On patrol, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen fight over Jensen's missing jackknife, which he presumed Strunk stole. Jensen easily overpowers Strunk, hitting him repeatedly and breaking his nose. Because of this, Jensen starts to worry, growing anxious of what revenge Strunk might take on him. He keeps track of Strunk, paying attention to his whereabouts and being cautious of him when Strunk handles weapons. This tension builds up in Jensen, and he is continually nervous, until he eventually snaps and begins firing his weapon into the air, yelling Strunk's name. Later that night, Jensen borrows a pistol and uses it to break his own nose. He shows Strunk what he has done and asks whether they were now even; Strunk says sure. The next morning, Strunk can't stop laughing; he had stolen the jackknife.
Over the next month, Jensen and Strunk begin to pair up on ambushes together and cover each other on patrol. They slowly build up their friendship and trust. They draw up a pact that says if either one of them is badly wounded, that the other would kill him. They both sign the agreement. A few months later, Strunk is severely injured when he steps on a rigged mortar round. The blast of the explosion severs his right leg at the knee. A medic treats Strunk and prepares him for evacuation. Jensen goes to Strunk before he is evacuated out, and as Strunk opens his eyes and sees Jensen, he pleads with him not to kill him. Jensen tries to say some encouraging words, and swears not to follow their agreement and kill Strunk. Strunk is evacuated by helicopter, but the unit learns later that he had died in transit. O'Brien thinks this news brought relief to Jensen, who felt a heavy burden.
O'Brien presents the story of a fight within a war, making us focus initially on the difference between a war and a fight. The fight is in some ways a microcosm to the macrocosm of Vietnam; both are violent engagements, both pit enemies against one another, and both have rules that are often ignored by the participants. O'Brien shows some of the similarities between the two, such as the seeming randomness of the quarrel between Strunk and Jensen in the "Enemies" vignette, and Strunk stepping on a mortar bomb in the sister vignette, "Friends." O'Brien says that the fight was over "something stupid — a missing jackknife," but however meaningless the reason, the fight was nonetheless a vicious engagement between two foes.
In addition to the randomness of Vietnam, O'Brien highlights the meaninglessness of it by beginning the description of the fight with the jackknife and by using the vignette as a metaphor for this meaninglessness that the characters feel. Strunk laughs uncontrollably when Jensen breaks his own nose out of fear for what Strunk might do in retaliation, and admits that he in fact did steal the knife. He laughs because Jensen breaking his nose has no meaning — Jensen was justified in his attacking Strunk in the first place. The uselessness of his gesture, motivated by fear, causes us to view the entire fight as void of meaning. We can then apply this model to Vietnam, seeing how the larger battle, no matter who wins or loses, will be meaningless.
On the other hand, O'Brien shows how the microcosm/macrocosm model fails by making the fight and the war different. First, the fight is more personal and emotional, for example, than Strunk stepping on a mortar bomb. Strunk gets his nose broken because of a fight, because his enemy relentlessly beat him and crushed his bones; he loses his leg for no reason other than where he stepped. He could not have known or prevented it, and anyone in the company could have the same happen at any moment. The fight is personal, between two opponents; the war is not. What the war lacks is a visible opponent, a physical enemy. When Strunk and Jensen fight, the quarrel becomes emotional and out-of-control because they have both yearned for a real enemy to touch, see, and destroy. In other words, Strunk and Jensen find in their opponent the physical presence that that war has denied them.
Because of the realness of a physical opponent, everything is more intense. Jensen's inability to relax is an example of how the fight is more pressing, more real to him than the war. After all, should a soldier be more afraid of one of his own company, even someone with whom he has had an argument, than an entire country of men who would shoot him on sight? Probably not, but the proximity and physicality of his new "enemy" fills Jensen with greater fear than all the Viet Cong. Likewise, the pact that Jensen and Strunk form is an extension of this personal side of war. O'Brien tells us that they did not become friends per se, but they learned to trust one another enough to form a death pact. Yet even though this was a sign of trust between two men, they still insisted on drawing it up on paper, signing it, and getting witnesses. They trusted each other enough to end their lives but not enough to go without public ratification of their pact.
In the end, when Strunk loses his leg, his fear of Jensen killing him is absolute. He does not appeal to any in his company who knew of the pact, just Jensen, whom he insists swear not to kill him. Ironically, the oath is enough to appease Strunk, where earlier an oath would not suffice; the desperateness of his situation forces him to take Jensen's promise on faith alone. Trust, then, depends on the situation, not on the person. Strunk trusts Jensen not to kill him on his word, but he would not trust him to make the original pact without a compact. O'Brien makes us wonder whom you can trust in a war.
The "Friends" vignette wraps up with Jensen violating his original pledge and not killing Strunk. Yet when news of Strunk's death comes to him, it "seemed to relieve Dave Jensen of an enormous weight." Jensen had gone back on his word and failed his friend, thus making himself no good friend to Strunk. Perhaps because he had not been severely wounded, Jensen had not undergone the same transformation that Strunk had, wishing for a life after a massive and debilitating wound more than the death of a soldier. Either way, Strunk's death fulfills Jensen's promise not to let either of them live after sustaining such a wound. He is able again to be Strunk's friend not through his actions, but through fate and his inaction. O'Brien forces us to question what is right and wrong in a war. If Jensen had lived up to his pledge, he would be a murderer. By failing to do it, even at Strunk's behest, he proves himself no friend. O'Brien makes us wonder which is worse.
jackknife A large pocketknife.
LZ Gator Landing zone south of Chu Lai.
pull guard To be assigned to a sentinel shift, to keep watch.
wheelchair wound A permanently debilitating wound, especially loss of limbs or wounds which would cause paralysis.
rigged mortar round A short-range weapon that fires a shell on a high trajectory.