Summary and Analysis
Mitchell Sanders tells O'Brien a story about Rat Kiley: Due to rumors of North Vietnamese Army buildup in an area, Rat's platoon begins to move only at night and only off the main trails, struggling with the heavy foliage of the rain forest. They sleep in the day, which is difficult for Rat, who could feel tension and strain, causing him at first to become quiet and then to become nervous and jumpy. He starts talking about swarms of bugs and the strange strains of bugs in Vietnam. He scratches his bug bites, clawing them and finally scratching them until they become open sores. He eventually breaks down in front of Sanders, explaining that he is scared, but not normal scared. He sees pictures in his head of his fellow soldiers, but not their whole bodies, only parts and organs. He begins to see his own. Finally the tension gets to him and he shoots himself in the foot, a war wound that would rotate him out of the combat area. Lt. Cross says he would vouch that it was an accident, and Rat is flown to Japan to recover.
O'Brien begins this vignette typically, at the end of the story. We know that Rat Kiley gets "hurt," but we do not know how badly and the nature of the wound. The story then moves almost nowhere as we know how it will end before it begins. Like so many of O'Brien's vignette, the point is not what happens as much as why it happens.
"Night Life" is about the precarious balance that a soldier keeps. In this case, what upsets the balance is a change in routine. It does not matter exactly what the routine is, just that something has changed. Despite the joke that they were all living the night life, the switch from days to nights made it a tense time for everyone. The tension simply overtakes Rat more than the others, but they all feel it. O'Brien shows us how unstable they all were, and by what a thin thread they were holding onto their control, whatever control they had.
Within the change is the element of night, itself a terrifying concept. O'Brien delivers a vivid account of the complete darkness of night in Vietnam and how it affects the company. The inability to blink or see any light for hours and hours, day after day, bears down on the troops, and for whatever reason (again, the element of randomness indicating that none of them were safer than any other), even more heavily on Rat Kiley.
Rat switches from intense silence to verbose babbling, searching desperately for a way to cope with this disruption to his routine and to regain control. Instead, he sinks further into himself, evident from his talk about body parts, poisons, and his compulsive scratching, externalizing much of the corporeal nature of his being a medic. He becomes focused on the decay and ruin of the human body. As the nights remain black, Rat sinks further and further down to the point of real fear. Rat was afraid of himself, a much more terrifying enemy than any in Vietnam. He was afraid of what he might do if he truly lost it.
Finally, he shoots himself in the foot. O'Brien makes it the climax of the story, so we might believe that Rat snapped all the way. Even though O'Brien could have sensibly said that the shooting came when Riley snapped, he does not say that specifically, even after phrases like "he lost his cool" and "Kiley finally hit a wall." Because he does not, it is just as plausible that Rat shoots himself to keep from going crazy. His injury not only concentrated on his body, a mark of his particular fixation, but also got him evacuated from the scene. O'Brien never tells for certain whether Rat's self-inflicted wound is a result of his fear or an attempt to master it.
Nam Shorthand for the Vietnam War, used by soldiers and veterans.
No Doz Caffeine pills used to keep one awake.
defoliant A chemical substance that causes leaves to fall from growing plants.
DDT A powerful insecticide effective upon contact; its use is restricted by law due to damaging environmental effects.
snipe hunt A futile search for something that does not exist.