Summary and Analysis
One afternoon the unit comes across a pagoda where two monks who speak little English live in a shack. One monk leads the men into the rundown pagoda where they spend the night and set up a base of operations. The monks take pride in offering the men small items like a chair and watermelons. The monks especially like Henry Dobbins and learn to help him clean his machine gun.
Dobbins tells Kiowa that he might join up with these monks after the war. He explains that he is not interested in the scholarly aspects of religion, but that he would enjoy being nice to people. Kiowa says that he would not want to be a minister but that he likes church, and he repeats that he feels wrong about setting up camp in the pagoda.
In this vignette, O'Brien introduces a church, a site of religion and solemnity, into the daily affairs of war. Through Kiowa and Dobbins, O'Brien contrasts the church with the Vietnam country and the monks with the soldiers. The church and the monks stand outside of the war experience of Vietnam and the company of soldiers, but the two worlds come together when the church is used as a base of operations. Like the "Style" vignette later in the book, the soldiers watch the movements of the natives without understanding either language or meaning. In order to understand them or to arrive at any sort of meaning for the war for themselves, the soldiers can only imitate the language, movements, and habits of the monks and hope it will increase their sensitivity and diminish their dismissive and discriminatory attitude toward others unlike themselves.
Dobbins again is the central character, and as he reveals to Kiowa that he harbors an inclination to become a religious leader of some sort, he is able to make a stronger connection to the monks than the rest of the troops. He respects and understands the choice they have made because of a desire deep within him, a remnant from his childhood. Without being able to understand the language or the meaning of the "strange washing motion" of the monks, Dobbins and the monks establish a special liking for one another. They call him "good soldier Jesus," using very simple English words that they know to describe what they know of him: He is good, he is a soldier, and he is a Christian. Dobbins does not understand all of them either, but teaches them to clean his rifle, showing them trust and respect. He also imagines them to be what he cannot ever know: kind and intelligent. He derides his own intellect by believing he would make a good people person but lack the brains and religious faith of a minister, and under it he assumes that these monks have all of those qualities. Dobbins interprets their silence as kindness, faith, and intelligence, assuming the best about them though he has no reason to believe this.
As the conversation between Kiowa and Dobbins progresses, both feel a growing respect for the calm solemnity of a church, culminating in Kiowa's statement, "This is all wrong." The soldiers have interlaced the war with the church, and that violates what both Kiowa and Dobbins believe should be. In the end, Dobbins respectfully dismisses the monks in their own language, making an effort to bridge the gap between them from his side, and imitates the hand washing motion of the monks. He does not understand it yet, but tries to mimic the action and give some meaning to the monks (and to himself) outside of his grasp. Like the dancer in "Style," the soldier can only copy the movements without any real understanding. For Dobbins, it is an important gesture — he understands that they have been wrong, and he is trying to do all that he can to make amends.
pagoda In India and the Far East, a temple in the form of a pyramidal tower of several stories, usually an odd number, commonly built over a sacred relic or as a work of devotion.
Friar Tuck The religious leader of Robin Hood's gang of Merry Men, from the English folk tale, Robin Hood.
di di mau A Vietnamese phrase meaning to move quickly.