alienation from his own action is inexplicable. Either he has become so indoctrinated by the U.S. Marines’ message to kill VC that he robotically fulfills the objective, or he had a temporary moment of panic in which he believed that his life was in danger. To Caputo, it does not matter as long as the enemy is being exterminated.
A second corpse is found and, along with PFC White, Caputo finds a third. They see a sliver of blood, “flecked with bits of flesh and intestine” in a patch of brown grass. Caputo draws his pistol and they march through the marsh. The blood trail grows thicker. Caputo stumbles forward and nearly trips over the VC. He is lying on his back with an arm thrown over his chest. His eyes are wide open, staring at a sky he can no longer see. The enemy soldier appears to be about eighteen or nineteen. He has no identification on him and no photographs or letters. Caputo thinks of how this will disappoint those at intelligence, but that the lack of identification makes it easier for Caputo to think of him simply as a “dead enemy” rather than a “dead human.”
Caputo’s contact with bodily fluids and decaying flesh have little effect on him. He follows the trail of blood like a predator looking for wounded prey. He feels no sense of remorse for the death of someone so young. Instead, he wants to forget that the boy was even a person at all. His need to dehumanize the dead boy as a “dead enemy” comes from a looming sense of guilt that the U.S. Marines are killing off Vietnam’s next generation of men. It is also a result of Caputo’s concern that he is similarly vulnerable to death, and that his generation may also be destroyed.
The company reaches the base of Hill 270. Marines rush toward a column of smoke, which come from a burning case of papers—the remaining VC destroyed documents before fleeing. The marines stamp out the fire but fail to salvage anything. Caputo assembles the platoon, and the forty men start walking toward the stream bed. While walking alone, Rivera holds up his hand and drops to one knee. He signals for Caputo to approach. He points to a sampan resting atop a platform. There are items beneath the platform, including clips of small-arms ammo. Rivera whispers that a VC soldier cannot be far, if he is around. Caputo tells Rivera that he will organize a fire-team to see what is around the bend. He tells Rivera to keep an eye out for the VC and to shoot him if he shows up.
The VC have fled from the scene, but they have left clues about their presence and what they plan for next. Even still, Caputo and the others are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that they are fighting against a wily enemy. As in this passage, the presence of the Viet Cong is very often felt but seldom seen. They seem always to be in a position just out of sight—in the jungle, for instance, or right around a bend.
Six marines move around the bend while the rest of the platoon waits. Caputo sees the outline of a hut, which sits on poles on a small base camp. The marines move in, looking for trip wires and booby traps. Bits of equipment and documents are scattered around the camp. As the marines sift through them, they find notebooks filled with neat, numbered paragraphs, which appear to be operations orders. Another marine calls out to Caputo; he has found “a small packet of letters and photographs of wives or girlfriends. While the marines look at them, Caputo feels conflicting emotions. These keepsakes give the VC a humanity that Caputo doesn’t wish to acknowledge. PFC Lockhart says what many of them are thinking: “They’re just like us, lieutenant. It’s always the young men who die.”
Caputo is disappointed to find the keepsakes, which indicate, that the young men fighting on behalf of the Viet Cong are probably not much different from the U.S. Marines. They, too, have loved ones, as well as lives and identities outside of the war. In contrast, if the soldiers had found the trip wires and booby traps that they were looking for, these discoveries would have confirmed for Caputo that the Viet Cong soldiers are nothing more than dangerous pests that have to be eliminated.
The marines set fire to the camp, then they run into Sergeant Loker. The sergeant reminds Caputo that Peterson does not want the marines to burn down any more villages. Caputo corrects him and says that it is a base camp and not a village; Loker shrugs. He then tells Caputo about how he found a marine named Hanson trying to cut the ears off of dead VC. He figures that Hanson got the idea to take ears as souvenirs from the Australian soldiers who did the same thing. Caputo compares PFC Marsden’s act, which he finds understandable, to that of Hanson, which makes no sense to him at all.
Caputo can draw a distinction between Hanson’s action and that of Marsden, which may have been the result of the latter’s fear for his life. However, both scenarios are the consequences of the war and of messages from high-ranking officers that encourage the younger and impressionable men fighting on the battlefield to associate their self-worth as soldiers with their ability to kill the Viet Cong with little prejudice.
By counting arms and legs and dividing by four, the marines estimate that eight VC were killed. Caputo gives Peterson a report of their excursion to the VC base camp and hands him the documents he found, much to Peterson’s pleasure. Peterson then orders the platoon to set up a post on a hill at the western edge of the marsh, where they are ordered to look out for A Company. They have captured five prisoners in a fire-fight near Hoi-Vuc. Caputo’s platoon is exhausted by the time it reaches the top of the three-hundred-foot hill. Caputo becomes aware of the difference in them: they have taken part in their first fire-fight and have seen violent death for the first time. Their boyhoods are now behind them. Having shed blood, they are now men.
The operation has resulted in eight dead VC and five taken for prisoner. The men’s exhaustion is both physical and mental. Their climb to the top of a hill is also symbolic of their reaching the pinnacle of their moral awareness of what soldiering entails. Caputo’s equation of the shedding of blood with entering manhood references tribal scarification and other initiation rituals in which a boy cannot reach manhood without proving his fearlessness.
The marines remain in shock at the mutilation that modern weapons can cause. They are all accustomed to seeing human bodies intact in coffins. There is recognition now in the human body, supposedly “the earthly home of an immortal soul,” as “only a fragile case stuffed full of disgusting matter.” For Caputo, the sight of mutilation causes him to lose faith in the Catholic narratives of his childhood.
War reveals the ugliness of death. It illustrates to the young and naïve men that their bodies are vulnerable and fragile. This realistic vision of the body as nothing more than physical matter reduces their sense of immortality, fostered both by their youth and their respective religious upbringings.