The chapter opens with Doc announcing that “he” has “split.” As Berlin and Doc talk, it becomes clear that Doc is talking about Lieutenant Corson. He and Sarkin have left Paris, taking with them everything in the apartment were Berlin and Sarkin were planning to live. Berlin is speechless—he can’t believe that Sarkin would leave him without so much as a goodbye. Doc produces a note, which Corson and Sarkin left in the apartment. The note says, “Heading east. A long walk but we’ll make it. Affection.” Berlin realizes that Corson and Sarkin are planning to return to Vietnam. Doc scoffs—they’ll never make it, he insists.
The chapter begins with a stunning betrayal—Sarkin and Corson have left together. While O’Brien foreshadowed this potential romance at several points, it’s crushing to read that Sarkin has abandoned Berlin, especially with our knowledge that Berlin is probably making this up. Even in his imagined storyline, he ends up being abandoned and betrayed. It seems that Sarkin was always essentially self-interested, and using the soldiers—the enemies of her country—to her own advantage.
With Lieutenant Corson gone, Oscar Johnson becomes the soldiers’ official commanding officer. He orders everyone to stake out Cacciato’s hotel and wait for him to leave the building. The soldiers take their guns and prepare for Cacciato. Berlin leads them to the hotel where he found Cacciato. They wait for hours, until it’s well past midnight.
It’s official now, but Johnson has effectively been the troops’ commanding officer for some time now—Corson hasn’t done any actual leading since the first chapter of the book.
Oscar tells Berlin and the other soldiers to act as lookouts. He walks away. Some twenty minutes later, Berlin feels a gun jammed into his back—it’s Oscar, who’s ambushed his own troops to show them what poor soldiers they are. Oscar angrily tells Berlin, Doc, and Eddie that they’ll need to obey him at all costs. He also tells Berlin to “go home”—he doesn’t think Berlin will be able to handle the “messy stuff” with Cacciato. Berlin insists that he must stay, and Oscar reluctantly agrees, muttering that Berlin has grown “new balls.”
In this scene, Berlin seems to come of age, albeit in a sudden, unpredictable way. Oscar pressures and bullies Berlin until Berlin steps up to the challenge of arresting—and perhaps murdering—Cacciato himself. It remains to be seen how “stable” this new persona will be, or if Berlin is only pretending to be tough and mature to fit in with the soldiers he’s now stuck with.
Oscar directs his soldiers to proceed inside the hotel. Berlin leads the soldiers up the stairs to the door where he saw Cacciato. Oscar gives Berlin his “big rifle,” and tells him to open the door.
The big rifle has been a symbol of masculinity and experience, and the fact that Berlin tries to carry the big rifle suggests that he’s maturing, truly becoming one of the troops for the first time—even if the “maturity” of war means experience at killing people.
Berlin pushes open the door (unlocked) with his new rifle. Inside, there is only darkness. Berlin feels himself getting weak and sick. He drops to the floor, and hears someone say, “Jesus.” He also hears the sound of someone running. He smells burning plaster. Berlin hears the sound of “a dozen rounds” going off, though it’s not clear who fired them.
In this surreal, hard-to-follow section, Berlin becomes distanced from his fellow troops, his weapon, and even himself. It’s suggested that Berlin fires at Cacciato, though there’s no description of Cacciato’s dead body, or even of Berlin firing. As with other sections of the book, the most gruesome scenes are left to the imagination. Thus, we must also decide if Cacciato is dead, and if Berlin bears the blame for his murder.
The narrative flashes back many months, to the night that Berlin and the other soldiers were supposed to arrest Cacciato on the hill in Vietnam. Stink and Harold Murphy are still present, and Doc tells Berlin to relax—Berlin is suffering from “the biles” once again. Berlin, remembering what has happened to Cacciato, confesses that he regrets what he’s done. Doc replies, “It’s over,” and hands Berlin a canteen of Kool-Aid. Berlin remembers that he was holding the big rifle earlier in the night. He apologizes and says, “I didn’t mean to.” Doc smiles, but Oscar mutters, “Dumbo.” Stink says, “We had him.”
The timeframe changes suddenly, and we see that we’re back in Chapter 1, with Stink and Murphy still around. Reading between the lines, we can guess that Berlin tries to arrest Cacciato for deserting, and ends up accidentally shooting him with his gun (again the big rifle). This suggests that Berlin was trying to be a tough, “masculine” man even at the beginning of the book—and, tragically, the result was that he shot a deserter (and former friend) who should have been arrested. Surprisingly, the soldiers are mostly supportive of Berlin, perhaps because he eliminated Cacciato—the man who could have testified that they murdered Sidney Martin. It is especially poignant that even Berlin’s imagined storyline ends with him accidentally killing Cacciato with the big rifle—despite all the distance of fantasy and imagination, he cannot escape the act he has been guiltily circling for so long.
The next day, the soldiers proceed through Vietnam. Lieutenant Corson sends a radio message in which he reports that Cacciato is missing in action. The soldiers talk about the possibility that they’ll be stationed at an observation post by the sea—“easy duty.”
Here we’re more explicitly presented with an alternate version of the novel we’ve just read, albeit a very brief one. Instead of trying to chasing Cacciato across the continent for desertion, the soldiers corner him in Vietnam, and Berchaseidentally shoots him. Afterwards, Corson lies and says that Cacciato is M.I.A.—not a crime in and of itself. We then begin to see the “full story”—after Corson’s report, Berlin, wracked with guilt, goes to the observation post and spends the next few weeks thinking about what might have happened if he hadn’t shot Cacciato. His thoughts late at night are a kind of penitence, a way of bringing Cacciato back to life and softening the horror of his own act of murder. O’Brien doesn’t explicitly say that Berlin shot Cacciato, but it’s strongly and repeatedly implied, making the event much more disturbing.
Later in the night, Berlin wakes up to find Lieutenant Corson sitting next to him. Corson tells Berlin, “I guess it’s better this way.” Together, they discuss Cacciato’s desertion, and the possibility that Cacciato would have succeeded in walking to Paris. The odds of such a thing are “miserable.” Nevertheless, it’s possible that Cacciato could make it—“Maybe so,” Lieutenant Corson says.
As the novel reaches an end, we see the importance of the story of Cacciato’s desertion. It’s a story that Berlin tells himself, again and again, until he believes it to be true. Berlin needs to believe this story, because he can’t face the truth: Berlin shot and killed Cacciato, and it really would be impossible to walk to Paris from Vietnam—that is, to physically escape one’s trauma and find peace. Stories, we finally see, are a way of reviving the dead, absolving the guilty, and processing horrific experiences.