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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 17 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

The seventeenth chapter in The Things They Carried is "In the Field." The men are searching for Kiowa, who has just drowned in a field of human waste outside of a Vietnamese ville. They are near the river Song Tra Bong, which has flooded the flat plain where the men were camped. The flood water turned the field to a mix of mud and excrement, and the men were attacked during the night as well. Now, the men consider their role in Kiowa's death as they wade through the field searching for his body.

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross initially blames himself for Kiowa's death. He was ordered to set up camp in the field, but he now tells himself that he could have exercised better judgment. If he had done so, perhaps Kiowa, who was a good man, might be alive. As he wades through the field, Lieutenant Cross thinks about the letter he will have to write to Kiowa's father. At first, he thinks that he will take responsibility for Kiowa's death, but as he continues to wade through the field he convinces himself that he could send a more formal letter, one in which his own culpability is not necessary.

Norman Bowker, Azar, and Mitchell Sanders are wading through the field together in search of Kiowa's body. Mitchell blames Lieutenant Cross for Kiowa's death. Mitchell was the first among the soldiers to figure out that the field was actually where the ville's human waste was kept, and that they were camped in it. Azar at first makes jokes about Kiowa's death in the field of waste, which annoys Bowker. It is the trio that actually recovers Kiowa's body, and when they do, they do not call Lieutenant Cross over. Bowker looks at Azar, daring him to make another joke, but the latter declines. Mitchell continues to blame Lieutenant Cross, but Bowker maintains that it was both nobody's fault and everybody's fault. 

There is another soldier in the field, a young man who, like Cross, feels responsible for Kiowa's death. He also is answering to a judge in his head. Cross cannot remember the young soldier's name, but he talks to him anyway. The young soldier explains that he is looking for a picture of Billie, a girl from back home. Cross suggests that he give up on the photo and ask Billie to send another photo, but he the young soldier explains that she is no longer his girl. He remembers that Kiowa thought she was very cute. 

The story ends with Lieutenant Cross wading up to his neck in the field. He thinks that he might send Kiowa's father a letter after the war. After all, what does he know about leading men into battle? He only volunteered to fight in the way because his friends were doing so, and because it seemed better than being drafted. He becomes caught up in a fantasy about playing golf in New Jersey after the war ends. Maybe he will send Kiowa's father a letter, or maybe he will "just take a couple of practice swings and knock the ball down the middle and pick up his clubs and walk off into the afternoon."

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