The story begins with the narrator's first perception of the war, via the radio that he and his brother, Pete listen to at Old Man Killegrew's window. They often go to listen to the news, since Old Man Killegrew's wife is deaf and so the radio is always turned up loud. Pete fills the narrator in on what he understands about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor as they walk home. The narrator relates that this is a habitual practice, and that often Pete will lie in bed next to him, "a heap stiller than if he was asleep," but the narrator doesn't know what is upsetting his older brother.
Finally, Pete declares that he has to go to the war. He gives no explanation other than, "I got to go." The narrator wants to go with him, but Pete says that's impossible; he needs to stay at home and help their mother and father. When Pete tells their parents, their mother cries and says she doesn't understand why he has to go, but she won't stop him. His father argues that he doesn't see a good reason for Pete to leave, but doesn't protest seriously.
That night as they lie in bed together, Pete and the narrator hear their mother crying. Pete gets up and comforts her, and when he comes back, he and the narrator discuss how he'll find where the Army is located once he gets to Memphis. The reader doesn't know it yet, but the narrator is figuring out how he will find Pete once he follows him to Memphis.
The next morning, Pap and the narrator walk Pete to the bus, then watch him drive away. They spend the rest of the day chopping wood, but in the middle of the afternoon, the narrator goes and gets his slingshot and the big shikepoke egg. He goes to bed that night, but after his parents are asleep, he sneaks out the window. He walks all the way to Jefferson, which is twenty-two miles away, during the night.
Once he gets there, he encounters Mr. Foote, whom he calls the Law, in the middle of the town square. He tells Mr. Foote his plan to get to Memphis, and Mr. Foote takes him to the bus depot. Then Mr. Foote leaves to go get Mrs. Habersham. While he is gone, the narrator tries to trade the "bus feller" the shikepoke egg for a ticket to Memphis. When the bus feller refuses, the narrator tries to escape, but the bus feller stops him. The narrator pulls out his pocketknife, but cannot get by the bus feller.
Then Mrs. Habersham and a younger woman arrive with Mr. Foote. He tells them what his mission is, but they say they want to "have a case history for our files first." When they realize they are getting nowhere, Mrs. Habersham pays for his bus ticket, and Mr. Foote buys him a sandwich.
On the bus, the narrator is exhausted but doesn't let himself fall asleep so that he can watch everything that goes by out the window. When they get to Memphis, the narrator asks for directions, saying, "Where do folks join the Army?" He is proud of himself because after asking just a few people, he is able to find it.
He expects to see Pete, but instead there is a soldier writing at a table and some others standing around. He asks for his brother, and tells them that he is going to go to Pearl Harbor, too. When the soldier behind the table tells him to "beat it," the narrator pulls out his pocketknife again and this time, cuts the man's hand. The narrator is overpowered by the other men in the room, but then another soldier enters, "with a britching strop over one shoulder."
This last soldier's attempt to communicate with the narrator is effective, since "he sounded jest like Pete talked to me." He makes the first soldier look Pete up in the papers on the table, and then instructs that a car should be sent for him. The narrator waits with this last soldier until Pete arrives. Pete scolds him for pulling out his knife on the other soldier, then tells him once and for all he cannot come along to the war. Pete gives him a dollar for the bus ride home, then kisses him and leaves.
The soldier with the britching strop calls Mrs. McKellogg, who arrives at the office in a fur coat. She tells the narrator there is plenty of time to go to her house for dinner before heading home. They get to her apartment building, and she introduces the narrator to her husband, Colonel McKellogg. When the narrator says he would like "some ham and eggs and coffee," she is surprised that he drinks coffee, but orders it for him. However, he finds himself unable to swallow it.
He jumps up again and says "I got to go." The car arrives for him, and he rides home in the front seat with the soldier who is driving it. They drive back past everything the narrator saw out the bus window that morning, and "it was like I hadn't never been to Memphis a-tall." He begins to cry without understanding why, and finds himself unable to stop.
Because the narrator is a young boy, Faulkner uses appropriately limited vocabulary and diction. For example, he calls the bus depot a "dee-po," and describes the bus "just like when Pete got into it yestiddy morning, except there wasn't no lights on it now and it was empty."
Faulkner also uses run-on sentences, to simulate a stream of consciousness (although this is not nearly as extreme as the stream of consciousness technique he uses elsewhere, for example in As I Lay Dying). For example, when the bus arrives in Memphis, he says, "Then we was in it, with the bus stopping ever' few feet, it seemed like to me, and cars rushing past on both sides of it and the street crowded with folks from ever'where in town that day, until I didn't see how there could 'a' been nobody left in Mis'sippi a-tall to even sell me a bus ticket, let along write out no case histories."
Pete is drawn to go to war, but because he can't explain his reasoning the the narrator, the reader doesn't understand exactly why. The narrator doesn't question why, since he trusts Pete's decisions, but the reader empathizes with Maw, who says, "If Pete's got to go to this one, he's got to go to it. Jest don't ask me to understand why."
Even before Pete tells the narrator why he has been bothered, the narrator's use of similes that suggest war to describe his brother hints that he already has a feeling it has something to do with war. When he is lying in bed next to him, he describes how Pete "just lay there still as an ambush and when I would touch him, his side or his leg would feel hard and still as iron." After Pete gets up to comfort their crying mother the next night, when he returns to bed he "laid again still and hard as iron on his back."
The speed of the vehicles in the story represent the narrator's life changing, as he matures and realizes what it means to be separated from his brother. He notices the speed of the bus that takes Pete away: "It was going fast, with two little red lights behind it that never seemed to get no littler, but just seemed to be running together until pretty soon they would touch and jest be one light." In the car ride back home to Frenchman's Bend, he begins to cry without knowing why it happens. He does notice, "We was going fast."
Faulkner wrote "Two Soldiers" in the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was written for the readers of The Saturday Evening Post, and was meant as an expression of patriotism. Some reviewers have criticized the story for its sentimentality.
However, by the time of its publication, Faulkner was an experienced short story writer. He used the story to link the situations of small-town Americans, like the Grier family of Frenchman's Bend, to huge world events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor.