It's morning and the platoon, consisting of eighteen soldiers, is slowly moving through a deep shit field in the rain trying to find Kiowa.
Kiowa is dead, but the platoon can't find him because he's been buried under the monsoon rains in the shit field.
Jimmy Cross yells at a young soldier to close up rank. The young soldier is separated from the group, standing in the center of the field reaching around under the muck. Jimmy Cross can't tell who it is. He thinks how Kiowa had been a great human being—perhaps the best. Kiowa's father taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City in Kiowa's hometown. Jimmy Cross thinks Kiowa's death was a crime.
The foreshadowing in "Notes," points to the young man's identity as Tim O'Brien. Cross thinks that Kiowa's death is a crime, which is a bold statement in a war where anyone's death is possible. For Cross, Kiowa's death is a crime against anything good left in the world.
When Jimmy Cross looks at the river he knows he made a mistake setting up his men there. Even though he was following orders, he could have found a way around them. They should have moved to higher ground or sent in false coordinates over the radio. He knew it was pointless to think of what he could have done now that Kiowa was dead, but he felt sick. He started to write a letter in his head to Kiowa's father to tell him what a great soldier his son had been.
Jimmy Cross did what he should have done, what his obligations were. He followed orders. But in his heart he knew better than those orders, but he didn't have the courage or will to disobey them. Now he blames himself, and as a way to cope with his guilt, he starts to think up a letter to Kiowa's dad as a way to apologize for letting Kiowa die on his watch.
The search was slow going. Azar, Norman Bowker, and Mitchell Sanders searched along the edge of the field. Azar said Kiowa would find his death ironic, and if he were there he would laugh. "Eating shit—it's your classic irony." Azar keeps talking about Kiowa's death, and how it's ironic and classic that the "redskin" dies in the cowboy movie. Bowker insists that he be quiet. The soldiers knew there was nothing they could do for Kiowa; they just had to find him and get him on a helicopter. When men died, the desire was to get things over with.
Azar doesn't know any other way to deal with death than to make a joke of it. If Azar compares death to a comic irony or a movie, it doesn't carry the weight of a real death. The men wanted to get things over with when someone died because the best thing to do was to try to forget about what happened for a little while.
Mitchell Sanders stops in the middle of the field and fishes out a green rucksack. Inside they find a pair of moccasins and a copy of the New Testament. Sanders says Kiowa must be close. Bowker says they should tell Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, but Sanders refuses, claiming it's Cross' fault Kiowa is dead for stationing them there. Bowker says it wasn't Cross' fault. Sanders demands to know whose fault it is, and Bowker's responds that it was no-one's fault.
Mitchell Sanders is quick to blame Cross because Cross was the leader. Bowker disagrees, but is it because he truly thinks at this time that it's no one's fault? We know from previous stories that Bowker comes to think that Kiowa's death is his own fault because he didn't have the courage to save him.
Jimmy Cross is fifty meters away from the three men. He's finished composing the letter to Kiowa's father in his mind, and now watches as his platoon searches for Kiowa. It reminds him of a golf course in his hometown in New Jersey when people search for a lost ball, and he wishes he was back there.
The stakes in the game of golf are different than the stakes of war: a lost ball is different than a lost man. Cross longs for the lack of responsibility.
Jimmy Cross never wanted to be a leader. He had signed up for the Reserve Officer Training Corps in his sophomore year of college because his friends had signed up and it was worth class credit. After all of those months in Vietnam, he still doesn't know how to "keep his men out of a shit field."
Cross wants to be a good leader, but only because he's been forced to become one. He feels he's failed his men and it's his fault that Kiowa died because he hasn't learned anything about being a leader.
Jimmy Cross recalls two old women from the nearby village who had come out to warn him that that this was evil ground, but he was following his orders and told his men to set up there. As the night went Mitchell Sanders crawled over and asked Cross what he was doing stationing them in a shit field. Cross knows he made a mistake, and it had been stupid, but it had cost Kiowa his life. He resolves to apologize to Kiowa's father in the letter.
Cross can't shake the image of Mitchell Sanders and the two village women telling him that it was an evil field because it serves as confirmation to him that he made a grave error. His guilt and sense of responsibility swell up so much that he decides to change the nature of the letter to Kiowa's father and apologize outright.
Jimmy Cross again notices the young soldier and approaches him. The young soldier was trying not to cry, because he blamed himself for Kiowa's death. The night before as they had huddled under their ponchos in the rain, Kiowa had laughed off the conditions and said they should talk about good things, so they exchanged stories about home. Then, the young soldier remembered he'd shown Kiowa a picture of his girlfriend and he switched on his flashlight, which was a stupid thing to do. Kiowa had said she was cute. Then the field started to explode around them. The young soldier thought Kiowa's death was like murder, and his flashlight had caused it so he was responsible.
Cross doesn't get angry at the soldier for not being a part of the search for Kiowa. He attributes the young soldier's state to the chaos of the night, and he blames himself for that chaos. The young soldier is Tim O'Brien. He believes he murdered Kiowa because he turned on his flashlight to show Kiowa a picture of his girlfriend, Billie. He feels like he murdered his best friend in the war, because the flashlight might as well have been a beacon to the enemy.
The young soldier remembered the screams when the mortar fire hit. One of them was Kiowa's. He tried to crawl towards the screaming, but when he reached Kiowa and tried to grab his boot, it wouldn't budge. He whispered Kiowa's name and let go. "He'd lost everything." Kiowa was dead; his weapon, flashlight, and the picture of his girlfriend were gone. He wondered if he could lose himself too.
O'Brien's memory is that Kiowa was already dead, suggesting that Bowker's guilt is unnecessary. Bowker blames himself. Cross blames himself. O'Brien blames himself. The truth is unclear. It could have been no one's fault. Three is no moral to this story.
The young soldier seems panicked and doesn't look up when Jimmy Cross gets to him. The young soldier keeps saying, "Right here…Got to be right here." Cross steps in and says Kiowa could be anywhere in the field. The young soldier says Kiowa is dead, and asks instead about Billie, his girlfriend in the picture. He had lost it, but he kept it wrapped in plastic so it should be OK. Cross insists the young soldier can get another picture from her, but the young soldier says Billie isn't even his girlfriend anymore and he has to find it. He keeps searching through the muck. Cross walks away, thinking about the letter to Kiowa's father.
O'Brien is frantic to find the picture of Billie because he feels that's all he has left. The picture links him to home and a person he cares about that is still alive. He feels like he can't lose the picture if it's the reason Kiowa died, because then Kiowa would have truly died for naught. Cross feels pity for the young soldier, but he's too preoccupied with his own guilt to help in the soldier's search. He has to keep thinking of the best way to write his letter to Kiowa's father.
Azar, Norman Bowker, and Mitchell Sanders are across the field still searching. It's almost noon when Bowker finds Kiowa. Bowker looks at Azar after touching the protruding boot and asks where the joke is, but Azar says there isn't one. They find Kiowa's other boot in the muck and start to pull hard, but there's little give. They call over Henry Dobbins and Rat Kiley, but even the five men couldn't pull Kiowa out. Azar moved to the bank with a pale face, gripping his stomach. The rest get out their tools and begin to dig around Kiowa. Everyone else comes over to watch except for Jimmy Cross and the young soldier.
Even Azar has no jokes left at this unspeakable situation. It makes this boy, who thought nothing of blowing up a puppy, sick. Jimmy Cross and O'Brien are off alone in the field, still reeling from their own guilt.
They finally pull Kiowa out. Part of his shoulder is gone and his chest, arms, and face were cut from shrapnel. Dobbins said it could be worse. Jensen asks him how, but Dobbins doesn't answer. They all carry the body, trying not to look at it, over to the dike where they used towels to clean off some of the muck. Rat Kiley goes through Kiowa's pockets and puts his things in a plastic bag, then tapes it to Kiowa's wrist. Then he radios the chopper to come.
Dobbins says it could be worse to mean Kiowa could look a lot worse. Jensen asks how it could possibly be worse because no matter how Kiowa looks, he's still dead. There's no way it could be worse. Rat Kiley moves quickly so that he can get away from the body to try to escape the reality of Kiowa's death.
The men move away from the body. Some smoke, some open up cans of food, others stand in the rain. They are all relieved to be done with the search, now they can look forward to being somewhere else. They all feel bad for Kiowa, but feel a secret happiness that they were still alive.
In an earlier story O'Brien commented that coming close to death made you cling to life. But there is a guilt to that clinging when it is another man's death.
Azar sits next to Bowker and says he doesn't mean anything bad by the jokes he tells. Azar feels like Kiowa was listening to him. He admits to feeling guilty, that if perhaps he hadn't made any jokes then Kiowa wouldn't have died. Azar feels like it's all his fault. Bowker says it was no one person's fault: it was everybody's fault.
Even Azar feels guilty—because he was telling jokes! Notice how Bowker has moved from "it's no one's fault" to "it's everyone's fault." On one hand he sounds like a voice of reason. On the other hand, we can see his trajectory toward finally thinking it was his own fault.
Jimmy Cross is near the center of the field almost completely covered in the muck. He keeps thinking about his letter to Kiowa's father, except he's crafted a new impersonal version as an officer sending his condolences. He didn't apologize in the letter because it was a freak accident and it was a war, and there was no point in apologizing when it wouldn't change the fact that Kiowa was dead.
Cross has revised the letter to something official—he uses the official language to hide, and hide from, his own guilt.
Jimmy Cross knew that "when a man died, there had to be blame." Blame could be put on the war, the people who started the war, Kiowa for going to the war, the rain, the river, the field, the mud, the climate, the enemy, the mortar rounds, the people who didn't read the newspaper or switched the channel on TV when they heard about politics, the nations involved, God, ammunition manufacturers, Karl Marx, fate, an old man "in Omaha who forgot to vote." But the causes in the field were immediate, and a bad call or stupid mistake had eternal consequences.
But Cross knows that despite all the things you could blame, ultimately it comes down to the decisions made by the commander in the field. He knows it's his own fault.
Jimmy Cross keeps floating in the water of the river for a long time. From the east there was a chopper arriving, but he can't hear it. He lets himself slip away, back home to New Jersey where he's on the golf course teeing up at the first hole. He thinks maybe after the war ends he will write to Kiowa's father or maybe he won't. Maybe he will take a few practice swings and then hit the ball and carry his clubs with him to the next hole.
Cross has to keep ignoring everything around him to try to remain calm because the guilt is overwhelming to him. He thinks back to New Jersey and golf, where the stakes aren't life or death. And he doesn't write the letter at all.