There is no heavy fighting around Da Nang for the rest of the summer. During the day, hardly anything happens; the war occurs at night. The five-millimeter guns start their regular shelling and the VC begin their sniping and mortaring. The enemy arrives in twos and threes and dies in twos and threes, as do the Marines’ own men. Caputo is twenty-four when the summer begins. He has only aged three months, though he feels three decades older. The men in his company do not die in great numbers, so he can recall them as individuals. Corporal Brian Gauthier is one example. A regimental HQ camp is named for him, due to his bravery in leading his men under an ambush, though he was mortally wounded. However, no such honor is given to a grenadier who died in the same ambush.
The war has resulted in a weariness in Caputo. Instead of feeling like the hearty hero from his fictional fantasies, he feels like an elder who has witnessed the death of his friends. Caputo notices, too, how the military draws distinction between soldiers and awards them according to feats of heroism. Thus, Gauthier is honored for leading men in an ambush while enduring an injury, but a grenadier who died in the same ambush is deemed less worthy because he performed no extraordinary act during the event other than his job.
Caputo remembers Nick Pappas, too, and the rainy night when he went to the hospital to identify three marines from his old platoon, Devlin, Lockhart, and Bryce. All three were blown up in a listening-post bunker ahead of C Company’s lines. Corporal Gunderson says that he found and retrieved the bodies. Wet, muddy ponchos cover everything but their boots. The doctor pulls a poncho off of Devlin’s body, and Caputo identifies him. After watching the doctor examine the three men, Caputo gets back into the jeep, feeling dizzy. Kazmarack starts the engine. Just then, Murph McCloy pulls up in another jeep. He has arrived to ensure that the bodies arrived all right. Caputo asks if an accident caused their deaths; he needs to know for his report. McCloy says that an investigation will be done the next day, but Caputo does not think it will make much difference.
The sight of the men from Caputo’s old platoon reminds him, yet again, of the vulnerability of men at war. They are covered in wet and muddy ponchos as though they were brought in fresh from the field, having very recently been shot dead. This is the first instance in which Caputo registers a personal reaction to the bodies brought in for him to report. His feeling of dizziness occurs, perhaps, as a result of being awakened to the reality of recording actual deaths as opposed to tally marks on his captain’s scoreboard.
That night, in a dream, Caputo is given command of a new platoon. Devlin, Bryce, and Lockhart are in the first of three ranks. Sullivan and Frank Reasoner, another deceased soldier, are there, too. In fact, everyone who stands in formation is dead. Caputo is, indeed, the Officer in Charge of the Dead. He wakes from this nightmare, afraid and soaking in his sweat. A mortar tube fires in the distance. He smokes a cigarette and falls into an uneasy sleep.
Caputo is not going crazy, but he witnesses others slowly losing their minds. Many are suffering from anxiety and depression. He, too, thinks about men like Sullivan and Reasoner and feels emptiness and a sense of futility. He hates going to the scoreboard and writing in new numbers. One Navy corpsman shoots himself in the foot to avoid going out on more patrols. Caputo also recalls the story of Olson and Harris, in which the latter marine kills the former due to what Caputo calls “combat madness”—a mixture of exhaustion, fury, being desensitized to violence, and hopelessness.
The moments of insanity that Caputo witnesses in response to the war are regarded as isolated incidents, though he sees them as consequences of pervasive problems with morale. While Caputo endures a feeling of emptiness due to his morbid work, other soldiers feel that they cannot escape from an endless cycle of being on the lookout for an attack. The lack of asleep and the constant sense of panic easily lead to breaks from reason and humanity.
Operation Blast Out begins and ends in early August. Three thousand marines and ARVN soldiers, supported by a range of high-tech equipment, manage to kill twenty-four VC in three days. Some enemy soldiers and VC suspects are brought to HQ for questioning. They are going to be interrogated and then turned over to the South Vietnamese Army, who will probably kill them. A boy of eighteen knows this and starts to cry when his older comrade is led away for questioning. A marine tells him to keep his mouth shut. A sergeant harshly questions his older comrade and grabs his face when the VC refuses to look at him. The other suspects are blindfolded and marched down the road, single-file. They look ragged, underfed, and all under forty. An old man, the last in line, is having trouble keeping up.
In this instance, Caputo depicts the fear that Viet Cong soldiers feel in response to their enemies—both the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The boy’s expression of sorrow in response to his older comrade’s capture reveals the camaraderie and loyalty that exists among the soldiers on the other side of the conflict. Meanwhile, the American soldiers’ harsh treatment of the boy in response to this fails to evoke sympathy. Caputo reveals here that constructions of a good side versus a bad side are not easily formed in this war.
The line stops, and the VC suspects are told to lie on their stomachs in a field. The guards tie them up or roll them over to search for documents. The documents are then placed in small piles and are examined by ARVN interpreters who ask the suspects questions. If everything is in order, the Vietnamese man is declared a civilian and released; if not, he is taken into a tent and interrogated by the sergeant who dealt with the stubborn older VC. A very old man searches through the piles for his papers and looks worried. Valid identification means the difference between life and death. Finally, he finds his papers and puts them in his shirt pocket. The ARVN soldier will look at him, see that he is a harmless old man, then see his documents and let him return to his village. The old man, for the moment, is spared becoming another casualty of war.
The fact that one’s life hinges on his ability to furnish the right paperwork, validating his identity, points to the arbitrary nature of the war and the arbitrary means through which the Americans and South Vietnamese identify the Viet Cong. False documents could easily be drawn up and an innocent person who loses his identification could wrongfully be identified as a member of the Viet Cong. The old man’s age and ability to provide identification spare him his life, but this sight makes Caputo wonder if there is any valid system for identifying enemies and allies.