It is 1 AM, and Paul Berlin, is keeping watch in the seaside military fort of Quang Ngai. The year is left unspecified. Berlin’s replacement as night watchman is Doc Peret, but Berlin does not wake him. Instead, he walks down from the fort and walks toward the sea. There, Berlin washes his face, hands, and hair, and then climbs back to the fort.
Berlin’s washing could represent a kind of baptism—he’s born anew in the sea, shedding his past lives—but it’s equally likely that O’Brien’s use of baptismal imagery is sarcastic. Berlin can never escape what he has experienced.
Back in the fort, Berlin remembers his father, who once advised him to “look out for the good things, too” when he’s a soldier. Berlin has taken his father’s advice to heart, and he tries to appreciate the moments of calm and peace during the war. He thinks about the soldiers’ attempt to reach Paris, and wonders how “they might have found a way.”
In this fascinating section, we begin to understand more about the architecture of the novel. We’d assumed that the story of “going after Cacciato” is the one O’Brien is presenting to us as the truth (within the world of the novel). Now, however, it’s suggested that the story of the soldiers’ journey could be a product of Berlin’s imagination—he seems to be making up the story as we go along, fantasizing about making it all the way to Paris. This implies that the “observation post” chapters and Berlin’s memories of the war before Cacciato’s desertion are the only “true” events of the novel.