Summary and Analysis
Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong
O'Brien recalls a story of Rat Kiley's. Though Rat swears the story is true, O'Brien doubts its accuracy. He explains that Rat exaggerates not because he wants to deceive, but because he wants listeners to almost feel the story so that it seems more real. Rat had been assigned to a medical detachment near Tra Bong in an area the medics shared with six Green Berets. The groups did not interact often. During an all-night drinking session, a medic jokingly mentions that the medics should pool their money and import some prostitutes from Saigon. One medic, Mark Fossie, is taken by the idea, and six weeks later his high school sweetheart, Mary Anne Bell, arrives at the compound.
Young and naïve, Mary Anne insists on learning about Vietnamese culture and the Vietnam War up close. She assists when the medical unit receives casualties. Eventually she stops wearing make-up, and her attention is consumed by learning how to use an M-16 assault rifle. Fossie suggests that she return home, but she does not. She begins staying out late, finally staying out all night. Fossie, realizing Mary Anne is missing, wakes up Rat. They search for her but do not find her.
O'Brien interrupts the story to comment on how Rat told the story. Rat would stop with Mary Anne's disappearance and ask where she might be. Mitchell Sanders guesses that she was with the Green Berets because Rat mentioned them, and that is how stories work. Rat would resume the story and tell his listeners that she was resting with the Green Berets in their hootch after an all-night ambush.
The next morning Mary Anne returns wearing green fatigues and carrying a rifle. She tells Fossie that they will talk later, but he is angry and will not wait. Later that day, Mary Anne appears fully groomed, wearing her feminine clothes. Fossie explains that they officially became engaged, and the pair maintains a façade of happiness. Fossie makes arrangements for Mary Anne's trip home. The next morning she disappears again with the Green Berets. Three weeks pass until she returns. The next day Fossie waits outside the Green Berets' area, waiting to see Mary Anne. He hears an eerie human voice. Pushing inside the Green Berets' hootch, he sees piles of bones, smells a horrendous stench, and hears Mary Anne chanting. She tells Fossie that she likes this life and that he does not belong there.
Rat's platoon buddies dislike the abrupt ending and ask what happened to Mary Anne. He tells them that the rest is hearsay, but that he understands that she disappeared into the jungle.
Like many of O'Brien's stories, this one is not really about what it seems to be about. This is not a story about Mary Anne and her transformation — it is a story about storytelling and the loss of innocence. The meta-textual discussion is about storytelling, the dynamic of truth and belief between Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders. The vignette begins with O'Brien talking about truth. Rat, the company believed, told a certain amount of truth in each of his stories, but always exaggerated them as well. They never disbelieved him, but never fully trusted his "facts." So it was with this story, which Sanders insists just does not "ring true."
Kiley, however, insists that he is a witness to most of the actual events. Slowly, as the story of Mary Anne's transformation progresses, Sanders focuses his objections less on the truth of Kiley's story and more on the telling itself. He and the other members of the troop pick out particular words like "dumb" and challenge Kiley on his exact characterization of Mary Anne. O'Brien comments on people's expectations about stories and their purpose in telling them. In the chapter, Kiley stops and asks Sanders what he thinks happened next in the story, challenging Sanders to share his expectations of stories. This action raises issues about the veracity of the story that Rat tells.
O'Brien talks about how Kiley tells the story, with a broken flow and interjecting his own thoughts into the meaning. Sanders takes up this side of storytelling, saying "the whole tone, man, you're wrecking it." Sanders has moved from not believing to believing so much that he wants the story told better. When Kiley admits he does not know what happened to Mary Anne, Sanders gets up-in-arms and says that telling a story without an ending violates the rules of storytelling. To Sanders, endings complete stories and make them true. He has now completely dissolved any difference between story and truth (or fiction and fact).
The meta-textual discussion of storytelling must be applied to author O'Brien. He tells a story with no ending, and his characters seem to know that. Perhaps that is why they are so troubled and why Sanders desperately wants an ending to Mary Anne's story. Sanders learns that however much truth there is to Kiley's story, he is more interested in the emotional weight of the tale, seeking completion. O'Brien successfully obscures the line between story and truth, and readers must ponder how much of the story is "true," how much is fictional, and whether that makes a difference in how we receive the novel.
The tale is about loss of innocence. Mary Anne is a convenient character because as a young person from the suburbs, a high school sweetheart, and a woman, she personifies innocence to the soldiers. Her progression from a sweet girlfriend to something more bestial than the Green Berets is an analogy for the loss of innocence through which all soldiers of Vietnam go. "O'Brien," Azar, Kiowa, Sanders, and all the young men sent to Vietnam departed from America "green" and left their innocence like baggage on the fields of a foreign land. For Mary Anne, the presence of her sweetheart gave her moments of pause in her transformation, where she took occasional steps back into sweetness. For the men of Alpha Company, a letter, a picture, or a pair of stockings could have pulled them back to the world of cleanliness and refinement, the world of love. Eventually, though, they all passed into the war, into violence, dirt, murder, and darkness. Just like Mary Anne, the innocent persons they were would never be seen again.
Sanders wants an ending to the story because he and the rest of the soldiers subconsciously want to know how their own lives will turn out. How will they return to their families, or will they ever return? These questions are a major inquiry in war literature, like Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, and one of the major questions of O'Brien's novel. This same desire is what motivates "O'Brien" to write about his experiences in Vietnam and to author a writer's memoir. This yearning for completion, such as "O'Brien's" return trip to Vietnam in "Field Trip," is a major impetus in war novels in general, as a method of combating the general sense of meaninglessness that marks modern wars.
culottes A woman's or girl's garment consisting of trousers made full in the legs to resemble a skirt.
rear-echelon A subdivision of a military force, farthest from the enemy.
NCO Noncommissioned officer.
E-6 An enlisted man's grade.
RFs, PFs Regional forces of S. Vietnam, also called Ruff-Puffs.
ARVN Army of the Republic of Vietnam (Army of S. Vietnam).
Green Beret A member of the Special Forces of the U.S. Army, the "Green Berets" (from the green beret worn as part of the uniform).
EM Enlisted man.
C-130 (Hercules) Aircraft that primarily performs the tactical portion of an airlift mission. It can operate from rough dirt strips and is the prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.
USO United Service Organizations, a civilian arm of the U.S. Army that offered diversions and entertainment for soldiers both on the homefront and in active combat areas overseas.
hootch Military slang for a place to live in, specifically a shack or thatched hut, as in Vietnam.
Sterno Trademark for gelatinized methyl alcohol with nitrocellulose, sold in cans as a fuel for small stoves or chafing dishes.
ville A small village or group of huts in rural Vietnam.
AK-47 Basic infantry weapon of the NVA and Viet Cong.
Darvon A white, crystalline, narcotic analgesic used for the alleviation of moderate pain.
joss sticks Thin sticks of dried paste made of fragrant wood dust, a kind of incense.
MP Military Police.
CID Criminal Investigation Department.