So here's what happens. We meet a bunch of soldiers: First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Rat Kiley, Kiowa, Mitchell Sanders, Ted Lavender, Norman Bowker, and others. Almost immediately, Ted Lavender dies. We learn that the soldiers carry lots of things, from guns to fear to expectations.
As we go through the book – which does not flow chronologically – we're told a lot of things. One of the most important is that it's impossible to generalize about war. War sucks, but it doesn't always suck. It corrupts our soldiers, but it also makes them feel totally alive.
Curt Lemon dies, which leads O'Brien to tell us that truth is flexible in war. The things that happen in war are so crazy that literal truth can't possibly capture them. Only emotional truth, or "story-truth," can, and O'Brien uses it liberally. Tim kills a guy on a trail and feels guilty about it, so he makes up a back-story for the kid in order to make the victim more human. Rat Kiley tells us the creepiest story in the world, "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," in which a good down-home American girl is seduced by the Vietnam War into becoming a creepy jungle killer. Later, Kiowa drowns in a field that's literally full of poop, and we start to talk about blame. Then, in "Good Form," O'Brien tells us that almost the entire book is made up, including parts that he claims elsewhere are true. Wait, what? Just when we thought we were following along…
In the last third of the book, we start to get into stories a lot more. In a vengeful prank against a medic who nearly killed him with his negligence and then took his place in the brotherhood of the platoon, Tim creates a story that nearly drives the medic insane. Then, in "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien tells us how he started to tell stories in the first place – to bring a nine-year-old girl named Linda, whom he loved, back to life – and how that method of storytelling still works, to save the war dead and to save himself.