In Virginia, Bartle now lives in an apartment he is renting and usually goes out only to buy beer or frozen potpies. In the evenings, he reheats potpies and drinks enough beers to fall asleep. During the day, he shoots at trash with a cheap rifle he bought. He knows that the C.I.D. will probably find him and punish him for what happened to Murph. Even though Bartle is not actually guilty of Murph’s death, he feels a generalized sense of guilt and accepts the idea of punishment, anticipating that he will probably be sent to prison for five years for sending a fake letter to Mrs. Murphy.
Bartle’s lifestyle shows that he is unable to take part in productive activities of any kind, and that he is using alcohol to try to numb himself, keep away from other people, and keep from thinking about harmful memories. Shooting trash with a rifle allows him to maintain a connection with his dual identity as a soldier and a civilian. It also allows him to use violence to canalize his anger and guilt without harming anyone—suggesting that he has not found a better way to express his emotions.
One snowy day, a captain arrives at Bartle’s apartment and Bartle feels ashamed to be seen in this unkempt, alcoholic state. The man presents himself as Captain Anderson. He warns Bartle that he cannot run from them, which leads Bartle to understand that this man represents the entire army’s perspective. When the captain pulls out the letter that Bartle wrote Mrs. Murphy, Bartle concludes that he will accept whatever punishment he is given—for writing this letter, as well as for everything else he has done in the war. He feels that nothing in the war made sense, and that he cannot account for his own actions.
Despite being part of the army in such an intense way, through the war in Iraq, Bartle does not feel that the army is on his side—but, rather, that it is hostile to him and wants to use him for its own purposes. Bartle’s generalized guilt is, paradoxically, an admission of innocence: he knows that has never actually meant to cause anybody harm, but that the circumstances he has found himself in have led him to behave in potentially cruel, insensitive, and irrational ways.
The captain then contemptuously calls Bartle cowardly for not knowing how to live in ordinary society anymore. He asks Bartle if he has seen the doctors, to which Bartle replies that he has. Bartle then recalls being given a form in Kuwait, right after leaving Iraq, which was meant to measure soldiers’ mental health. Bartle recalls feeling contempt for the army’s approach to the soldiers’ stress, and checks a box indicating that he felt “delighted” after a “murder-death-kill” in order to avoid being seen by doctors and being delayed in going home.
The captain’s dismissive attitude toward Bartle’s mental health, as well as the ridiculously simplistic questions on the form that Bartle had to fill out, highlights the army’s incapacity to deal with issues beyond the practicality of war and violence, and to accept that soldiers might be deeply affected by their experience of combat. This attitude also impacts civilians’ perspectives, who fail to understand that war takes a heavy toll on soldiers, however seemingly tough they might appear.
In his apartment, Bartle admits that he wrote this letter, although he does not fully agree that it was terribly wrong to write it. The captain then implies that they know Bartle is responsible for Murph’s death. Bartle says this isn’t true, but does not want to reveal his own version of the story, saying it does not matter. Bartle realizes that the captain’s version of the story is based only on other soldiers’ faulty memories, and that Sterling probably gave a deliberately vague answer to protect both Bartle and himself.
Although Bartle does feel guilty for some of what he did during the war, this trial does not actually address the root of the problem, but merely seeks a scapegoat for some of the war’s horrors. Bartle’s unwillingness to defend his own perspective suggests that he does not trust the justice system, and that he prefers to keep the truth to himself.
Bartle then reflects on Sterling’s attitude. He concludes that Sterling was more self-sacrificing and devoted to others than Bartle ever realized. When the captain announces that Sterling suffered an “accident,” Bartle understands that Sterling committed suicide. He concludes that Sterling spent his whole life obeying the army’s orders until his very last moments, in which he decided to kill himself, realizing that he had a will of his own. After being overwhelmed by a mental image of Sterling shooting himself, Bartle simply says that the captain’s version of the story is full of lies, but the captain replies that “Someone has to answer for some of it.”
Sterling’s suicide highlights the difficulty of belonging to the army while retaining a degree of personal agency, as it suggests that Sterling ultimately felt tired of obeying other people’s orders and wanted to escape his oppressive environment—a decision that paradoxically recalls Murph’s own reasoning. The captain’s cynicism suggests that the army is less interested in protecting truth than in defending its own interests—an attitude at odds with true nobility, exemplified by Sterling’s capacity for self-sacrifice.
After the captain handcuffs Bartle, Bartle asks if he can take something with him, and he grabs the picture and casualty feeder card that were in Murph’s helmet. As the captain’s car drives Bartle away, they stop on a bridge, from which Bartle throws the cards in the river. When they drive away, Bartle feels as though he is in a movie that he never knew he played a part in.
Although it seems as though Bartle is taking Murph’s belongings with him to stay connected with Murph, his final action reveals the opposite: he is trying to let go of the harmful memories that Murph’s death has created. Even though Bartle might lack control over his legal fate, he thus tries to retain control over his emotional life.