Before he's drafted, Tim has a totally abstract view of politics. He knows that he doesn't like the war, but for political reasons, not because he's afraid he might have to go. And then, suddenly, he's drafted and it gets personal. He gets a summer job at a meatpacking plant, and all the blood and slaughter just make him more afraid and sickened by what he's going to have to go do. He thinks about running away to Canada, but chickens out, afraid of the social stigma – just an anticipatory taste of the issues with reputation and weakness he's going to have once he's gets to the war.
Even when things seem like they're really not all that bad – the weather is nice, and even though they're carrying a lot, they're really just marching together – someone will step on a mine, or get shot, and Tim is abruptly reminded that they're indeed still at war. Even the funny, light-hearted things have an element of the weird about them, like Kiowa doing a rain dance in a Vietnamese village or a tranqued-out Lavender talking about how mellow the war is.
We've seen some gruesome things, but this is the first time we've dealt with the guilt over killing. For some reason, this lends the story an extra darkness that we've not yet seen. Sure, "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" was super creepy, and "How to Tell a True War Story" was very sad and also gross, but in neither of them did the main characters take another human life. In "The Man I Killed," we have that shadow appear for the first time.
You don't get much more nightmarish than an exploding, boiling field of poop that drowns your best friend. That particular nightmares stretches out over four stories – "Speaking of Courage," "Notes," "In the Field," and "Field Trip." But the nightmare doesn't end there. In "The Ghost Soldier," Tim gets obsessed with vengeance and ends up having a bizarre and unpleasant hallucination in which he turns into the war itself. And in "Night Life," Rat goes slightly insane, laughing and calling the war "Just one big banquet. Meat, man. You and me. Everybody. Meat for the bugs" (Night Life.22). Ay caramba.
This is the stage that doesn't quite fit. The intensity of the nightmare that the soldiers deal with in the nightmare stage is such that they don't ever really come back from it. For Norman Bowker, his voyage ended with the nightmare stage. He even says, in "Notes," that "That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him… Feels like I'm still in deep shit" (Notes.3). Tim, on the other hand, does get to escape a bit through his stories. He pours the nightmares onto the page, he brings his dead comrades back to life with words, and the act of doing this is his thrilling escape, his return. But he needs to keep doing it, because the escape only lasts while the story is alive. It's not a permanent escape or return; he's perpetually escaping, even twenty years later.