All the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were young: Calley was 24, T’Souza was 19, Thinbill was 18, Sorcerer was 23, etc. After the massacre at Thuan Yen, they spent months fighting in the forest, occasionally losing more soldiers to the enemy. In the night, everyone feels shame at the massacres. For the most part, people don’t talk about what happened, although Thinbill always mentions the flies.
O’Brien includes another detail that’s gotten “lost in the mix”—the soldiers who killed civilians at My Lai were young, some of them teenagers. It’s no wonder, then, that they’re severely traumatized by their own behavior—Thinbill, for instance, seems to be suffering from PTSD.
Charlie Company never returns to Thuan Yen; it moves on to other places. Sorcerer tries to forget about the massacre; he takes extra risks in battle to help himself forget, but nothing works fully. Sometimes, he can feel himself becoming “wicked” again, and he remembers rolling around in the ditch. In November 1968, he extends his tour for an extra year, telling Kathy that it’s a personal choice he’s unable to explain.
John tries to repress his guilt instead of “getting it out,” as Thinbill advises. We already knew that he extended his tour; reading this for the second time, however, we interpret the information differently. At first, we assumed that John extended his tour because he’d become a sociopath. Now, we see things a little differently—John is trying to hide his guilt by making himself pay for his crimes. While this doesn’t make John seem like a saint, it does humanize him to an extent we hadn’t seen before.
In the middle of combat, Sorcerer sometimes feels as if the trees are talking. He also hears voices from the village massacre, and sees Weatherby and the old man with the hoe. To make the voices and visions go away, he sometimes burns jungles and shoots his gun.
Much as before, John’s anger seems to be with Vietnam itself, hence his attacks on the trees and ground. It’s implied that his guilt makes him a better soldier—a chilling thought.
Two months before his tour ends, Sorcerer takes up a desk job, where he does paperwork all day. He contemplates his future, and using his access to military files, he retypes all the lists of military personnel so that it seems that he was always in Alpha Company instead of Charlie Company. This makes him feel less guilty. He recognizes that he won’t be able to fool everyone, but he also knows that very few people in Charlie Company ever knew his real name—those who do, he believes, will forget it if they haven’t already. Shortly after he changes the files, John is shipped back to the United States.
Throughout the novel, characters have proved their guilt by attempting to hide it. Thus, John proves—to the voters of Minnesota, anyway—that he’s guilty of war crimes in Vietnam because he tries to hide his actions. This is another demonstration that repression and denial are bad ways to deal with one’s past. In the end, the truth finds a way out, and the fallout from the attempts at repression is far worse.
When he lands in the United States in Seattle, John calls Kathy, but hangs up after two rings. When he’s in a plane flying back to Minneapolis, he goes to the restroom and look at himself in the mirror, asking, “Hey Sorcerer, how’s tricks?”
We’ve already seen this scene before, but here, with the context completely different, we have no choice but to interpret it differently. Before, we took John’s behavior as proof that he was “still in Vietnam.” Now we see his reliance on his Sorcerer persona as a method of coping with himself and his behavior. He never stopped being Sorceror. He never stopped hiding who he was from everyone, including himself.