Earlier in 1968, when Berlin, Stink, and the other soldiers were busy patrolling the village of Quang Ngai, Stink garnered a reputation for being cruel and intimidating to the villagers. He would yell at the women and children. None of the soldiers could be truly gentle with the villagers, however, because none of them knew the language—they had no way of determining what the people wanted, or what they respected. Worst of all, the soldiers had no way of building trust with the villagers—everyone was a potential enemy.
In this interlude, O’Brien reminds us of the atmosphere of confusion and chaos in Vietnam. Almost all of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam have said the same thing: it was impossible to tell who was a friend and who was a foe. As a result, the soldiers chose to assume that everyone was an enemy—a good assumption when it came to surviving, but also one which led to a great deal of horrific, unnecessary violence.
Berlin privately wonders about the villagers whom he and his fellow soldiers are threatening. Some of them are young and innocent looking—indeed, some of them are only children. He also wonders what the villagers think of him—if, for example, they think of him as a frightened, foolish boy from Iowa. He imagines returning to the village of Quang Ngai, years from now. Perhaps he’ll be able to find some of the people whom he bullied and threatened, and apologize to them.
It’s suggested here that Berlin had wanted to return to Quang Ngai—the same town where he’s sitting in the “observation post” frame chapters. We sense that Berlin, at this stage in his military career, still seeks forgiveness for his actions. It’s not clear if Berlin is still in this mindset in the “observation post” chapters, or if his time in Vietnam has hardened him.
In September, Paul Berlin is summoned before the battalion promotion board. At the board, Berlin learns that he’s up for a promotion: he’ll be assigned to Spec Four, where he’ll be given more responsibility, and more dangerous tasks to complete. A gruff sergeant at the board mocks Berlin’s “German-sounding” name, and asks him some questions. Some are easy (“How many stars on the flag?”; “Who’s the Secretary of Defense?”) Others are more abstract, such as, “Why are we fighting this war?” Berlin isn’t sure how to answer this question. Eventually he says, “To win it.” The sergeant asks Berlin one final question, “What effect would the death of Ho Chi Minh have on the population of North Vietnam?” Berlin smiled, knowing he’s won his promotion, and answers, “Reduce it by one, sir.”
The intentional obtuseness of Berlin’s answer to the question, “Why are we fighting this war?” confirms what Captain Rhallon said about the Vietnam War in an earlier chapter—it’s being waged without any real understanding of right and wrong. Soldiers are simply told to follow orders, irrespective of whether or not they grasp the goals behind them. This is the case in any war, but the effect was particularly pronounced in Vietnam, where even high-ranking military commanders didn’t understand the purpose of the war they were fighting.
The narrator notes that in Quang Ngai, soldiers do not talk about politics. Indeed, they tend to talk about the simplest, most trivial things, and nothing else. In short, the chapter concludes, the soldiers “did not know good from evil.”
A question worth asking is: without the knowledge of good and evil, can one still do evil? O’Brien’s answer is yes, judging by the carnage in the village.