The three main characters of Dog Soldiers are Converse, Hicks, and Marge. Although he initiates the action, Converse is unable to control it. As a result, he is the main focus for the author’s view of America as the self-incriminating victim of its own ignorance and self-deception regarding Vietnam. Converse’s verdict on the Vietnam experience applies with equal validity to his own attempt to authorize a specific course of events: “Nobody knows. . . . That’s the principle we were defending over there. That’s why we fought the war.”
In terms of individual experience, however, such ignorance is the basis of Converse’s extreme vulnerability and hapless impotence. Those two aspects of his condition are confirmed by his falling afoul of the law. His actions reveal rather than overcome the element which “morally speaking . . . was the basis of his life”: fear. “It was the medium through which he perceived his own soul, the formula through which he could confirm his own existence.” The impoverished quality of his actions also confirms what he experienced under fire in Vietnam: “Existence was a trap; the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.”
Nevertheless, when faced with the choice of whether to enter the trap, Converse decides in the affirmative. Thus, he becomes “the celebrated living dog, preferred over dead lions.” He chooses “to begin again from nowhere . . . to soldier on. Living dogs lived. It was all they knew.” Converse’s choice, and the survival which eventually results from it, is, in the poisonous atmosphere of the novel, a triumph of a kind, one which is commemorated in the novel’s title....
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