For the next several weeks, the rifle companies maintain a schedule very similar to that of office or factory workers. Most of the time, nothing happens when they go to combat. When something does occur, it is instantaneous and “without warning.” Usually, it is rifle or machine-gun fire or mortars that seem to come out of nowhere. The marines see no heavy fighting. However, they see enough to know what fear looks like, what death smells like, what it feels like to kill, what wounds look like, how to endure pain and inflict it, and they experience the loss of friends. They slowly lose the “boyish awkwardness” they brought with them and become leaner, tougher, and more professional.
The business of conducting war proves to be quite mundane. This routine aspect of life on the battlefield contrasts with spontaneous moments of terror. This tendency to be shocked out of one’s routine with life-threatening occurrences point to why some marines, including Caputo, develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition of living in constant danger disrupts the sense of security in which they were raised, and alerts them to the world’s dangers.
Caputo sees Lemmon’s platoon “through the dust, marching heavy-legged beneath a sky that is as bright as a piece of stainless steel.” Fire breaks out. Lemmon’s men charge into the hills and splash across the rice paddies. They throw grenades into bunkers and tunnels, but the enemy is not there, so the marines march on in the heat and the dust. They are manning an outpost on a hill at the tip of a ridgeline a thousand yards ahead of C Company’s lines. On the afternoon of the third day, Caputo talks to Sergeant Gordon about bravery. Gordon describes it, uninspiringly, as the conquest of fear. Caputo is only half-listening; he is thinking about a girl he met in San Francisco five months ago, though it feels as though it has been a hundred years since then.
The image of Lemmon and his men is that of endurance in the face of risks from both the enemy and the environment. However, there is an aspect of excess in their elaborate “charge into the hills,” for the enemy is not even there. Thus, they waste a great deal of energy and ammunition for nothing. The scene that Caputo constructs is cinematic and coalesces into his conversation with Gordon about bravery, which seems, in his imagination, to still be a matter of looking tough and capable. This contrasts with Caputo’s desire for romance and tenderness.
After nightfall, PFC Buchanan’s boredom gives way to terror. He fires several shots at something he has heard moving in front of his position. Caputo yells at him for not throwing a grenade instead. Buchanan stands “in a tense crouch” and refuses to look at the lieutenant or take his finger off of the trigger of his rifle. Then, something does indeed move in the bushes. Caputo takes it for a rock ape. Before Buchanan can fire again, Caputo pulls a pin from a grenade and lobs it into the bush. Buchanan feels better and removes the rifle from his shoulder.
This is one of numerous scenes in which Caputo draws a parallel between darkness and terror. At nightfall, the jungles take on a mysterious quality, causing the soldiers to think that the forests contain something mortally threatening. Caputo’s lobbing of the grenade proves to Buchanan that there is nothing to worry about, for the Marines’ fire power can outmatch any fear of nature or the VC.
Caputo returns to the command post and goes to sleep. Later, he is startled awake by rifle fire near Lance Corporal Marshall’s position. Caputo climbs out of the foxhole and walks down a trail that leads “through the dark avenue of trees.” He sees a shadow of what he thinks is a man, but the figure is not moving, and Caputo thinks that his mind is playing tricks on him. Suddenly, he realizes that it is a man, who is trying to figure out if Caputo has seen him, too. A marine yells out something that sounds like, “He’s over there.” Caputo draws his pistol and fires, but the man flees. Marshall reports that he saw a VC running toward the command post. Caputo is still unsure if the figure in the bushes was a man or a VC, but his fear is real enough.
Caputo now exhibits a fear similar to that of PFC Buchanan. Unlike Buchanan, Caputo is not entirely certain that what he sees is real. The shadow of the VC seems almost like a reflection of Caputo’s own fear, as well as his persistent pursuit of an enemy that may or may not exist. The imagined existence of the VC is in some ways worse than the reality—g the fear is persistent and creates the sense that the enemy is always lurking and can never truly be destroyed.
Corporal Parker and Caputo go to visit PFC Esposito in the field hospital. Esposito has mixed feelings about going home, particularly about leaving Parker, who has been his friend since boot camp. Esposito is ill and has been heavily drugged. Caputo sees several other wounded men in the tent, including three marines and half a dozen South Vietnamese. Parker and Esposito reminisce, and Caputo is slightly embarrassed to overhear their conversation, which reminds him of that between two lovers. Caputo distracts himself by talking to a corpsman about the injuries suffered by a South Vietnamese soldier, whose injuries will lead to his death in a day or two, as well as that of a marine. The marine is less fortunate, for he will go through the rest of his life as a vegetable.
The portrait of Parker and Esposito reveals how the loyalty and camaraderie between soldiers leads to an intimacy similar to that between spouses—and perhaps even more intimate, for the soldiers have had experiences that require them to protect each other with their lives. Caputo is less comfortable watching the scene between Parker and Esposito than he is with observing fatalities from the war. The reminder of love and its possible loss as a result of death may be more painful for him than visual examples of mortality, in which the sufferers are beyond feeling and have no memory of what happened to them.
Later, Caputo is lying in a ditch with his platoon while a VC fires an AK-47 at them. After two hours, they see the convoy that will take them back to the base camp. Suddenly, Powell begins to stumble around as though he is drunk and falls facedown into the dirt. He has passed out from heatstroke and is “hot, dry, and fish-belly white.” Two marines carry him toward the trucks, but Powell wakes up in a rage and tries to strangle the driver. The convoy moves slowly, while Powell shifts “between unconsciousness and frenzy.” The navy doctor refuses to treat Powell, which infuriates Caputo. He instead has him evacuated to the United States because his body temperature has risen to a hundred and nine degrees, causing his blood to boil “like water in a kettle.” If he survives, he will “probably suffer permanent brain damage.”
The incident with Powell offers an extreme and vivid example of how the climate works against the marines and can even become life-threatening. In describing how the other marines tend to Powell after he passes out, Caputo depicts the soldiers’ loyalty to each other. Their attention to Powell has caused them to forget about the danger presented by the VC. Caputo’s anger at the navy doctor’s refusal to treat Powell is another demonstration of loyalty, though one that does not take into account the doctor’s limited ability to restore Powell to health.
Alpha Company plans to make a helicopter assault near Hoi-Vuc, a VC-controlled village. As the convoy enters, Caputo witnesses filth and poverty that seems “medieval.” Most huts are made of thatch, but some are built of flattened beer cans left behind by Americans. Children and teenage boys with distended bellies and ulcerous skin run alongside the convoy and beg for cigarettes. The older people stare at the convoy indifferently. The prostitutes are the only adults who pay attention to the marines, though they are so heavily made-up that “they look like caricatures of what they are.” The VC open fire from a trench across the Song Tuy Loan. Peterson orders Caputo and Lemmon’s platoons to form a perimeter around the paddies on their side of the Tuy Loan. There is only one casualty in this firefight—Lance Corporal Stone, who is grazed in the hand.
The plans for a helicopter assault seem rather absurd in a village that has already been devastated by poverty and depression. The older people’s stare mimics that of the young mother earlier in the memoir. Once again, this apparent indifference reflects a sense of helplessness in the face of forces—first the French, then the Viet Cong, and now the Americans—that are entirely out of the villagers’ control. Lance Corporal Stone’s minor injury seems even more trivial alongside Caputo’s description of the daily crisis under which the villagers live.
Lieutenant Bruce Tester’s men destroy the hamlet near Hoi-Vuc, marked as Giao-Tri on the marine’s maps. Caputo recalls that the men seem to go crazy, rushing through the hamlet and throwing phosphorus grenades. Women are screaming, children are crying, and the livestock goes wild. The marines are “letting out high-pitched yells, like the old rebel yell” and continue to throw grenades and fire their rifles. When Caputo hears a woman wailing, he is unsympathetic. He figures that the villagers get what they deserve for aiding the VC. The marines have taught them a lesson, he thinks.
It does not occur to Caputo that perhaps not all of the villagers have aided the VC or that they perhaps met the approach of the VC with the same “indifference” with which they encounter the U.S. Marines. Though Caputo has finally elicited the reaction out of the Vietnamese that he has wanted, when he sends a female villager wailing, he is now indifferent. He seems less interested in the villagers’ suffering than he is in evoking a reaction through his actions.