The chapter begins in July of 1968, with the soldiers moving through the villages along a great river, the Song Tra Bong. Frenchie Tucker is still alive, and Paul Berlin keeps busy writing letters to his parents. He writes that life is good and easy—the river is beautiful, and he has no complaints.
Once again, Berlin claims that life is easy—his relationship with his parents is good. We have learned to be skeptical about these claims, however, as Berlin clearly has problems with his father in particular.
One day in July, the soldiers arrive at a small village, Thap Ro. There, Eddie Lazzutti takes a woman’s basket and converts it into a basketball hoop. Life is dull, and the soldiers have nothing to do all day except play ball.
O’Brien uses his real wartime experience in writing, and recognizes that war doesn’t only consist of battles—the vast majority of a soldier’s time consists of waiting for something to happen.
The soldiers play pickup basketball with each other. Paul Berlin enjoys the games, but feels a deep sense of unease. The village seems calm, but the soldiers continue searching for tunnels and bunkers. They find a few tunnels, though they’re always empty. The soldiers sense that “the enemy” is very close by, waiting for them to let their guard down. Doc Peret compares the squad to a group of blindfolded children trying to pin the tail on the donkey.
The sense of paranoia that O’Brien conveys here isn’t just artistic license—Vietnam veterans have often said they felt as if they were always being watched, either by the Vietnamese villagers or by the Vietcong themselves. Doc’s analogy—like the novel’s fantastical elements—is disturbing because of the way it juxtaposes childishness and menace.
July turns into August, and the soldiers begin fighting with one another. Stink and Bernie Lynn have an argument about basketball, and after a few moments of shouting they begin wrestling and clawing at each other. Yet even this fight concludes, and the lull persists—there’s no sign of danger anywhere in the village. Lieutenant Sidney Martin tells his troops that they’ll have to begin searching more tunnels and bunkers. Cacciato enjoys playing basketball, and seems strangely unconcerned by the uncertainty of the soldiers’ situation. Oscar Johnson mutters that Cacciato is “Trouble with a capital T.”
Part of the horror of the Vietnam War is that the American soldiers—the people who are supposedly united in their opposition to the Vietcong and to Communism—can’t help but fight amongst themselves, and have no real sense of purpose in their mission. The Vietcong, by contrast, seem well organized and committed to the cause of fighting for their political ideology.
The days drag on, uneventfully. The lull becomes so oppressive that the soldiers privately wish for combat of some kind. They leave the village and proceed through the jungles. One day, Rudy Chassler stumbles onto a land mine, and the explosion kills him instantly. Secretly, the soldiers are relieved.
One bizarre side effect of the idleness of the soldier’s life is that one starts to secretly hunger for action. This is very difficult to put into words, and thus, none of the soldiers admit that they’re relieved when the mine kills Rudy Chassler.