Monsoons begin in mid-September. Regimental headquarters move forward in the same month, to a patch of muddy flats near the Dai-La Pass. There are more guns now, more barbed wire, and three to four times as many casualties. There are two hills in front of the new position. The VC are expected to launch a monsoon offensive, which they do every year. The new MLR is supposed to stop them from overrunning the airfield. The marines start to construct a big command bunker in response to reports that the VC are getting heavy mortars and long-range rockets. Colonel Nickerson orders the junior officers to dig alongside the enlisted men to get the job done faster, but the rain makes the digging more difficult. Then, Colonel Nickerson demands that they stop what they are doing to get to work on his horseshoe pit, much to Lieutenant Nargi’s irritation.
There is repetition in the activity of both the Viet Cong and the American Marines. The Viet Cong mount a monsoon offensive every year and, once again, the Americans are going to try to protect the airfield from an attack. The Viet Cong are acquiring more sophisticated weaponry and are causing more casualties, suggesting progress in their objective to overtake South Vietnam and reunify their country under Communism. Despite these advances, Colonel Nickerson is less concerned with the marines protecting themselves than he is with them attending to his horseshoe pit.
One evening, Colonel Nickerson walks into the mess hall and finds several officers drinking beer. He says that he ordered that there would be no drinking in the mess after 7:30 P.M.. The captain reminds Nickerson that there would be no hard liquor after 7:30 P.M., but that they could drink beer until 9:30 P.M.. The colonel denies saying that and demands that they get back to work. He now says that there will be “no nothing served in this mess after 6:30 P.M.” Aside from this, he does allow a football pool, for it is one of his passions.
Nickerson is temperamental and abusive of his power. Not only does he stop the marines from building a bunker, which they require for their protection, but he also forbids them from having any diversion other than the football pool, his own passion. He sets arbitrary rules and the lower-ranking marines have no choice but to follow them.
Caputo’s old battalion, One-Three, is sent to Camp Pendleton for reorganization. Many of its original members are discharged or transferred to other units. They have lost some of their friends and most of their old convictions about the reasons for going to war. The 1st Battalion, 1st Marines take over for One-Three. They have just arrived in San Diego, looking healthy and “ruddy-faced.” The eleven hundred men in the One-One are confident that they can defeat the VC. They stay from September to March, when the monsoon campaign ends. They are then moved up to Hue and from Hue to the Demilitarized Zone, where they fight harder battles against the Vietnamese. After six months, they suffer 475 killed and wounded. Half are patched up and sent to fight again, only to be wounded again. A little less than two hundred are permanent losses, either dead or hospitalized for long periods.
The war’s rotation has the same results for each battalion: they arrive healthy and in perfect physical condition to fight, suffer extreme losses, and then end up demoralized. Part of the problem may be their confidence in believing that they can defeat the Viet Cong. This confidence comes from believing that the United States has the world’s most powerful and effective military. Though this is true, the young marines do not realize that the Vietnamese have been fighting for centuries against colonizers and interlopers and have found methods to outwit even the most sophisticated and persistent of their enemies.
The attrition rate works out to eight men per week, almost equal to that suffered by British battalions on the Western Front in 1915 and early 1916. Caputo writes seventy-five or eighty reports per week and, these names mean no more to him than the names in a phone book. This changes on September 18 when the 2nd platoon in C Company suffers two killed and three wounded. The first KIA is a corpsman who suffered a GSW through the head. The second is First Lieutenant Walter Neville Levy. Lieutenant Jones says that a patrol from the 9th Marines fell into an ambush and called for reinforcements. Levy’s platoon was ambushed before they could help. Levy was hit by mine shrapnel. The corpsman was sniped while treating another marine with a bullet wound. As he tried to pull the corpsman out of the line of fire, Levy was sniped.
Caputo compares the massive losses suffered by the Americans to those suffered by the British during another war between imperial powers, another war fought to determine future borders. Caputo is as alienated from the fact of death as many World War I veterans were in the aftermath of that conflict. However, when he hears about Levy’s death, he is jolted out of his indifference. Unlike the deaths of Devlin, Bryce, and Lockhart, Caputo regarded Levy as more of an equal, both because they shared the same rank and because they were men of similar backgrounds and interests. Levy’s death re-alerts Caputo to his own vulnerability to death.
Caputo thinks of how he has been in Vietnam for seven months and has “not been scratched.” Levy lasted only two weeks. He remembers Levy’s qualities and recalls what they shared in common and how they differed. Caputo knows though, that he could not have done what Levy did—pulling himself up on wounded legs to save a corpsman. Caputo remembers the small things about Levy that made the other marines love him—his gestures, words, and quite simply, the good man he was and what he stood for.
The fact that Caputo has gone through the war unharmed gives him a sense of how lucky he is, though he does not know why he has benefited from such luck. He thinks of how much more heroic Levy was and recognizes his own inability to perform a similar act, despite his wish for a hero’s glory. Caputo’s focus on Levy’s memory restores Caputo’s belief in humanity.
Colonel Nickerson says that he has trouble sleeping due to a company from One-One suffering too many casualties during a week-long operation. Out of 170 men, they lose about forty to booby traps and ambush-detonated mines. He tells Caputo that he cannot sleep half the time, “thinking about those kids.” It is not a confession that colonels usually make to lieutenants, so Caputo does not know what to tell him. Two days later, the colonel is talking tough about the marines and trivializing the platoon’s fifteen recent casualties. Colonel Nickerson recalls how, when he landed at Guadalcanal, ninety percent of his platoon was wiped out in an hour. With only five or six men left, they kept fighting. When he pauses for breath in his story, Caputo says that he has to get back to work and Nickerson brusquely dismisses him.
Nickerson’s unstable reactions to war, as well as his unstable treatment of the marines, reveals an inability to reconcile his duty with the constant loss of the marines. The comment that he makes two days later seems like a negation of his earlier confession to Caputo. However, it is possibly a statement that Nickerson makes to avoid confronting the seriousness of this war, which has escalated beyond the U.S. military’s expectations and is taking more American lives every day.