“Enemies” and “Friends”
One day, when they are out on patrol, two members of the company get into a fistfight over a missing penknife. Dave Jensen wins the fight and breaks Lee Strunk’s nose. Jensen is worried about retaliation, though. Revenge could be dangerous, because all of the troops carry guns. Jensen keeps an eye on Strunk and gets more and more paranoid. One day, he can’t stand it anymore. He goes temporarily crazy, firing his gun into the air, and yelling Strunk’s name over and over again.
That same night, he borrows a pistol and uses it to break his own nose. Then he seeks out Strunk to ask him if they are “square.” Strunk says yes. Strunk privately laughs at Jensen because he was the one that had stolen Jensen’s knife in the first place.
“Friends” is set a few months after “Enemies.” After the penknife incident, Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk had learned to trust one another. They made a pact that if either were seriously injured or crippled the other would find a way to kill him. As far as O’Brien can tell, the two were serious about the deal.
In October, Lee Strunk steps on a mortar, and half of his leg is blown off by a mortar round. The rest of the leg must be amputated. When a helicopter arrives to take him away to be treated, Strunk wakes up from his faint and sees Dave Jensen standing over him. He is terrified of his friend, thinking that Jensen will kill him. Jensen repeatedly tells him to relax, but Strunk remains petrified. Later the men find out that Strunk has died in the helicopter. Jensen is relieved.
Much of the book is made up of short character studies, one- or two-page at most. These can and do stand separate from the book as a whole; O’Brien published some of them in magazines on their own. Together, “Friends” and “Enemies” serve to display the absurdity of war. Roles shift fluidly at war. Your worst enemy may become your fastest friend. Your fastest friend may become your executioner – which is Lee Strunk’s fear. Social codes and norms break down completely. Even a retreat to “eye for an eye” Biblical law (Jensen breaking his own nose) doesn’t seem to make sense. There are no social norms or codes governing the troops. O’Brien points out that war is essentially a state without laws. But stories are simple, spare, opaque enough to seem like moral parables, communicating universal truths regarding all wartime friendships -- so that the critique of war seems to range farther than just Vietnam and deeper than this particular moment in history.
“How to Tell a True War Story”
Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon invent a macho game to play together. They toss smoke grenades back and forth to each other. One day the game goes wrong and a grenade explodes, killing Lemon. Lemon had been standing under a tree in the shade, and stepped out into the sunlight to catch the grenade. He must have thought he was killed by the sunlight, reflects O’Brien, who witnesses the event. O’Brien has to go up into the tree to pick out the remains. A soldier makes a bad pun on “lemon tree,” one of the many morbid jokes in the book.
After Lemon is killed, Rat Kiley sits down and writes his sister a long letter about how brave and funny her brother was. The sister never writes back. For this Rat Kiley dismisses her as a “dumb cooze.” O’Brien says you can tell a true war story by its “absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” This is a true story, he writes, because Kiley calls the girl a “dumb cooze.”
O’Brien leaves aside the story of Lemon’s death to explain to the reader how they can discern what is a true war story. One way, he writes, is if the story seems too crazy to believe, or if it never ends. O’Brien relates a story told to him by fellow soldier Mitchell Sanders: a group of soldiers went out at night into the mountains on patrol. They heard what sounded to them like a large orchestra, or a large enemy cocktail party. The sound drove the troops crazy, and they ordered an enormous air strike on the empty mountains. O’Brien writes that this is a good example of a “true” story, whether it happened or not.
Another “true” story that O’Brien tells is that of a water buffalo. The day that Curt Lemon died, the company found a baby water buffalo in the woods. Rat Kiley tortured it. He shot it in all the places in its body where a wound would not be fatal. Kiley had just lost his best friend, O’Brien explains, to help justify the story. He tortured the buffalo and cried. Back home, when old women cry listening to that story, O’Brien says they don’t understand. They understand that war is about beauty and friendship, too. They only understand tired generalizations: “war is hell", etc.
“How to Tell a True War Story” passes judgment on the very act of storytelling. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, an authentic way and an inauthentic way. O’Brien frowns on telling stories with a macho perspective, as Lemon would have done. But he also objects to the polar opposite: telling tear-jerking stories for an effect. This short story acts as a guide to the style of the entire book. O’Brien tells only what he believes are “true stories”: absurdist stories that never end, stories that could not possibly have happened. What he is asking for from his reader in return is a minimum of sentimentality. Not only is there a right and a wrong way to tell stories, this chapter tells the reader, but there is a right and a wrong way to listen to them.
Identifying varying methods of storytelling is also a way for O'Brien undercut his own narrative. One of the projects of the book is to put readers on guard against unreliable narrators. This is a deeply political agenda. O’Brien is angry with his generation of young men and women for not asking enough questions of authority figures. He blames them, at least partially, for being blindly led into the quagmire of Vietnam. He wants to teach his readers to do better: to ask questions, not to believe too easily.
Curt Lemon was one of O’Brien’s least favorite fellow soldiers. After Lemon was killed, O’Brien had a hard time mourning him. Lemon liked to act the macho man and take unnecessary risks. He once went trick-o- treating in a Vietnamese village on Halloween, to the horror and amazement of the villagers.
O’Brien says that it is not a good idea to glorify the dead or become sentimental about them. He tells the story of Lemon’s visit to the dentist to illustrate the point. One day a dentist came in on a helicopter to check up on the men’s teeth. Lemon was so afraid that when it was his turn he passed out in the dentist’s chair. Later, he was so ashamed that he woke up the dentist in the middle of the night. After rousing him out of bed, Lemon insisted that he had a toothache, and forced the dentist to remove one of his perfectly good teeth.
Lemon provides a comic example of conventional machismo. His swagger and bravado provide much needed humor to the troops. They considered his trick-and-treating caper a great joke. “The Dentist,” however, is a flashback. The reader already knows that it is precisely this bravado that will get Lemon killed. This provides dramatic irony, a literary technique by which the reader knows more about the character’s fate than the character himself.
O’Brien objects to both macho swaggering and trite aphorisms. He grants war a privileged status as a topic by circumscribing the ways in which it may be described. (He makes no such pronouncements, for example, about how to describe love, which is also dealt with in the book.) “War is hell,” does not qualify as a worthy war story, because it has no impact, according to O’Brien. Macho tales of violence and heroism like Lemon’s have too much impact, and are also unworthy. O’Brien argues that there is a right and a wrong form of storytelling.