“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”
O’Brien says that some of the least believable stories from Vietnam are the most important and enduring ones. In the platoon, Rat Kiley had a reputation for lying and overstatement. Some of the soldiers in the Alpha Company had a hard time believing his stories. But Kiley told a story about his first assignment in the mountains of Chu Lai that he insisted was true.
Before joining up with the Alpha Company, Kiley was stationed at a medical detachment near the village of Tra Bong. The detachment shared the area with a unit of Green Berets. The highest-ranking officer was Eddie Diamond, whose idea of a good time was to talk about a plan to import some prostitutes for the troops’ entertainment. (He never actually went through on the plan.)
But a young medic named Mark Fossie picked up on the idea, and didn’t see why he shouldn’t import in his American girlfriend instead. The girl turned up six weeks later on a helicopter delivering supplies. She was blonde and young, wearing a pink sweater and culottes, and her name was Mary Anne. She was mildly flirtatious and all around rather good for morale, says Kiley. Mary Anne was curious about the natives, and about the war. In her first few weeks in Vietnam, she learned how to use a gun, she helped patch up the injured, she stopped wearing makeup, and she arranged a sightseeing trip of sorts to the nearest village. She thought the enemy couldn’t be so bad. “They’re human beings,” she reasoned, “aren’t they? Like everybody else?” (92).
One night she went missing, and Fossie was out of his mind with worry and jealousy. He thought she was cheating on him. She returned back to camp in the morning, and it turns out that she was out on ambush patrol with the Green Berets. Fossie confronted her, and she agreed to dress up and wear makeup again and not to go out on patrol. The two became engaged.
But she quickly got restless and kept staring at the hills. Finally, she disappeared again. Fossie set off to find her and burst into the Green Beret encampment, where he heard Mary Anne singing. There was a terrible stink and the bones of dead Vietnamese soldiers were lying around the tent. There was a leopard skin hanging from the roof. Mary Anne was wearing her culottes and, as Fossie drew closer, he saw that she was wearing a necklace made of human tongues. Mary Anne told her fiancée he didn’t belong in the tent. She said she felt like herself for the first time in her life. She pleaded with Fossie to understand, saying: “it isn’t bad.”
Kiley left Song Tra Bong shortly thereafter. As he tells the story, he says he was partly in love with Mary Anne, and that all of the troops were. He heard about Mary Anne again later from some friends. Her love of Vietnam had only increased -- until she finally went off into the mountains by herself. She is still out there, he says, “ready to kill.”
They Things They Carried is mostly devoid of women. Women exist only on the margins of the narrative. They are scarcely remembered girlfriends, or they are beloved girlfriends who are only present in photographs. They are distant objects of sexual longing: Japanese or Red Cross nurses, Jane Fonda in a movie. “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” is the only story in which a female character is the protagonist. Even then, the woman’s own sensibility remains a mystery. Her narrative is filtered through a man’s (Rat Kiley’s) retelling.
The lesson to be drawn from Mary Anne’s story is that the war affects women exactly the same way it does men. Women, too, can be driven mad. In this story, the madness takes the form of a transformation from one familiar literary stock figure to another: the innocent Madonna figure to the sexy seductress. Not only does Mary Anne become a killer, but she also becomes a sexually liberated femme fatale.
In her sexy sweater and innocent pants-skirt combination, no one could seem more innocent, or more American than Mary Anne. In the beginning of the story, she is something recognizable to both the soldiers and the reader: a normal American girl who wants a family. The story of her mutation into something foreign, a killer, mirrors the transformation of all of the soldiers. They go to war as boys and return from war as killers.
Before Mary Anne’s transformation in complete, she begins blurring the line of recognizable gender roles. She stops showering, covers her feminine long hair, and stops wearing makeup. She is transformed into a mannish figure and she enjoys the transformation. The soldiers are horrified and titillated by her transformation and subversion. Mary Anne may have stopped thinking of herself as a woman, but she does not wholly kill her sexual appeal. Even, or especially, after mutating into something almost unrecognizable, a mixture of the femme fatale and the killer, she remains sexually desirable, even lovable. Riley claims: “We were all in love with her.”
Summary of “Stockings” and “Church”
According to O’Brien, Henry Dobbins was one of the more likeable soldiers in the platoon. He was overweight, rather sentimental, and very kind. His one eccentricity was that he kept his girlfriends’ stockings wrapped around his neck for good luck. He credited the stockings with the fact that he never got shot. Dobbins thought that they made him invulnerable.
Dobbins got a big blow in the form of a letter from his ex-girlfriend. She wrote to end their relationship.. All the soldiers in the company were nervous about what this might mean for Dobbins. But he turned out to be resilient. “No sweat,” said Dobbins. “I still love her. The magic doesn’t go away.” (112) He continued to wear her stockings around his neck.
In “Church,” the company sets up camp at a pagoda that seems to function as a church. A few monks bring them supplies. Kiowa explains that he was brought up Christian and carries a Bible with him everywhere. He is made uneasy by camping at the pagoda, arguing that it is bad luck to camp at a religious site.
But the monks don’t seem to mind, and shower the soldiers with small gifts. The monks especially like Henry Dobbins, who talks about possibly joining their order when the war is over. Dobbins says he always wanted to be a minister, but didn’t think that he had enough brains to think up sermons. He thought that he would be good at understanding and connecting to people, though. As a parting gift, Dobbins gives the monks some chocolate and peaches – his favorite desserts.
“Stockings” is, with "Sweetheart", one of the few stories that deals, however indirectly, with gender. The object in the title is a symbol of feminine secrets and sexuality. But from Dobbins’ perspective, the stocking is a protector, a lucky charm, not a token of sex. His use of the stocking is consonant with the troops’ idea of a woman’s place in the world: an object used for escapism or comfort or superstition. Women are pinup girls in movies, or women are chaste Madonna figures who wait at home for their men. Women become symbols of home, rather than people, to the soldiers.
Coming directly after “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Stockings” confirms the traditional role of women for these men, after the narrator has just related an exception to the rule. One of the disturbing (and sexually exciting) things about Mary Anne is that she has her own agency as a character, meaning that she seems to operate based on her own wants and needs, not merely as a plot device. She has an arc, a spine, a story of her own. This sets her apart from not only the other female characters in the book, but also many of the males. Her independence highlights that of the soldiers’ -- if only by contrast.
Compared to Mary Anne, Dobbins’ girlfriend represents a return to normalcy. Even though she does assert some power by breaking up with him, her role as a symbol of home does not change. He still continues to think about her in the exact same way, as an inert lucky charm.
The pagoda in “Church” is a symbol for the country of Vietnam. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. Dobbins enjoys staying there, Kiowa does not. This split represents the soldiers’ different feelings toward the war. The occupation of the pagoda represents the occupation of the entire country. Some of the soldiers (Kiowa) feel that it is imperialistic. Others do not. This story is told in third person, but the reader gets the sense that O’Brien is inclined to agree with Kiowa on the subject of imperialism.
“Church” is one of the only stories to deal directly with religion. Part of the narrator’s horror at the senselessness of Vietnam is that he is not religious. Not believing in a Hereafter makes senseless killing during a mortal lifetime even worse. Although religion does not seem to help the religious characters in this book (they are killed in horrible ways alongside those who are atheists) the narrator does obliquely hint at some benefits it may confer. Dobbins is one of the most likeable of the men. Kiowa also seems more at peace because of his religion. And, of course, if the pagoda is a symbol for Vietnam, the fact that it is monks who live there, not lay people, makes the soldiers’ intrusion even worse.