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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHATPER SIXTEEN (Notes)
Norman Bowker hanged himself in the locker room of his hometown YMCA. Three years earlier, O’Brien had received a letter from Norman describing his difficulty adjusting to life after the war. He felt like he had been killed along with Kiowa on that night and sank down into the sewage with him. Norman liked O’Brien’s first book If I Die In a Combat Zone and encouraged him to write a story about a guy like him - who can’t get it together after the war. He’d write it himself, except he can’t find the words.
The letter deeply affects O’Brien, who by comparison has made a relatively easy transition home from the war. Unlike Norman, he had been talking about the war non-stop through his writing. He realized this process helped him deal with memories and emotions that had paralyzed other vets. After considerable reflection, he decided to take Norman up on his offer and write the story around one central item - the need to talk. Originally conceived as a part of his second novel, Going After Cacciato, O’Brien quickly finished a piece but was unhappy with its form. It did not fit in the war story, because it was a post-war story, and had somehow lost the terrible killing power of the shit field. He had ruined the story because of his unwillingness to present it in all its awful truth. He sent a copy off to Norman, who wrote back “Where’s Kiowa? Where’s the shit?”
Years later, O’Brien re-wrote the version of the story that appears as “Speaking of Courage” in an effort to make good on Norman’s silence. In it, he restores both Norman and the shit field to their rightful place. It was difficult to write, because it involved dredging up memories that he’d avoided for years. He does, however, want to make it clear that Norman was not responsible for Kiowa’s death. That part was artistic license.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (In the Field)
At daybreak the platoon began combing through the field looking for Kiowa’s body. They continued on through the morning despite the rain, because there was no way that Lieutenant Cross was going to leave Kiowa in the slime. He had already started composing a letter to Kiowa’s family in his head. Across the field a young soldier stood by himself, his shoulders shaking with grief. As the platoon searched, Azar joked about how Kiowa had literally “bit the dust.” After a while Mitchell Sanders reached down and pulled up Kiowa’s rucksack. Azar, Norman, and Sanders circled out from that spot while Sanders blamed Lt. Cross for camping in the middle of a toilet.
Fifty meters away, Jimmy Cross wished he were playing golf. At least there you only lost a ball, never a player. He didn’t want to lead. He only signed up for Officer Training to save a few credits in college; it seemed preferable to the draft. He didn’t care about the war, but felt that Kiowa’s death was his fault for camping on the riverbank. He knew it would be a problem, but he had his orders. He stared again at the young soldier across the field.
The young soldier was still crying. He too blamed himself for what had happened. Late last night he had switched on his flashlight to show Kiowa a picture of his girlfriend. Right after that the field exploded all around them. It was a stupid thing to do. Now his friend was dead because of his mistake. He remembered rounds hitting nearby and hearing Kiowa scream. He remembers crawling toward that sound and trying to pull him out by his boot. But the smell, the screams, it was all too much. He had let go. He had lost his weapon, his helmet, his flashlight, and his picture of Billie. As the rest if the platoon searches for Kiowa, he is frantically looking for his picture of Billie. He knows she won’t send another one.
Across the field they find Kiowa’s boot sticking up just below the surface. Norman stares at Azar and asks him why he isn’t joking anymore. Azar just looks away. The men used their entrenching tools to dig him out and clean him up. They called in a dust off and waited for the chopper to arrive. Each of them felt a secret thrill at being alive. Azar apologized for making those jokes, saying he felt like Kiowa was listening to him.
In the center of the field Lieutenant Cross sat in the muck with the water at his throat. The young soldier tried to confess that it was his fault Kiowa was dead, but Cross wasn’t listening. The Lieutenant knew there had to be blame. You could blame the rain, or the war planners, or the enemy, or citizens back home, or Karl Marx. In the field, causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness and someone dies. He laid back in the water while the chopper came to pick up Kiowa and pretended he was golfing back in New Jersey.
Each of the soldiers in the platoon finds a different method of coping with Kiowa’s death. In keeping with his enfant terrible persona, Azar makes jokes about ‘another Indian biting the dust.’ Mitchell Sanders blames the LT for making them camp in a shit field, and Cross blames himself. The young soldier (who was Norman Bowker in the last chapter, but appears to be someone else) realizes that his flashlight alerted the enemy to their position and brought on the mortar fire. Surprisingly, instead of joining the search for Kiowa’s body, he frantically looks for the picture of a girl back home.
This sense of homesickness is common theme in The Things They Carried. Again and again, soldiers die because their minds, or the minds of their Commanding Officers, are not focused on the war. Vietnam was a war fought by American teenagers, and those teenagers often thought of drive-in movies when they should have been looking for signs of an ambush. The young soldier clicking on his flashlight to show a picture of a girl is just one more example of this preoccupation. At the end of the chapter, Cross would rather close his eyes and pretend he’s golfing than deal with realities of the soldier’s confession.