A platoon of seventeen American foot soldiers is on the march in the booby-trapped swamps and hills of Vietnam. They have been ordered to set ambushes, execute night patrols, and search out and destroy the massive tunnel complexes south of Chu Lai constructed by Viet Cong guerrillas. Young and frightened, most of the Americans are ill prepared emotionally for the stresses of war. The story does not follow a traditional linear plot but instead offers fragments of their experience, including seemingly unending lists of gear and personal effects that they carry with them. What they carry links them, yet distinguishes them.
Chief among the men and one of the oldest is First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, twenty-four years old and not long out of college, who is smitten with love for a girl back home. He carries with him two photographs of Martha, an English major from Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, whom he briefly dated. He yearns for her sweatless perfection, her white skin and clear gray eyes, fantasizing a relationship with her that never existed. Although she writes to him and he carries her letters, rereading them each night, it is clear that his passion for her is not reciprocated. When Martha sends him a talisman, a white pebble from the Jersey shore, Lieutenant Cross carries it in his mouth, savoring its salty taste as something almost holy. Dreams of Martha help him escape Vietnam.
On April 16, the men draw lots to see who will wire a Viet Cong tunnel with explosives. The soldier selected to search the tunnel is the one about whom they are concerned, for his risks are great. When he finally emerges, covered with filth, all are relieved, but just as the tension eases they hear a shot. Ted Lavender, who stepped away from the group to relieve himself, is killed without warning by an enemy sniper. The incident stuns the platoon. Death in a firefight is one thing, but this swift and meaningless death is quite another.
Ted Lavender has always carried tranquilizers and top-grade marijuana to numb himself against his own terror, but his obsessive fear and caution do not help him; the twenty pounds of ammunition that he has carried makes no difference. He dies, as his friend Kiowa marvels, without time to react. His horrified comrades place him in a body bag and summon a helicopter. While they wait, they smoke Lavender’s marijuana and crack jokes to mask their emotions. Then they burn a nearby Vietnamese village in retaliation, shooting the dogs and chickens.
That night Kiowa, who carries moccasins and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet, tries to make sense of Lavender’s death and to grieve, but he feels nothing. He pillows his head on the New Testament that he carries with him, a birthday gift from his father, and is glad simply to be alive. This fact comforts him, and he sleeps soundly.
Lieutenant Cross, on the other hand, weeps; he accepts full blame for Lavender’s death, although in truth there is no blame. He suffers with guilt because he was thinking of Martha at the moment that Lavender was killed—he has loved her more than his men. He realizes now that his distant Anglo-Saxon virgin is nothing more than a dream. In his foxhole he burns her letters and photos, surrendering his illusions, and determines to conduct himself as an officer, a leader. He will be strong, tough, and silent—a man’s man. He will protect his men, maintaining discipline and order so that they will live.