A few days after the fight in the orchard, a major comes to talk to the soldiers at dawn, after a storm. He congratulates Bartle’s platoon for fighting well and suffering few casualties, which earns them more relaxed patrolling schedules. The soldiers are so exhausted from fighting and, as Bartle recalls, spending three hours picking pieces of metal from a boy’s face, that only Sterling succeeds in staying attentive and upright. The only part of the major’s speech where soldiers react is the one in which he announces that Sterling has received a promotion and a Bronze Star for valor, which causes the soldiers to congratulate him.
The contrast between the major’s formal speech and the soldier’s informal, exhausted attitude reveals the disjunction between official narratives of war (such as the colonel and the civilian public also emphasize) and the inherently messier, more uncomfortable reality. In this context, even the major’s congratulation of the soldiers’ work and Sterling’s bravery seems absurd, since all the soldiers have been doing is kill or wound others—and, in turn, get killed or wounded themselves. The crude reality of war suggests that the soldiers taking part in it are much less likely than external observers to idealize or glorify it.
After the major leaves, Bartle realizes that Murph is nowhere to be seen. In the next few weeks, over the course of patrols that becoming increasingly hot and uncomfortable, Bartle has the impression that his friend is avoiding him. Bartle tries to reflect on the precise moment when Murph started slipping away but finds that he cannot identify the causes of events. Bartle begins to see the war as a cruel joke, as he finds himself unable to understand Murph’s strange behavior and feels angry about having promised Mrs. Murphy to bring her son back home.
Despite Bartle’s professed lack of desire to be responsible for Murph, he cannot help but feel concerned for his friend—thus showing that, in the end, his selfish instincts are less powerful than empathy and solidarity. Bartle’s later desire to understand the exact chronology of Murph’s behavior reveals his sense of guilt, but also suggests that there was little he could actually have done to save his friend, since it is impossible to assign Murph’s psychological troubles to any particular event.
When Bartle talks to Sterling about his worries, Sterling laughs and tells him that Murph is going to die because he is already “home” mentally, whereas Bartle has succeeded in remaining concentrated and on edge, what Sterling calls “deviant.”
Sterling proves detached not only from death, but also from friendships. His belief that Bartle has succeeded in remaining aggressive suggests that soldiers need to adopt a survival strategy at odds with civilians’ non-violent morals—the very principles that are troubling Murph.
Bartle soon finds himself forced to admit that Sterling might be right. Bartle, too, finds himself struggling mentally, muttering to himself and imagining his own death. One evening, drunk on cheap whiskey, Bartle wonders about what his dead body would look like and whether Murph would find him. In the meantime, the men patrol. Bartle finds that he does not notice how violent they have become, as they perform brutal actions such as beatings and searches routinely and indifferently.
Bartle’ imagining of his dead body still involves an attachment to personal relationships, since he wonders about the consequences of his death on others—which suggests that he does feel connected to a team of fellow companions. Bartle’s capacity to combine violence with limited critical observation (namely, noticing the violence without emitting judgment about it) allows him to keep on behaving as a soldier, but also sets the foundation for his later conviction that he has taken part in cruel. immoral deeds.
After finding Murph’s casualty feeder card and the picture he kept in his helmet, Bartle begins to follow Murph, searching desperately for signs of life in his companion’s behavior. He begins to ask people if they have seen Murph, and Sterling tells him that Murph goes to the medics’ station to look at a woman there. Bartle decides to climb up the hill to the medics’ headquarters and finds Murph there, sitting in the shade.
Murph’s abandonment of his picture and feeder card reveals that he is abandoning his former identity, symbolized by his picture of home and his attachment to his own body. Bartle thus begins to understand that Murph is giving up on life as a whole and grows deeply concerned for his friend’s fate.
Murph greets him and, when Bartle asks him where he has been, replies that he has been here. When Bartle asks Murph if he is okay, Murph does not reply. Bartle has the impression that he is waiting for a particular event. A helicopter then lands and, when a female doctor comes out, Murph admits that he has been looking at her. The two boys watch what happens next, as the medics put a screaming, wounded soldier whose leg has been crushed on a stretcher, and run toward the tent that serves as a hospital. Everyone around this scene hears as the boy’s screams decrease and stop, marking the soldier’s death. Murph tells Bartle that he wants to go home, and that says that when he’s back he will tell no one that he went to Iraq.
Murph’s unwillingness or inability to share the details of his mental state with Bartle anticipates Bartle’s later difficulty to share his own thoughts with other people, and thus highlights the feelings of loneliness and alienation that psychological stress can generate. The simultaneous horror and routineness of this scene highlights how common death is in war—and how one’s inability to see death in a detached way, which Murph is no longer able to do, would easily prove overwhelming. Murph’s desire to go home is impossible—in part because he cannot leave Iraq easily, and in part because home would probably bring him little comfort, since Iraq has affected him so much. This puts Murph in a desperate plight.
While Bartle tries to soothe Murph, the doctor comes out of the tent, washes her hands, lights a cigarette, and begins to cry. Bartle understands that the reason Murph has been coming here is to remain in contact with soft, kind emotions, in contrast with what they experience in combat. Most importantly, though, Bartle concludes that Murph wants to feel as though he has control over at least a minimal aspect of his life, choosing to come form a memory of this doctor instead of being forced to accept all the unpredictable, violent events that happen around him.
The doctor’s combination of professionalism and emotion suggests that not all war-related tasks have to be callous and indifferent. Perhaps, the woman’s attitude suggests, a healthier attitude toward emotions and stress might be possible. In any case, Murph’s desire for control reveals that his own emotions and memories are slipping away from him, making him feel as though he doesn’t even have any control over his own life—a feeling that Bartle will later experience in civilian life.
As the doctor walks toward the chapel, Bartle tries to reassure Murph that they can count on each other, although he later admits that he does not know if they were truly close, outside of the closeness that the war imposed on them. The two of them begin walking back toward the platoon area when mortars suddenly explode near them, forcing Bartle to throw himself on the ground and make himself as small as possible. When he finally gets up again, terrified and weak, he runs away as fast as he can, into the sewage ditch.
Even though Bartle evidently cares about Murph and wants to make him feel better, his inability to conclude that Murph and he were truly close friends suggests that war-related ties are partially superficial, based on shared circumstances more than deep affinity—and, therefore, that they might not be as comforting as soldiers might hope (or need) them to be.
Bartle hears the last mortars explode, and concludes that they were probably meant to target local shops. He walks toward the destroyed shops, watching as the medics try to heal the local bg merchants. Making his way to the chapel, he sees that the doctor is now dead and that Murph is next to her, silent. While Bartle and another soldier cover the girl with a shirt and take her up the hill using wooden planks as a stretcher, Murph stays in a corner, muttering to himself, repeating his incredulity at what has just happened. The doctor’s medic friends come and cry by her, as Bartle walks away, watching the small fire spread from the chapel to the nearby trees.
The doctor’s death puts an end not only to the only realm of emotion and compassion that Murph could find during the war, but also to any sense of control he might have retained over his own life. If Bartle’s reaction is to handle the situation in a practical way, taking the woman’s body away, Murph’s only option is to abandon all hope of control once and for all. This is what leads him to escape and thus deliver himself to the enemy, putting himself in a position where he is almost certain to be killed and, thus, to escape his current suffering.