Following the events of Chapter 11, Berlin and his fellow soldiers have fallen through the ground into a bizarre hole. Berlin reflexively reaches for his weapon. He can see the buffalo, Sarkin, and her aunts. Suddenly, Sarkin’s aunts are “gone,” never to return. Berlin senses that he is still falling, and he can see his fellow soldiers, falling as if there’s no end in sight.
Sarkin’s aunts never reappear in the novel after this section. O’Brien doesn’t give them an elaborate death scene—much like Pederson, they’re simply eliminated from the pages of the book. This also suggests that the aunts were no longer important to Berlin’s imagined story—he wanted to be alone with Sarkin.
Suddenly, Berlin hears a noise and turns—he finds himself crouching on the ground, looking at Oscar Johnson, who is carrying a lighted match. Berlin finds that he can’t stop giggling—he’s nearly hysterical with fear. Doc Peret whispers for him to be quiet, but Berlin finds it difficult to stop laughing.
Just as the soldiers try to laugh and joke about the deaths of their friends, Berlin can’t help but giggle in the midst of a horrifying situation. This is a kind of release of tension, and a way of processing horror and trauma.
The soldiers look around, Berlin still giggling. They are standing in a large network of tunnels, lighted with torches. Suspecting that there will be booby traps on the way, the soldiers try to find their way through the tunnels and back to the surface. The soldiers walk through the tunnels, eventually finding a large, well-lit room where a man in a green uniform is sitting.
The soldier’s journey underground seems to correspond to the “middle stage” of the hero’s journey. (See Symbols for more information.) Yet unlike the events in a heroic epic, it’s not clear what the soldiers will experience underground—who’ll they’ll encounter, and what wisdom they’ll receive.
Lieutenant Corson points a gun at the man in the green uniform and demands to know who he is. The man explains that his name is Li Van Hgoc, a major in the Vietcong Battalion. He offers the men brandy, fruit, fish, and rice, and offers to “talk of the war.” As “Van” speaks, Paul imagines himself standing back in his observation tower, keeping watch. This is the first time he’s seen a living enemy—everyone else on the opposing side of the war died almost as soon as Berlin saw them. Berlin’s mind then jumps to Bernie Lynn, who won the Silver Star for exploring a tunnel and dying. As Berlin thinks about Lynn, he senses that his fear is disappearing rapidly.
In a bizarre turn of events, the Vietcong soldier who lives in the tunnels treats his enemies, the American troops, with politeness and courtesy. More oddly, the Americans don’t acknowledge his behavior as strange in the slightest. This reinforces the sense of magical realism in the novel—the most extraordinary events are taken for granted by all the characters. For us as readers, however, the fantastical elements are meant to emphasize the tone of surreality and confusion.
The soldiers interrogate Li Van Hgoc about the Vietcong. They want to know how the Vietcong hide themselves, what motivates them, etc. Van points out that the soldiers are fighting to defend their land—the land, then, is the U.S. army’s real enemy. As Van speaks, Sarkin helps to translate his words. After the soldiers finish asking Van questions, he shows them the vast network of tunnels the Vietcong have dug. The tunnels are full of weapons, ammunition, and supplies. Van takes the soldiers to a periscope with a view of the surface. He motions for Berlin to look through the periscope. Berlin does so, but can’t understand what he’s looking at. A group of men seem to be gathered around the mouth of a tunnel.
Van’s observations about the land itself being the soldiers’ true enemy confirms what O’Brien established earlier—the land, which can swallow up an entire squad of soldiers, is more powerful than guns and invading armies. Once again, O’Brien ends the chapter on a note of ambiguity—we don’t know exactly what Berlin is looking at, or why it’s so important. Even with Berlin as the protagonist of the novel, our access to his perspective and inner thoughts is conspicuously limited.