Paul Berlin thinks about his recent past as a soldier. He was first assigned to Chu Lai’s Combat Center on June 3, 1968. There, a barber shaved his head, and a “bored master sergeant” delivered an uninspiring speech. Berlin was then confined to a small area and warned never to leave it for fear of endangering his life.
Even at the beginning of Paul Berlin’s period in the military he’s conscious that the leadership is uninspired, and uninspiring. There’s not even an attempt to excite him—the drill sergeant doesn’t believe in the things he’s saying, and neither does Berlin.
One morning during Berlin’s time at the Combat Center, he was marched to the bleachers, along with the other soldiers in training. A blank-faced corporal walked out and proceeded to stand there, silently, for the next hour. After the hour ended, the corporal explained that he’d just given the soldiers their first lesson on “how to survive this shit.”
One would expect a corporal to give soldiers at least a little information about the goals of their mission in Vietnam—something to inspire them and help them remain optimistic. Instead, the corporal gives Berlin the bare bones—how to survive both the violence and the crushing boredom.
The soldiers in training at Chu Lai participated in mock-drills, in which they were ordered to search and destroy villages. Berlin took these drills very seriously, since he thought he could die if he wasn’t well trained. He also spent long hours practicing “grenade training,” survival methods, etc. Berlin thinks of himself as a sensible, normal person. As a result, he hates being called a fool, an imbecile, a creep, and the other names his drill sergeants shout at him. He writes a letter to his father in which he asks his father to look up where Chu Lai is—because he’s “a little lost.”
Berlin is a cautious soldier, motivated, above all else, by his desire for survival. He thinks that he has the power to take control over his own life—in other words, he doesn’t yet realize that in Vietnam, soldiers simply don’t have much control over their fates. The most random, unpredictable events—exploding bombs, trip wires, etc.—can end a life at any given time. The value Berlin places in his own competency will be revealed to be very important, when he goes so far as to invent an alternate reality in order to avoid thinking about his mistakes.
After a week of training, the soldiers are assigned to their units. Paul Berlin is assigned to the 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198 Infantry Brigade. For every one soldier, he learns, there are 12 “support” people—doctors, computer scientists, dentists, mapmakers, etc.
In real life, Tim O’Brien was assigned to this same battalion. This doesn’t mean that Berlin is a stand-in for O’Brien himself—but it does suggest that O’Brien is writing from his own experiences, and perhaps even writing this fictional novel (as Berlin will reimagine events) as a way of understanding and coping with the chaos of Vietnam.
Berlin remembers being a child and spending time camping with his father. His father, affectionately nicknamed Big Fox or Big Bear, was a strong, capable man, but Berlin had trouble with their various camping activities—rowing, sack racing, etc. Once, Berlin became too sick to continue camping, and his father drove him home and gave him hamburgers and root beer. He and his father were “pals forever,” Berlin thinks.
It’s a common motif of coming-of-age stories that the young, callow protagonist has a bad relationship with his father. This is important because without a strong father, the (presumably male) character doesn’t know what to become. Berlin’s relationship with his father isn’t yet clear to us, although Berlin’s insistence that he and his father were “pals forever” seems suspiciously glib.
Berlin is driven to his new Infantry Brigade. There, an officer mockingly suggests that Berlin spend the war painting fences, then snaps that Berlin will be given much, much more challenging responsibilities. On June 11, 1968, he meets the soldiers of his platoon, which are led by the buck sergeant, Oscar Johnson. Doc Peret is the medic. The platoon leader is Lieutenant Sidney Martin. While he is Lieutenant, Martin alienates his soldiers by ordering them to search tunnels thoroughly before blowing them up. Martin’s commitment to this piece of military protocol led to the deaths of several men. Although Martin is a talented soldier, he dies quickly, to be replaced by Lieutenant Corson. Everyone can sense that Corson is terrified of battle.
In this section, we see a very general account of Berlin’s relationships with Doc, Sidney Martin, and the other soldiers. O’Brien will return to describing these relationships again and again, each time in more specific detail. The structure of the novel isn’t best described as “moving forward”—rather, O’Brien goes into more and more depth about the same incident. This is a clever strategy for a book about Vietnam, because it places our focus on memory and introspection. The novel isn’t just a story about going after Cacciato—it’s about how one soldier, Berlin, makes sense of his experiences.
The chapter ends with Paul Berlin preparing for his first real day of the war—the day he’s sent out into the wilderness with his fellow troops. He boards a helicopter and travels into the “pocked mangled country.”
O’Brien’s description of Vietnam is totally grim and pessimistic. There is nothing noble, heroic, or moral about this war—nothing to give a sense of purpose to young soldiers like Berlin.