illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 21 Summary

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The twenty-first story in the Things They Carried is “Night Life.” It tells the story of how Rat Kiley was injured during O’Brien’s convalescence from the first time he was shot. Word reaches the platoon that the Russians have supplied the Vietcong with fresh artillery. Fresh troops are supposed to be in the area as well. No one, not even Lieutenant Cross, takes this warning seriously, but they agree to take precautions anyway. They stay off the trails and only hump at night, living the “night life.” Though the soldiers turn it into a joke, it is actually disconcerting to hump during the night, which is pitch-black due to steady cloud cover. There is the sound of insects and the chattering of monkeys. The men start to worry about getting cut off from the rest of the group, trapped in the darkness. During the day, it is hot, humid, and difficult to sleep. 

It becomes too much for Rat Kiley. He begins to talk without stop each night, whispering about insects. He starts to obsessively scratch his bug bites. Later, he explains to Mitchell Sanders that he has hit a wall. He explains that he can see a man’s liver and feel a sense of clinical detachment from it, even if the wounded man it belongs to is still alive. Other times, while looking at the men he is patching up, he imagines what they would look like dead. He imagines how much a head would weigh and what it would be like to haul it to a chopper. He imagines what it would be like see his own organs. He imagines himself dead. Every night, he sees these images, and he cannot get rid of them. He thinks about the men that have died while he was the medic in the platoon and comments on how strange it is that people who are so alive in one moment can become so dead so quickly. The war is like one giant bug banquet.

Eventually, Rat Kiley takes action. He takes off his shoes and socks, he lays out his medical kit, he dopes himself, and, finally, he shoots himself in the foot. The men gather around him and when they discover what he has done, they do not blame him. Lieutenant Cross tells Kiley that he will report it as a legitimate accident. Henry Dobbins and Azar give him a stack of comic books to read while he is in the hospital. They tell him that now he will be living the night life in Japan.

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Chapter 20 Summary


Chapter 22 Summary