Just as Kazmarack predicted, Caputo’s first night at headquarters is noisy. Across the road, “big guns” fire at road junctions, hilltops, and anywhere else the enemy is likely to be. Caputo spends the next day getting used to his administrative role as assistant adjutant. He looks at the “a truckload of paperwork” that has to be “inventoried and audited,” in addition to messages, directives, and regimental orders that must be filed. Later, Schwartz briefs him on additional duties that no one else wants to perform. The additional work looks like a lot but will not require more than three or four additional hours of Caputo’s time. Caputo learns that a clerk cannot do this work because regulations call for an officer to do it, and Anderson will not perform these tasks because he is a captain and does not have to do things he would rather not do.
Caputo learns that his position as an adjutant is superfluous and was only created due to the military’s fastidious attention to regulations, which often seem arbitrary and due to the laziness of superior officers. His work seems trivial compared to the tasks that he performed on the battlefield, in which he was engaged in saving others’ lives and preserving his own. He also felt like the warrior he was always eager to become, while his role as clerk relegates him to the kind of office position he sought to avoid by joining the Marines. As much as he feared the danger of the battlefield, he now misses it.
The additional duty of casualty reporting keeps Caputo especially busy. The job gives him a lot of bad dreams and stamps out any lingering romantic ideas he has about war. He reports both enemy casualties as well as those among the marines. It is a complicated task due to the military’s elaborate procedures for everything. The KIA reports are particularly long and complicated, as these forms require additional information pertaining to burial and insurance policies. Caputo also has to use jargon to describe accidents. Some incidents, such as reporting injuries as a result of high explosives, cause semantic difficulties. When Lieutenant Colonel Meyers is blown apart by a booby-trapped 155-mm shell, Caputo describes it as a “traumatic amputation” of all limbs, including multiple lacerations to the abdomen with fragment wounds “through-and-through.” He concludes with “killed in action.”
Though casualty reporting initially seems like a trivial task, it is beneficial to Caputo—the job helps him understand that there is nothing particularly romantic about dying on a battlefield. In many instances, men die of accidents or lose limbs in fluke occurrences. The clinical language that the Marine Corps uses to describe deaths and injuries depersonalizes the casualties. Caputo does not yet realize it, but he is getting some training here that will prepare him for his later career as a reporter, in which he will cover others’ deaths as a result of war and conflict. His work as an adjutant instructs him in the business of being clear-eyed about death and talking about it without any personal attachment.
Sometimes Caputo has to verify body counts due to the field commanders’ tendency to exaggerate the number of VC their units have killed. When possible, the bodies are brought to headquarters, and Caputo counts them. The decomposing bodies are laid out on canvas stretchers and covered with ponchos or rubber body-bags, with yellow casualty tags tied to their boots or to their shirts, in instances in which their legs are blown away. The simplest way to identify a man who still has a face is to match him against a photograph in his service record book. Otherwise, they use dental records. Caputo finds that all races of dead men look the same, like “wax dummies of themselves.” Their eyes are all “a washed-out gray” and “their mouths [are] opened wide, as if death had caught them in the middle of a scream.” Their revolting smell is also the same.
Caputo learns that death is a great equalizer. A man’s race, rank, and economic background do not matter at all when he becomes a corpse. Caputo takes on a very objective view of death, due to the necessity of reporting on casualties with accuracy. He is less squeamish about the sight of mutilated bodies than he was on the battlefield. Due to the fact that he did not know many of the men who arrive at headquarters or have any contact with them, they seem less real to him that the men whose mutilations and deaths he witnessed in the jungle.
Caputo’s first day on the job as a casualty reporting officer is June 21, 1965. Early that same morning, a patrol from 2nd Battalion fights a small skirmish with the VC near Iron Bridge Ridge. Caputo’s field phone buzzes with a notification from the battalion’s adjutant reporting on four friendly casualties, one dead and three wounded. Due to all of the static on the line, the adjutant spells out the names phonetically. When the reports are called into division and filed, he goes over to operations to find out how many enemy casualties there are. Webb Harrison tells him there are four, all KIA. Caputo walks into the colonel’s tent and makes the appropriate changes on the scoreboard where Anderson keeps a tally. Lieutenant Colonel Brooks examines the figures and says that Colonel Wheeler is giving a briefing for General Thompson this afternoon and will want the latest casualty statistics.
The deaths of other marines are now reduced to tallies on a scoreboard in the captain’s office. Caputo separates the marines’ deaths from those of the Viet Cong on the scoreboard. The presence of the scoreboard reduces the business of war to a game. Furthermore, the colonel’s wish to show the casualty statistics to the general indicates that higher-ranking officers use others’ deaths as the means through which they can impress their superiors and ensure their own promotions. This reveals a kind of ruthless indifference within the institution, in which war is a career-advancing opportunity.
Sometime later, a jeep drives into HQ carrying two dead VC and two civilian women who were injured in the fire-fight. The corpses are on a trailer hitched to the jeep. When the driver parks the jeep and unhitches the trailer, it tips forward, and a half-severed arm, “with a piece of bone protruding whitely through the flesh,” hangs over the side of the trailer. Caputo counts the bodies, ensuring there are four. They are so entangled that they seem indistinguishable from each other, except for the fourth, which is missing most of its limbs. Another, hit in the midsection, has the “slick, blue and greenish brown mass of his intestines bulging out of him.” Blood has pooled at the low end of the trailer.
Caputo’s recollection of the four Viet Cong corpses reveals a detachment and objectivity that is very different from the horror with which he viewed the body of a Vietnamese man whose brains were spilling out. Caputo exhibits a strong ability to adapt to new circumstances, to evolve in response to change, and to perform the tasks that others require of him. His sense of identity as a soldier is characterized more by jadedness and duty, it seems, than by fantasies of heroism on the battlefield.
Caputo turns away and tells the driver to remove the bodies. The driver says that he was told to leave them where they are and get back to the motor pool. Caputo tells Kazmarack to take the bodies to the cemetery for the enemy dead, but Anderson insists that they stay. He says that the colonel wants the clerks to look at them and get used to the sight of blood. Caputo despises the idea and insists on burying them, but Anderson reminds him of the colonel’s orders. So, the bodies are left lying in the sun. Then, the HQ troops are marched past the trailer to look at the dead VC. The bodies reek, releasing an odor like “cooking gas” or the hydrogen sulfide from a chemistry class. The procession ends, then Kazmarack and Corporal Stasek hitch up the trailer and drive toward the enemy cemetery, which Kazmarack describes as a “dump” for bodies.
Caputo is less repulsed by the presence of the rotting bodies than he is by the colonel’s wish to display them to the clerks. It is unclear what the colonel expects from the clerks getting “used to the sight of blood.” Perhaps he is worried that their distance from the battlefield has softened them, and he seeks to remind them that they are still at war. This is the first instance in the book in which Caputo finds an order from a superior morally objectionable and raises his voice to say so. He is cowered by the institution’s hierarchy, however, in which another man’s authority always trumps another person’s attempt to do the right thing.
Ten minutes later, Captain Anderson comes into the tent and says that they need the bodies back. The colonel wants to show the bodies to the general when he briefs him. Though the captain knows that the bodies are gone, he wants someone who can drive a jeep to catch up with the jeep that is taking the corpses to the cemetery. Caputo cannot believe these orders, but he follows them. When he returns to his tent, he makes up a new title for himself, writes it on a piece of cardboard, and tacks it to his desk: “2LT P.J. Caputo. Officer in Charge of the Dead.”
Now, the colonel wishes to display the bodies as trophies to the visiting general. Caputo knows better than to resist the order this time. The shuffling of the bodies back and forth and in and out of graves is both morbid and absurd. It also further disabuses Caputo of his previous sense of the body as a sacred entity that people are inclined to respect, even in death.
General Thompson arrives by helicopter with Colonel Wheeler on one side of him and Lieutenant Colonel Brooks on the other side. A couple of nervous-looking aides trail the three men. Their briefing starts and Stasek and Kazmarack return about fifteen minutes later. They both look exhausted. Stasek says that they had the bodies buried, then exhumed them. He says that the guts of one VC spilled out of him during the process, while another’s leg began to come off while Stasek pulled at him. Caputo apologizes for what they went through, but he says that they will have to bring the bodies in when the briefing is over.
The neat orderliness of the officers contrasts with the dirty work that Stasek and Kazmarack have been forced to perform. This scene reveals the line between the high-ranking officers who reap the credit for enemy casualties and the lower-ranking officers and enlisted men who do the grim work of killing and counting bodies. Caputo is a middle man between the higher-ranking officers and the enlisted men. He performs no action and reaps no rewards.
When the briefing ends, General Thompson, Colonel Wheeler, and the other officers emerge from the tent. Caputo salutes them. They walk past him toward the corpses. The general glances at them, then he continues on to the LZ, where his helicopter awaits. Caputo spends the rest of the afternoon doing menial paperwork.
Caputo’s salute is a sign of his obedience to protocol, as well as an indication of his desire for these men’s approval. To them, however, he barely exists. Ironically, they are more interested in the enemy corpses that Caputo furnishes with his endless reports.
Caputo goes to the mess hall for dinner, where he sees Chaplain Ryerson and Milsovic. The chaplain talks to Caputo about the recent loss of another marine and asks Caputo if he thinks the boys are dying for a good reason or because “some officer wants a promotion.” He also talks about the show that the colonel put on for the general earlier that day. The chaplain persists in asking Caputo what the Americans’ purpose is in Vietnam, and Caputo throws up his hands in frustration at the question but still insists that Vietnam is not “that bad a war.” The chaplain reminds Caputo that he and the doctor think in terms of human suffering, not statistics. He mentions the twelve KIA from April in the context of “twelve wrecked homes.” Caputo loses his temper but apologizes when Milsovic intervenes. He finishes eating then goes back to his desk.
The chaplain and Milsovic confront Caputo with the moral problem presented by U.S. intervention in Vietnam, but Caputo clearly does not want to confront it. It would, after all, make his former comrades’ deaths seem as though they occurred for no good reason. When the chaplain tries to contextualize the deaths in terms of the personal impact they will have on families and communities (which is quite distinct from Caputo’s current conception of death within the scoreboard), Caputo loses his temper. It seems that he feels a lack of control over the situation but does not want to consider his role in facilitating it.
Caputo now finds it difficult to work, and the tent is stifling with heat. He knows that much of what Chaplain Ryerson said makes sense. He thinks that the general’s observation of the dead VC was disrespectful. He also thinks that many of the Marine Corps’ tactical operations seem futile and purposeless. He reflects on the chaplain’s mention of “twelve wrecked homes” and contrasts them with the simple tally marks on the colonel’s scoreboard, where that number sits in a different column from the enemy dead. Caputo thinks about Sullivan’s widow in Pennsylvania. He works for a few more hours, has a beer, then goes to bed early. He has late-duty watch that night and knows that he will not get much sleep after midnight, with the howitzers booming all night.
Despite his initial anger, Caputo knows that he would not have reacted so strongly if he was not trying to resist the righteousness of the chaplain’s comments. He is beginning to see that the Marines’ work and sacrifices are not affecting any change in Vietnam. He thinks of how Sullivan’s death will permanently impact the lives of his wife and children, while the high-ranking officers merely regard him as another tally mark. Caputo’s lack of sleep is also negatively impacting him, making him less able to focus and contemplate his situation.