Themes and Meanings
“The Ghost Soldiers” is one of a series republished by O’Brien in the collection The Things They Carried (1990). In each of that volume’s tales, the environment and what is unseen but felt in the surrounding environs is key to the story. In the case of “The Ghost Soldiers,” the ghosts are not real. The landscape scares the American soldiers who are in it. The revenge plot hinges on this. By putting in front of Jorgenson a number of sounds and movements, Herb and Azar plan to make the medic confront the ghosts that are all around him, hopefully punishing him for his mental lapse the day Herb was injured and reminding him of how vulnerable all the American soldiers are in Vietnam. The plan backfires for Herb because the ghosts are so powerful. No one can control them, and so he, too, becomes affected by the series of games they play on Jorgenson.
What is equally important is the status of men like Herb who once were out in the fields of Vietnam but no longer have to enter the jungles. At the time of his injury, Herb was a seasoned soldier, and Jorgenson was inexperienced. The time Herb must spend recovering, in the safety behind the lines of the firebase’s fencing, reverses this relationship. When Herb and Jorgenson next meet, it is the latter who is now accepted by the others in the platoon. Herb is an outsider because he no longer has to experience what it is like to be out with the ghosts where there is no space for hiding or pretending. Out on patrol, real lives are at stake, and a real enemy seems to haunt the men at all times. Because Herb no longer experiences this, his plan is seen by Lemon as unnecessary and unfair. It no longer matters to Lemon that Herb also once faced the unknown demons of the night; what matters to him is that Jorgenson has done so and continues to do so. The unreal ghosts help to create a sense of who is a real soldier in O’Brien’s story.