A major theme that this story explores is the initiation of young men in wartime, when youths must become men. Pranksters must become killers, dreamers must become realists—or someone dies. The world of the intellect (Lieutenant Cross is a college graduate, Martha’s letters express her admiration for Geoffrey Chaucer and Virginia Woolf) is of little relevance here; neither is romance or idealism. Courage becomes a concept without meaning. Getting through the experience alive is the important thing, as Kiowa knows too well. Fear paralyzes them all, yet somehow they manage to continue their march, to put themselves at risk, to carry out their orders. The trick is to survive.
The weight of their burdens is real. What these men have to nourish and protect them is only what they bear on their backs. Scarcely past boyhood, a medic packs his comic books and M&M candies for the relief of particularly bad wounds. A gentle soldier carries a rubbery brown thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse. A third, a big, stolid man, packs with him the delicacy of canned peaches and his girlfriend’s pantyhose. The men also carry infection, disease, and the land itself in the particles of dust and mud. They carry fear. They carry the weight of memory; they carry ghosts. They carry the burden of being alive; they carry “all they could bear, and then some.”
Each man likewise carries within himself a longing for escape from the senseless and terrible reality of war. Some make their escape through sleep, as Kiowa does. Others manage to survive through daydreams, like Lieutenant Cross, or through drugs, like Ted Lavender. Every man waits for the blessed moment when a plane, or “freedom bird,” will lift him above the ruined earth, the sordidness and death, his own shameful acts, into the lightness of air and the promise of home. The phrase “Sin loi! . . . I’m gone!” echoes in their real and imagined nightmares.