Eleven days after the patrol, Greeley, Rodella, and Sanchez are recovering in a hospital. January 5 is the platoon’s third night of waiting for Operation Long Lance to start. The operation calls for the battalion to make a night helicopter assault somewhere about twenty-five miles southwest of Da Nang. This would be the second nighttime helicopter assault in history. The VC regiment has a battery of 37-mm anti-aircraft cannon and, in daylight, the helicopters would be defenseless against them. Preparations for the operation are thorough because they are going into an area where no American or South Vietnamese units have previously gone. Intelligence cannot determine how many enemy units are in the valley.
Given that the marines are more inclined to fear danger at night, the prospect of a nighttime helicopter assault seems much more suspect. Furthermore, there is the danger of going into territory that is unknown to other Americans and their allies. The prospect suggests a danger even greater than that which Greeley, Rodella, and Sanchez have faced. Ironically, here Caputo receives the opportunity that he has always wanted to do something historically significant, though it comes at great risk.
Shortly after dawn, an order comes in: the marines are to risk a daylight assault. The helicopters start to make “a tight circling descent.” Caputo hears the “muffled popping of small-arms fire” and sees puffs of smoke. A helicopter assault in the LZ is always cause for concern, due to a total sense of helplessness in the enclosed space. The platoon lies against the slope of the crescent-shaped ridge, firing into the tree line from which the VC are shooting at the helicopters that are landing the rest of the battalion. Mortar shells go off in front of the marines and behind them. Staggering, they follow Caputo to the ridge. He yells for the soldiers to spread out. So far, HQ has lost eight officers and a number of enlisted men. Only Colonel Hatch escapes serious injury.
The last-minute change comes with the prospect of even greater danger than the night-time assault, due to the fact that the aircraft will be visible to the enemy. They are attacked immediately, and Caputo worries about the possibility of becoming trapped in the helicopter, making it easier for the Viet Cong to kill him and his platoon. The scene is filled with a sense of claustrophobia—both the concerns about being trapped in the helicopter and being pressed against the ridge.
Battalion HQ has nearly been wiped out, and Caputo’s platoon is supposed to hold the ridge until told to do otherwise. The Skyhawk planes come in several minutes later. VC machine-gunners fire at one of them. They drop bombs. A third one comes in and drops napalm. Through his binoculars, Caputo can see men dying and pleading for mercy. All that remains of one VC is “a few scattered piles of bloody rags.”
Caputo is responsible for managing his platoon in the midst of what has become a crisis for both sides in the war. His narration about what has happened to the enemy reveals the ease with which napalm could disintegrate a body, making it a morally questionable weapon.
Later, while searching a village called Ha Na, a corporal approaches Caputo with a Vietnamese man at gunpoint. The man is about forty and says that he teaches school. Caputo orders the corporal to tie the man up and take him to the skipper. Several minutes later, a fighter-bomber comes in to strafe the VC positions on the far side of the Vu Gia River, firing rockets and a cannon. Half of Ha Na is in flames. D Company, on C Company’s left flank, runs into heavy resistance. C Company has to get to Hill 52 quickly to help them; they are pinned down and have lost thirteen men. While running uphill, Caputo loses control of his men and of himself. They whoop like savages, torch thatch huts, and toss grenades onto cement houses. When they reach the hill, they are ordered to remain for the night.
The scene that Caputo illustrates is like a portrait of hell. Brutality becomes a virtue. Caputo’s loss of control is not a loss of his command but a loss of the façade of stoicism that he once believed was befitting of a marine. Now, he and his men embrace the savagery that the war has evoked from within them. The scene that Caputo depicts, as well as his characterization of his fellow marines as “savages,” is ironic, given that they supposedly come from the superior civilization. They are in Vietnam to maintain democracy and a Western standard of government, though that standard has also led to this behavior.
The platoon is quiet again while they dig their foxholes. Caputo surmises that the burning of Ha Na arose out of some emotional necessity. The platoon is ashamed of what it has done and still wonders if they were the ones who actually did it. They notice how they have changed from disciplined soldiers into savages and back into soldiers again. Captain Neal is furious when he finds out about the burning of the hamlet and says that Caputo will be relieved of duty if such a thing ever happens again. They destroyed the homes of about 200 people. Just before dawn, the VC make a weak attack against the battalion’s lines and are driven off with mortar fire. Helicopters fly in to evacuate casualties and to resupply the battalion with rations and ammunition. The war goes on.
For Caputo views the burning of the village as a form of catharsis. He and the other soldiers required some form of emotional release after months of enduring the anxiety of waiting for an attack, hearing about the deaths of comrades, and dealing with their underlying sexual frustration. Neal, however, reminds him that his behavior is not befitting an officer. Though the U.S. Marines encourage their men to kill, they are only to do so within the parameters of the institution’s guidelines, which remain arbitrary.