In “Guests of the Nation,” an Irish soldier named Bonaparte recalls his time guarding two British prisoners of war.
Bonaparte remembers how, in the early evening, Belcher (one of the British prisoners) would warm his legs by the fireplace. Afterward, he would suggest a game of cards and ‘Awkins (the other British prisoner), as well as Bonaparte and Noble (another Irish soldier), would agree. Jeremiah Donovan, the Irish superior officer, would often come by to observe and chide ‘Awkins on his poor play.
Bonaparte notes that the two prisoners were handed over to their care by the Second Battalion because British authorities were searching for them. He thinks that it’s pointless to even guard the prisoners, as they seem to have taken so well to the country that they’re perfectly happy to stay put wherever they’re placed.
Bonaparte, Noble, Belcher, and ‘Awkins are all staying in the home of someone referred to only as the old woman. The old women is normally surly, but Belcher gets along well with her, as he’s unfailingly polite and assists her with all her household chores. ‘Awkins, by contrast, argues endlessly with Noble and prods the old woman on the subject of religion, but she shuts him down by expressing certainty in strange beliefs about gods who control the rain and thefts from Japanese temples.
One evening, the five soldiers are playing cards while ‘Awkins is railing against religion, which he believes is a tool of the capitalist class to control the masses. When Noble disagrees, ‘Awkins becomes even more fiery in his condemnation, which rises to the level of a sermon.
Bonaparte leaves to walk into town with Jeremiah to avoid the argument. On their walk, they discuss the prisoners, and Bonaparte wonders why they keep them at all. Jeremiah explains that Belcher and ‘Awkins are actually hostages, and the Irish plan to shoot them unless the English release their Irish prisoners. Bonaparte expresses dismay that he wasn’t informed of this sooner.
When Bonaparte returns to the house, the argument about religion is still raging between Noble and ‘Awkins. After the Englishmen are locked up for the night, Bonaparte tells Noble what Jeremiah told him, and they resolve that it would be kinder not to tell the British prisoners that they might be killed. Bonaparte spends a restless night worrying about whether he could defy his own countrymen to save Belcher and ‘Awkins. The next morning, Bonaparte and Noble find it difficult to interact with the British prisoners because they know they may have to die.
That day, Belcher suggests a card game in his usual way, but Bonaparte has an ominous feeling. Jeremiah appears at the door asking for the two prisoners, and Bonaparte immediately understands that they are to be executed. Four Irish soldiers were killed by the British, so Belcher and ‘Awkins will be killed in retaliation. Feeny, an Irish intelligence officer, accompanies to assist with the execution.
Jeremiah tells Belcher and ‘Awkins that they’re being returned to the Second Battalion. ‘Akwins complains loudly and the old woman also protests, wanting the two to stay. Belcher cooperates and thanks the old woman profusely before they leave.
Noble and Feeney leave for the bog to dig graves for the British prisoners. Meanwhile, Jeremiah, Bonaparte, Belcher, and ‘Awkins march to the edge of the bog. On the way, Jeremiah informs them that they’ll be killed because the British killed their Irish prisoners. ‘Awkins doesn’t believe him at first, thinking it’s some cruel joke. He continues to complain and appeal to Bonaparte as his friend as they walk down to the bog. All the while, the finality of the execution is dawning on Bonaparte, and he silently resolves not to shoot the prisoners if they try to escape.
The groups meets Noble and Feeny, and ‘Awkins tries to appeal to Noble as well. Jeremiah asks ‘Awkins if he has any last words to share. ‘Awkins responds by offering to desert the British army and join up with the Irish. He doesn’t much care about which side he’s on as long as he can be with his friends. But Jeremiah ignores this and shoots him.
Belcher begins to tie a handkerchief around his eyes so that he won’t witness his own execution. He notes that ‘Awkins isn’t dead yet and requests that ‘Awkins be shot again to release him from pain. Bonaparte reluctantly agrees, shooting ‘Awkins and killing him.
Belcher begins to laugh, remarking that ‘Awkins was just recently arguing about the afterlife, and now he’s in a position to know whether it’s real. As Jeremiah helps him secure the handkerchief around his eyes, Belcher asks Bonaparte and Jeremiah to find a letter on ‘Awkins’s body and deliver it to his mother. He notes that he doesn’t have a family anymore, as his wife left him years ago and took his child. Beginning to babble, he talks about how he likes to feel at home and that explains why he was always helping around the house.
When Jeremiah prompts him for a last prayer, Belcher refuses because he doesn’t see the point of it. Jeremiah tries to excuse himself from responsibility for the killing by claiming that he’s only doing his duty, but Belcher says he doesn’t understand what duty means. Belcher says he doesn’t blame them, though, and calls them “good lads.” Then, Jeremiah shoots Belcher once and kills him.
Noble finds the letter on ‘Awkins’s body and the four carry the corpses to the bog and bury them. Afterwards, Noble and Bonaparte return the tools they used and go back to the old woman’s house.
The old woman had waited up for them, and, clearly distressed, presses Noble about what they did with the two prisoners. Noble doesn’t answer her directly, but she gathers that they were killed all the same.
Both the old woman and Noble sink to their knees, but Bonaparte is overwhelmed and runs out of the house. Outside, he describes feeling estranged from everything, as the bog, the prisoners, Noble, and the old woman feel very far away. The story closes with Bonaparte in the present noting that he was forever changed by the experience.