Summary “In the Field” and “Good Form”
The morning after Kiowa is killed, all 18 soldiers begin to search for Kiowa’s body in the shit field at daybreak. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross leads the search in the rain. The soldiers all want to be somewhere else, but they feel it isn't right to leave Kiowa in the field. While the men search for the body, Cross thinks about the letter he will write to Kiowa’s father breaking the news of the death. He will write about what a splendid soldier Kiowa was...
Azar tries to joke about dying while “eating shit” but the other soldiers ask him to be more sensitive. Some of the men blame Cross for Kiowa’s death, saying he should have had better sense than to encamp for the night somewhere so low-lying and indefensible. Cross thinks that he never wanted the responsibility for his men’s lives. He thinks about writing a different letter to Kiowa’s father, taking full responsibility for Kiowa’s death, saying that it was his mistake for choosing the wrong spot to camp.
Cross sees a soldier standing off by himself, shoulders shaking. The ponchos make them all look the same, Cross thinks. He is irritated that he cannot remember the soldier’s name. The soldier is also busy blaming himself for Kiowa’s death. The night before, he had taken out a flashlight to show Kiowa a photo of his girlfriend and figures that this is what attracted enemy fire. “Hey, she’s cute,” Kiowa had said, remembers the soldier. That was right before he was shot.
Norman Bowker finds Kiowa after he sees the heel of his boot sticking out of the mud. All of the men work together to pull him out, and the dead body is put into a helicopter and taken away. The men feel “a secret joy” that they are all still alive, even if Kiowa is not.
Cross muses that there must be someone else to blame for the death: the war, the command, Karl Marx, some old man who forgot to vote. Maybe instead of writing the letter to Kiowa’s father, he thinks, he’ll play golf instead. Maybe that he'd rather not take responsibility after all.
In “Good Form,” the narrator steps back from the war stories and tells the reader concrete details about his own life. Tim O’Brien is 43 years old, he writes. O’Brien is a writer and a veteran of the Vietnam War. Everything else is invented, he says. O’Brien saw a young man die in Vietnam. The man’s eye became a star shaped hole, he writes. But O’Brien himself did not kill the man. Not having killed the man is the “happening-truth” writes O’Brien. Or perhaps he did kill the man. That is the “story-truth.”
Because of the difference between “story-truth” and “happening-truth", O'Brien can tell his daughter, Kathleen, with equal certainty that he has both killed someone and never killed anyone. Both are honest statements in his eyes.
The titles of both “Field Trip” and “In the Field” play with the word “field.” Indeed, the shit field becomes totemic in these stories, but it is much less innocuous than the light titles would suggest. The shit field is the site of a death. Kiowa is the second casualty for the Alpha Company attributable purely to distraction.
O’Brien holds Jimmy Cross at least partially responsible for the event. Composing variations on a possible letter to Kiowa’s father is a metaphor for Cross’ indecision about whether he wants to take responsibility or not for the death. The story ends on the dour note of Cross’ decision not to take responsibility after all. The narrator suggests that it is this denial of responsibility that is one of the cultural problems created by the very war. Cross muses:
“When a man died, there had to be blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it…You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame whole nations. You could blame God. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote” (174).
The omniscient narrative settles fully in Cross’ mind for the first time since the first story. The list is an effective literary device; it draws the reader in with its repetition of “you.” Some of Cross’ thoughts are plausible justifications, plausible options for blame. Others are comical (the hairy Karl Marx). The arc of blame grows wider and wider throughout this list, which resembles a poem in its repetition and intensity. By writing from Cross’ perspective, the author demonstrates that O’Brien is not the only soldier grasping for justifications for the war. But, of course, O’Brien does suggest that Cross is cowardly for not having decided to take responsibility.
Summary of “Field Trip”
A few months after writing “In the Field,” O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen. The trip is intended as a birthday present, but Kathleen is only ten years old and doesn't understand what the trip is really about. She likewise doesn't understand what the war was about, and why the people fighting were “mad” at each other. She describes her father’s obsession with the war as “weird.”
After visiting some tourist sites around the country, they take a trip to the shit field. Kathleen complains that it “stinks.” O’Brien almost does not recognize it, because it is smaller than he remembered. Kathleen stays in the car with a government interpreter, who keeps her giggling with jokes. O’Brien wades into the shit field and goes for a swim, grossing out his daughter who threatens to “tell mom.” The texture of the field brings memories rushing back for O’Brien. He buries a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins where his friend died and says he cannot think of the right words to say goodbye. A farmer across the field stops to stare at him. When he gets back into the car, Kathleen asks if the farmer is mad, and O’Brien responds that he is not.
Kathleen’s appeal for rationality in “Field Trip” is in its innocence as poignant as Cross’ appeal for blame is in its despair. O’Brien’s daughter works as a stand-in for readers who have not experienced the Vietnam War firsthand. By using her as a proxy reader, O’Brien points out the distance between himself and other veterans, and people who have not experienced the war. He suggests that the war is fundamentally incomprehensible for those who were not there.
The title, of course, is a pun. The two characters’ trip to the shit field is anything but a child’s fun day out of school. The light pun is reflected in the tone of Kathleen’s innocent questions: she treats what is a pilgrimage for her father as a fun field trip.