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The fact that Norman Bowker carried a thumb is one of the most arresting aspects of the first chapter. The thumb was from a dead Viet Cong boy that the soldiers found. Mitchell Sanders, looking at the dead boy's body swarming with flies, claimed that there was a "moral" to the scene they were seeing, a dead boy, body swarming with flies, at the bottom of an irrigation ditch. When Henry Dobbins asked him what the "moral" was, he cut the boy's thumb off and handed it to Bowker. Bowker kept it ever since, though he is described as a "gentle" man. The other thing he carries is a little more normal, and certainly more in keeping with his "gentle" persona. It is a diary.
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