Glen Lemmon picks up the phone to take a call from Lieutenant Colonel Bain about the impending deployment. Meanwhile, Philip Caputo and Murph McCloy are on the terrace of the Officers’ Club, drinking beer and admiring the view of the China Sea. McCloy takes a call from Lemmon and happily announces that they are going to war. Caputo is skeptical after nearly a month of rumors, so he calls Lemmon himself and receives assurance that the news is true. Caputo runs back to his room at BOQ, startling his roommate, Jim Cooney, and begins to pack.
The sense of war as a rumor gives the impression of conflict as a far-off danger. This feeling of war as a distant risk, along with the fact that few of the soldiers have experienced it, makes them incapable of understanding the dangerous reality at hand. They enjoy lives of relative leisure as well as the privilege of living in exotic lands. This will soon contrast sharply with the hostility and discomfort they will experience in Vietnam.
The scene at the battalion area is chaotic. Supplies are being prepared and the air is filled with the sounds of “squawks, bleeps, and static hisses” that come from the radio tests. At 8:00 P.M., Peterson summons his platoon leaders and staff NCOs to the company office for a briefing. He hands out copies of a map and points out to the group where Da Nang is. He says that the Communists have “launched a dry-season offensive in I Corps [a military region] and the Central Highlands and threatened to cut South Vietnam in half.” The ARVN are losing a battalion a week, and U.S. bases are in danger of another attack like the one at Pleiku.
Caputo notes how he and the other Marines have little concept of where Da Nang is, even after viewing it on the map. With this, Caputo evokes the prospect of fighting a war not only in a foreign land but in a land that barely exists in his consciousness. What is familiar to Caputo and his fellow marines, however, is the threat of Communism (the crux of the Cold War), and the possibility of a nation being divided in half (reminiscent of the Civil War).
Captain Peterson emphasizes that the battalion is going to provide security and nothing else. Their purpose is to free the ARVNs to fight because it is “their war.” When the commanders leave the office, they pass word to their platoons of the impending deployment. A convoy forms shortly thereafter. Riflemen board the assembled six-bys. Sergeant Colby waves good-bye as the convoy begins to move out, as though he is not a part of the mission. He has failed to make it back to the base on time, due to having been with a prostitute.
During this early part of the Vietnam War, the United States has convinced itself that it can intervene by assisting the ARVN without becoming embroiled in the conflict, not thinking that the Viet Cong would eventually retaliate against the U.S. Marines for providing assistance to the South Vietnamese. The Americans’ presumed moral superiority conflicts a bit, too, with their conduct abroad, particularly with prostitutes.
Caputo gets into a six-by with Gonzalez’s squad. They ride along for an hour or so, sharing “harsh jokes and laughter.” They then roll into the air force base and head toward their assigned C-130s. Caputo and his “forty-odd men share space with several large crates and a communications jeep.” Some men are so tired that they try to sleep on the crates, while others sleep on the deck of the plane, “using each other as pillows.” They endure yet another wait onboard, and there are more rumors of a cancellation. Then, the crew boards, hands out instructions, and prepares the aircraft for take-off. The ride across the China Sea lasts for five hours. Caputo watches James Bryce sleep. His stillness and half-open mouth are “a prefiguration of the death that would be his six months later.”
Caputo describes the war preparations as convivial and light. Though these men are headed off to war, their behavior is more akin to that of a group on a field trip. The moment is not nearly as dire as the reader would expect. To balance the marines’ light-hearted response with the reality of going to war, Caputo ends the scene by focusing on Bryce, who dies shortly after their deployment. Caputo’s foreshadowing of Bryce’s death underscores the young soldiers’ inability to fully understand the danger that awaits them.
They arrive during a “hot, damp, and cloudy” afternoon. Caputo joins the rest of Charley Company, with Lemmon’s platoon on the right, Bruce Tester’s on the left, and Caputo’s in the center. Some of Lemmon’s men are talking excitedly about how their plane had been shot at. News of Three-Nine’s landing exposes their humiliation. They charged up the beach, as though preparing for Nazis at Normandy, and were met instead by the mayor of Da Nang and a group of schoolgirls who “placed flowered wreaths” around their necks.
Danger still retains a great deal of allure, despite the battalion’s first encounter with it when the Viet Cong shoot at their plane. There remains, too, the desire to portray heroic figures, like their predecessors at Normandy, though the conflict is different and the nature of war in Vietnam will require the soldiers to develop a different idea of heroism.
Charley Company is assigned to the southern sector of the perimeter. The lines of the sector are “anchored on the left on an asphalt road” leading into Da Nang and “on the right with A Company.” The MLR is opposite the dirt road and in front of them. The MLR is manned by the ARVN, which they will relieve in a few days. Peterson has told them that the rice paddies and villages to the south are likely to be the point from which the Viet Cong would attack. So, if the VC hit, C Company would be hit first. To protect themselves, the soldiers dig foxholes and fill up sandbags. Caputo applies everything that he has learned at Quantico, including using machine guns to cover the front.
The lines that are drawn to distinguish between safe and dangerous zones seem rather arbitrary. Furthermore, the seemingly placid environment in which the soldiers are in contrasts with the impending danger that Peterson warns them about. Caputo does not yet feel this danger, which is particularly pronounced for his company, but sets to work performing the rituals of setting up an offensive for combat. He believes that his training has prepared him for this conflict.
Vietnam does not look like a war-torn country to Caputo. The “Communist stronghold” from which they are likely to be attacked looks to him like “a tropical park.” He watches a group of young girls walk by, wearing silk trousers and “filmy” ao dais. At dusk, having neither heard a shot nor fired one, they create places to sleep for the night. The company also has its first meal since the previous day’s breakfast in Okinawa. Everyone is filthy after a day of digging trenches in the mud. They wonder where this war is that they’ve been hearing so much about. Suddenly, they hear something explode in a nearby paddy field. Things calm down when they find out what happened: a dog had wandered into a minefield and got itself blown up.
Now that the men are in Vietnam and preparing for conflict with the Viet Cong, it still seems as though the war is a rumor that only exists through distant intelligence reports or in the imaginations of the anxious soldiers. At this time, Vietnam remains an exotic and romantic tropical realm where danger looms but, in reality, only takes the form of mundane accidents. The incident with the dog, however, foreshadows the numerous deaths and injuries that Caputo and others will later experience as a result of the mines.
At nightfall, twenty-five percent of the troops set their watch alarms for 4:00 A.M. They all keep their helmets and flak jackets on. Around nine or ten that night, snipers begin to fire on them, and the marines realize that much of this war will occur at night. The bullets seem to come out of nowhere and go nowhere; there are few of them, and no one is hit. The landscape, however, takes on a sinister character, and bushes begin to look like men. Still, the battalion cannot return fire, unless ordered to by a staff NCO or an officer. The mosquitos that swarm the area temporarily pose a bigger problem.
The land takes on a sinister quality at night, due to the imagination’s tendency to create danger out of shadows and obscure forms. Worse, the battalion is not allowed to respond to any threat, real or imagined. This creates a fear of being passive victims of the Viet Cong. The soldiers seem to be at war both with the Viet Cong and the environment—when violence is not a threat, there is the persistent irritation caused by mosquitos.
To escape from the torture of the mosquitos, Caputo regularly checks on the platoon lines. He jumps into Guiliumet and Paulson’s foxhole. They are nervous after having nearly been hit. Caputo looks out into the darkness and perceives no danger; still, he knows that a sniper is out there somewhere. He climbs out of the hole and continues his rounds. Later, a quick fire-fight breaks out about a thousand yards past their perimeter. They hear the thumping of grenades and mortars, as well as artillery booming in another battle a short distance away. These sounds confirm that there is, indeed, a war on and the Viet Cong are waiting for them.
The experience of war is only sensory because the soldiers do not see the Viet Cong. Instead, they see bullets as the only indicators of the menace that awaits them in the bush, and they feel and hear the “thumping of grenades and mortars” as signs that they’re on unstable ground. This new instability is also symbolic of the marine’s sense of unease in this new setting.