In Vietnam the soldiers in John’s unit complain that the war is a nightmare, and that it’s impossible to find the enemy. John—or Sorcerer—privately thinks that the war has become his state of mind. A soldier named Rusty Calley mentions the Biblical principle of “eyeballs for eyeballs.”
Calley’s statement sounds like John’s idea about two snakes eating each other. This is a dangerous idea, because it can be used to justify all sorts of wartime atrocities on the basis that they’re acts of revenge.
The soldiers spend February in an area nicknamed Pinkville, which they hate. On February 25, 1968, they arrive at a village called Lac Son, and a mine blows up a soldier, killing him. Shortly thereafter other soldiers die to booby traps. Calley shouts for the soldiers to “Kill Nam,” and they shoot the grass and trees.
We see that revenge is key in the American military’s behavior. Their actions seem almost savage—they’re attacking Vietnam itself, rather than the enemy soldiers. Calley seems like a savvy politician, using each new event to manipulate his troops.
On March 15, John receives a letter from Kathy. Kathy writes that John will have to treat her like a human being when he returns from the war. She still loves him, she says, but he can’t “squeeze” her anymore. In his reply, Sorcerer writes a racist joke about the Vietnamese.
The boundaries between John and Kathy seem greater than ever—Kathy is trying to have a serious conversation with John, but he’s too lost in his hatred of the Vietnamese to respond.
On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company ventures by helicopter into Pinkville and goes to a hamlet, Thuan Yen. Sorcerer feels energy in the air and senses the “pure wrongness” of the day. Sorcerer is the last person to get off the helicopter. The soldiers shoot, but Sorcerer explores the hamlet’s houses. In one house, he sees a pretty girl with her pants off. She is dead, Elsewhere, he sees dead animals. He watches Weatherby shoot two children in the face. He watches other soldiers kill innocent people, and can only say, “Please.” He watches as the soldiers casually eat food and laugh in between killing villagers.
John’s reaction to what he sees in the Vietnamese village is impossible to read—even the word “please” can be interpreted in hundreds of different ways. This suggests that John’s experiences at Thuan Yen are traumatizing for him—he can’t reduce them to any one emotional reaction, so instead, he reacts without any emotion at all. Even so, readers can recognize, with horror, that the soldiers are laughing as they eat food, even though they’ve just committed murder of innocents.
In the coming years, John will forget what happens next in Thuan Yen—he will think, “This could not have happened. Therefore it did not.” He will “not” remember shooting an unarmed old man—the old man was carrying something that looked a gun, but it was only a hoe. He will not remember the sight of hundreds of dead bodies, or shooting Weatherby.
Earlier in the novel, we’ve seen examples of this technique, whereby O’Brien denies something, and yet forces the reader to think about it. The same is true in this section—when he says that he will “not” think about his murders, John is clearly still thinking about them. This is John in the act of repression. It also raises questions about what he is thinking as regards Kathy’s disappearance. Did he also repress his memories of his own actions that relate to it, or does he really not know what happened?