Summary and Analysis
The Ghost Soldiers
O'Brien recalls the two times he was shot in Vietnam. The first time, medic Rat Kiley gave him medical care in the midst of battle, checking on him four times, finally helping O'Brien to a helicopter for evacuation to a hospital. O'Brien recuperated and returned to his unit nearly a month later and found that Rat had been wounded and replaced by a new medic named Bobby Jorgenson.
O'Brien was shot a second time, and he nearly died of shock before Jorgenson administered medical care. O'Brien felt intense anger toward Jorgenson. The wound developed gangrene, and O'Brien could not walk or sit. He felt humiliation and embarrassment and began planning ways to get even with Jorgenson.
After his release from the hospital, O'Brien was transferred out of combat to a supply restocking area, and he missed the feeling of fraternity that came from fighting alongside his friends. He continued to suffer pain from his wound.
Later his former company comes to his base for a stand-down, or break from combat duties. O'Brien greets Sanders, Azar, Henry Dobbins, Dave Jensen, and Norman Bowker, and spends the evening drinking and talking with them. He begins to realize that he is no longer a member of their intimate group and becomes jealous of the friendships from which he is now excluded.
O'Brien asks the others about Bobby Jorgenson. He obsesses over seeing Jorgenson, who is also on stand-down, but Mitchell Sanders advises him to give up because Bobby Jorgenson has learned how to be an excellent medic and has been accepted by the group of soldiers. O'Brien feels betrayed and becomes angry.
The next morning, Jorgenson waits for O'Brien because he wants to talk to him. Jorgenson apologizes, explaining that he didn't help O'Brien because he was paralyzed by fear. O'Brien does not fully accept the apology and decides to take revenge. After being rejected by Sanders, he partners with Azar to pull a prank on Jorgenson to scare him. He later considers canceling his "game" but sees Jorgenson with his old friends and decides to follow through.
O'Brien knows Jorgenson had night duty and plans to spook Jorgenson after dark. Azar and O'Brien string ropes attached to homemade noisemakers and tug the ropes to make frightening sounds in the darkness. O'Brien imagines Jorgenson trying to convince himself that there is no reason to be scared. He feels cruel, but he also laughs and feels powerful. As O'Brien and Azar prepare for the last of their tricks, O'Brien remembers getting shot and recalls his out-of-body experience. He wishes he could stop the prank but Azar takes over. Azar continues rattling the noisemakers and manipulating a contraption made of a sandbag to look like a ghost. Jorgenson shoots the sandbag and, realizing the prank, screams out O'Brien's name. Jorgenson tells O'Brien that he is pathetic; Azar agrees with Jorgenson and kicks O'Brien in the head. Jorgenson treats the gash on O'Brien's forehead, and they decide that they are now even.
This story questions not only what we as readers think about the Vietnam War but also what those fighting in it believed. In this vignette, "O'Brien" gets wounded twice and is taken away from the fighting to serve in a battalion supply company, a transfer that he discovers tears him away from what he knew as Vietnam. The story revolves around the character of Bobby Jorgenson, but Jorgenson serves as a tool for O'Brien to illustrate important lessons of war and friendship.
Like many of O'Brien's stories, the most important pieces of this vignette are set at night. It is roaming around at night that "O'Brien" feels the sharpest pangs of hatred and yearnings for revenge against Jorgenson, it is at night that he hangs out with his old company and discovers how things have changed, and it is at night that he enacts his revenge against Jorgenson. This vignette and the following one, "Night Life," both deal with how the night affects people. To O'Brien, the world is different at night: The stifling darkness is maddening and intoxicating, able to confuse and enliven a soldier. It is at night that Vietnam comes alive — not the country as much as the experience of being a soldier. In this story, "O'Brien" must act at night in order to be like a soldier again against Jorgenson.
O'Brien lets us either forgive the mistakes Jorgenson makes treating "O'Brien" or not. Jorgenson's character is introduced as "green" specifically so that we can excuse him, which the other members of Alpha Company do later on. Regardless of whether we agree with "O'Brien" retaining so much anger, it is clear that he feels embarrassment and humiliation from his getting wounded, leading to pent-up resentment and hostility all focused on Jorgenson. Of course, "O'Brien" is also dealing with the loss of his life as a combat soldier — he missed the adventure, brotherhood, and feeling of being "awake" that can only come when the "presence of death" is always a looming danger. (O'Brien also challenges this idea by saying that death is also a possibility at a baseball game, again emphasizing the randomness of war.) "O'Brien" admits that he misses his company, whom he considers "close friends," and all of these feelings of loss are converted into anger toward Jorgenson. O'Brien emphasizes many of the common feelings that combat veterans express, especially the togetherness and close friendships that a tour of combat duty bring. He also challenges those ideas in this story by having "O'Brien" meet up again with his old company.
When Alpha Company arrives on "O'Brien's" base, he quickly realizes that his situation has changed. When his anger toward Jorgenson comes up, his "friends" step up to defend Jorgenson as a member of their team. Sanders' line, "…Jorgenson — he's with us now," shows O'Brien that he is no longer a part of the team, and the loyalty and friendship he assumed existed between all of them was more tenuous than he had imagined. O'Brien realizes that loyalty and allegiance are based more on who is working with the group and less on a sense of friendship; more on the present than on memory or loyalty to the past.
When "O'Brien" meets up with Jorgenson, he realizes how much anger has come to control him. He almost forgives him, but instead keeps alive the tension between them. More important than making peace, "O'Brien" acts out his need for making war, something that he desperately missed being stationed on a base. He needed an enemy more than a friend. He alienates Sanders by trying to hatch a plot against Jorgenson, but continues in his plan by signing on with Azar. Here we see "O'Brien" intentionally following a course that separates him more from his old "friends" because revenge and waging war on Jorgenson have become his most important purpose.
This new, personal warfare shows "O'Brien" how much the war has changed him from what he was to a machine of anger and revenge. He yearns for action, danger, and violence. He creates an enemy in order to wage war. He also recognizes that he is not fighting for an idea as large or potentially noble as "patriotic zeal," but solely for a personal vendetta.
So with much effort, "O'Brien" finds a way back into the war; his new enemy is Jorgenson. His ally, though, teaches him not only how far the war has changed him but also that he is not the weapon that he imagines. Azar takes the game too far, seeing "O'Brien" not as a soldier eager to engage the enemy but as a "disgusting…case" who feels more sympathy for Jorgenson. Azar's relentless assault on Jorgenson teaches "O'Brien" that his lust for revenge and combat, his covert, under-handed cruelty has made him not a soldier, but an enemy — he recoils not out of sympathy for Jorgenson but out of disgust in himself and what he has become. Even worse, he discovers that Azar joins with him not out of friendship, but out of a personal need for cruel humor. So "O'Brien" has lost his friends, his memories, his moral superiority, and all his anger; he is left "trembling…hugging himself, rocking" on the ground. This is the story of the complete defeat of a man. His reconciliation to Jorgenson is out of situation, not amnesty, but then again so were all of his relations.
Gene Autry (1907-1998) Western movie star known as the "Singing Cowboy."
shipped off to Japan To be sent to an American military hospital in Japan, usually for serious wounds.
gangrene Decay of tissue in a part of the body when the blood supply is obstructed by injury or disease.
VC Viet Cong.
Highway 1 Major throughway for transportation through Vietnam.
Harmon Killebrew (b. 1936) a baseball player known as a power hitter who slugged home runs. He had a 22-year career with Washington, Minnesota, and Kansas City.
boonies Boondocks; hinterland.
stand-down A period of rest for combat soldiers during which they return to a base and halt all operations except security.
salt tabs Tablets made of salt that servicemen placed along the inside of their cheeks to forestall dehydration by hastening the production of saliva.
a couple of klicks Two kilometers.
Charlie Cong Viet Cong.
Mary Hopkins Folk singer from the mid-1960s whose hit single was "Those Were the Days" from the album Postcards.
trip flare A flare rigged to ignite when an intruder moves a thin wire hidden along the outside perimeter of a base or encampment meant to signal the approach of enemy troops.
American Legion An organization of veterans of the armed forces of the U.S., founded in 1919.