Summary and Analysis
"O'Brien" offers in his memoirs a group of related fragments of stories, or memory snapshots. He recalls Mitchell Sanders mailing his body lice to his local draft board. He remembers Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins's nightly checkers games. "O'Brien" narrates what it is like to sit at his typewriter and remember these episodes from his experiences in Vietnam, and what it is like to read what he has written about them. He recalls the bad memories, and he recalls the good memories, such as those of the old Vietnamese man who led his unit through a dangerous minefield.
"O'Brien" continues to think about his memories from the vantage of being a writer. His daughter wonders why he writes about Vietnam, but these stories and fragments stick in his memory and bring his past into the present of his life. Finally he suggests that stories will remain, even when memory of what actually happened is erased.
O'Brien offers his readers a series of fragmented scenes, like verbal snapshots, as a way to comment on the act of memory (in general) and on the act of remembering the Vietnam War (specifically). He presents the war as an event marked by the disorder of anti-war demonstration and military mismanagement. This mode of fragmented expression, the medium O'Brien chooses to use in this chapter and in the novel over all, is the message. That is, the nature of memory is fragmentary; people do not tend to remember an event in a narrative beginning-to-end fashion. Rather, O'Brien suggests that "what sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end."
O'Brien demonstrates this fragmentation by hopping between a wide variety of stories — the Vietnamese guide, Mitchell Sanders mailing his lice, Ted Lavender adopting a puppy — within the space of few pages. Also note this fragmenting effect on the chapter level of the novel; the novel is not marked by a continuity in which one chapter flows logically into the next, as is the form in traditional narrative novels or autobiographies. O'Brien does not set the path of memory and remembering as one that can be traversed easily (which O'Brien demonstrates through the metaphor of the minefield and his mention of the nightly checkers game). War, and by extension, memory of war and storytelling about war, is not orderly, and its meaning is not able to be captured through a pedestrian beginning-to-end narration.
The fragmented style of the chapters also operates on a second meta-fictive level, carrying the medium-is-the-message metaphor further. As "O'Brien" describes the Vietnam War combat experience, he emphasizes that the routine and daily life of a soldier was marked by similar abrupt shifts in action: "Well, you'd think, this isn't so bad. And right then you'd hear gunfire behind you. . . ." O'Brien adopts this fragmentary style, thus forcing his readers to feel a version of this trepidation caused by the uncertainty of what is coming next. O'Brien's primary objective for storytelling is to evoke a visceral response in his reader.
Another major point to note in this chapter is the way the jumping between thoughts and memories connects the narrator's past and present. An example of this is "O'Brien's" mention of his daughter Kathleen's suggestion that he forget about the war. Forgetting is not a possibility for O'Brien, which should be clear to the reader, as O'Brien demonstrates his inability to forget by telling us the story in the first place. Forgetting stands in direct opposition to the fragmentary model of remembering that O'Brien describes. The fragments, like the sudden sound of gunfire, suddenly appear, but without O'Brien invoking them or conjuring them up in his mind.
"O'Brien" suggests that people remember the past (and, how, incidentally, he gets ideas to write): "You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present." Presumably, a little girl's memory — Kathleen's — is not too broad, and her present is filled with thoughts of getting a pony, but for O'Brien, the force of his war memories make the past his present, like a series of post-traumatic-disorder flashbacks or constant survivor guilt. As an author, as he commits his memories into words, he symbolically transports his past into the present. This continual uninvited "re-memory" intrudes on the ability of veterans such as O'Brien, Lt. Cross, and Norman Bowker to forget the past.
Finally, as O'Brien suggests in the closing paragraph, stories are a way to impose order on the fragments that crop up, "for joining the past to the future." O'Brien continues to explore this major theme of remembering using the act of storytelling to arrange and understand fragments in later chapters.
FREE Designation written by servicemen in the upper-right corner of an envelope in place of stamps; soldiers were allowed to mail items free of charge.
Poppa-san An old Vietnamese man.
in the pink In good physical condition; healthy; fit.
AWOL Absent without leave.
Da Nang Seaport in central Vietnam, on the South China Sea; many battalions were stationed there.
truth goose A fictitious story that feels as real as the truth.
bodybag A rubberized bag sealed with a zipper, used for transporting a dead body from a war zone, accident, etc.
paddies Rice fields.
buck sergeant stripes Embroidered patches sewn on to uniforms to signify the enlisted army rank, also known as E5.
My Khe A huge beach nestled between a forest and the Kinh River.