At the beginning of Berlin’s military service, shortly after the deaths of Frenchie Tucker and Bernie Lynn, Oscar Johnson is arguing with Sidney Martin. Martin wants to follow standard operating procedure by sending one soldier to explore the tunnels before blowing them up. Johnson points out that this is suicidal—it guarantees that one soldier in the squad will die. Martin responds by ordering Johnson to explore the next tunnel—an order that Johnson promptly refuses. Martin nods and writes Johnson’s name in his book. Martin asks each soldier to go down into the tunnel, and each one refuses. Cacciato, meanwhile, is fishing for food in the nearby river, and isn’t present. Martin goes to clear the tunnel himself. He climbs down, and before long, there is a hard “thump.”
The novel keeps returning to the same point, that Sidney Martin was essentially executing his own troops by forcing them to evacuate tunnels before blowing them up. It remains to be seen what the real importance of this scene is, but we can sense that it plays an important part in Berlin’s career as a soldier. Cacciato again remains strangely innocent—he’s fishing by himself, showing his lack of close ties to the community of soldiers in which Berlin is already involved
As the soldiers wait for Martin to emerge—or not emerge—from the tunnel, they discuss what has just happened. Martin has written everyone’s name down (except for Cacciato), marking them as traitors. Oscar produces a grenade from his belt and tells the soldiers that “it’s all about preservation.” Jim Pederson points out that the soldiers could wait for Martin to emerge from the tunnel, and attempt to reason with him. Oscar disagrees—Martin is too rigid in his thinking for any kind of compromise.
Oscar’s argument is that the soldiers have to look out for their own survival needs. This is a deceptively simple point. While it’s true that survival is key, Oscar doesn’t talk about the mental challenges involved with murdering another human being—the soldiers will have to live with their choice to murder Martin for the rest of their lives.
While Lieutenant Sidney Martin is in the tunnel, Oscar raises his grenade. He tells everyone present to touch the grenade as a sign of support. He passes it around the group, and each soldier touches it. Berlin is the last to touch the grenade—he’s been trying to forget where he is by thinking about his childhood in Wisconsin. When every soldier has touched the grenade, Oscar asks where Cacciato is. Vaught reports that he’s still fishing. Oscar wants Berlin to summon Cacciato as soon as possible, but some of the soldiers object that there isn’t enough time. In the midst of the soldiers’ argument, Martin emerges from the hole—it’s clear. Oscar nods, and respectfully asks Martin for permission to blow up the tunnel. He tosses the grenade into the tunnel, and there’s a loud explosion.
O’Brien plots this chapter cleverly, building suspense to the point where we expect Johnson to kill Sidney Martin with the grenade. The chapter is almost a self-contained short story, and indeed, before writing novels, O’Brien specialized in this literary form. As we learn more about the incident, we also learn more about Oscar—it’s a little chilling how easily he alternates between plotting the murder of Sidney Martin and obsequiously asking Martin for permission to detonate the grenade inside the tunnel.