John Bartle describes writing a letter to Ladonna Murphy, Murph’s mother. Murph dies ten months after Bartle meets him for the first time, and Bartle knows that this period of his life will affect him permanently. After Murph’s death, overwhelmed by strong emotions, Bartle decides—without truly understanding why—to write a letter to Murph’s mother in which he pretends to be Murph. He assumes that Mrs. Murphy will probably believe him since she must not have received many letters from her son. Much later, Bartle learns that Mrs. Murphy read the letter with snow falling around her and wonders if that fact is symbolic, since it was also snowing on the day Bartle met Murph.
Bartle’s decision to write a letter to Murph’s mother remains unexplained, revealing only how emotionally troubled Bartle must have felt after his friend’s death—and how much he wanted for Murph to still be alive. This action shows the first signs of trauma that Murph’s death will leave Bartle with. Bartle’s temptation to see snow in a symbolic way reveals his desperation to give meaning to Murph’s death, and he wonders if even random circumstantial details might hold the key to the grand significance of this event.
Although Bartle knows that it was wrong to write that letter, he feels that he has done so many terrible things in the war that he is no longer able to judge his own actions. Bartle then recalls his first meeting with Murph. Both of them were at Fort Dix, New Jersey, waiting to be sent to Iraq. Sergeant Sterling, whom Bartle describes as a severe but noble, much-admired officer, tells Murph to follow everything Bartle does and stay with him at all times. While Bartle has been in the army for two years, Murph has only joined the army recently. Bartle compares Murph to Sergeant Sterling, since both are blond, but concludes that while Sterling is an exceptional soldier, Murph is simply an ordinary fighter.
Bartle’s inability to judge his own actions reflects the moral shift war has provoked in him, as he no longer knows what principles to abide by since he has already given up on basic principles like not killing another human being. Bartle’s extolling of Sterling suggests that Sterling’s occasionally brutal or reckless actions are at the service of greater goals, such as the protection of his soldiers and success in battle. The opposition between Sterling and Murph also predicts that Sterling will be able to remain strong, whereas Murph will succumb to the emotional difficulty of war.
When Murph moves his belongings next to Bartle’s, the two of them chat. They discover that they are both from Virginia, but Bartle feels annoyed, because he does not want to become close to Murph and feel responsible for him. Bartle describes their mutual impulse to join the military as a desire to escape their small-town routines and give a grander meaning to their lives.
Bartle knows that he should focus on his own survival but also knows that he will probably not be able to keep from becoming at least minimally attached to Murph. The boys’ seemingly trivial reasons for joining the military highlight how psychologically unprepared they are for the horrors of war.
In the meantime, as the days go by, Bartle and Murph know that their departure date is approaching. When Sterling meets with the two asks them how old they are, Bartle is surprised to learn that Murph is only eighteen, although, when he looks back on this time, he realizes that he, too, at the age of twenty-one, was also extremely young. Sterling, who is shocked at how young they are—although Bartle knows that Sterling himself must not be much older—tells them that they will be with him in Iraq and need to promise to do everything he says, because the situation there is likely to be extremely violent and chaotic.
The main difference between Sterling and the boys is not necessarily their age, but their experience and general attitudes. Unlike Sterling, Bartle and Murph are not necessarily committed to military life and the army’s goals. The experience of war has shaped Sterling to appear older and wiser, since he has seen enough horrific events to confront pain and death face-to-face and has also learned to be a role model for scared, insecure young soldiers.
Sterling concludes their meeting by telling them that, from a purely statistical perspective, it is inevitable that people are going to die. That night, when they are in bed, Murph asks Bartle if they are going to be okay. Bartle reassures him that they are, although he does not believe it himself.
Sterling’s matter-of-fact attitude toward death shows that he has learned to detach himself from personal relations, even as he remains committed to protecting his men’s safety. Bartle’s feeling that they are not going to be fine foreshadows both Murph’s death and Bartle’s later psychological distress.
The next day, the boys attend a safety briefing and practice marksmanship, impressing Sterling with their shooting skills. When Murph asks Sterling what Iraq is like, Sterling gives the two of them practical advice, telling them that they will need to find their most aggressive impulses and make themselves want to shoot the enemy, which Sterling says he will help them with. Reflecting on Sterling in retrospect, Bartle concludes that Sterling is very brave, willing to sacrifice himself for someone else’s life without a second thought.
Sterling’s emphasis that the soldiers need to force themselves to want to fight shows that, even for him, wanting to fight is not an automatic impulse but something that he must impose on himself. This reveals the extent to which war perverts the human psyche, forcing ordinary people to behave in seemingly hateful and brutal ways, against their own moral and emotional inclinations.
That day, the soldiers spend the evening with their families for the last time before leaving for Iraq. Bartle’s mother comes and feels upset about her son leaving for the war, but tries to accept the situation and have a good time with him. Bartle recalls the day he decided to leave the house at eighteen, and wonders if he might die in Iraq and his mother might have to bury him. As she is leaving, he promises her that he will stop smoking and that he will write to her, although he lights another cigarette after watching her car leave the army base.
Bartle’s thoughts about death suggest that there is a great difference between self-sacrifice (to the point of death) and his adolescent decision to join the army, which was moved by other factors such as a desire to get away from home and start a new life. His inability to quit smoking serves as a sign that he is emotionally troubled and afraid, beyond what he might reveal to his mother.
Bartle then meets Murph’s mom, who is glad to know that Bartle and Murph are becoming good friends. Although Bartle does not want to be responsible for Murph, he finds himself promising Mrs. Murphy to bring her son back to her. Later, Sterling, who has overheard this conversation, confronts Bartle and tells him that he shouldn’t have promised that. When Bartle tries to argue that it doesn’t matter, Sterling punches him twice in the face. Bartle stays lying in the snow for a while and then returns to his bunk. Bartle looks out at the stars, knowing that some of the ones he is seeing have already died. He feels like he is looking at a lie, and concludes that the world makes everyone a liar.
Sterling knows that what happens in war is unpredictable and terribly violent—and that one should not blind oneself to that fact by trying to give oneself or others false reassurances. Sterling’s brutally honest attitude contrasts with Bartle’s confusion—the early sign of a moral insecurity that will affect him for the years to come. Bartle’s vague feeling that the world turns everyone into liars suggests that he does not believe that what he is doing is noble. Rather, from the very beginning, his experience of war is marked by moral disappointment.