Study Guide

The Things They Carried The Ghost Soldiers

By Tim O'Brien

The Ghost Soldiers

  • O'Brien gets shot twice in his time in Vietnam.
  • The first time, Rat Kiley is there and takes care of him. O'Brien is sent away to recover and is fine.
  • Twenty-six days later, when he returns to the Alpha Company, Rat Kiley is no longer with the group—he was wounded and shipped to Japan—and the company has a new medic named Bobby Jorgenson, who's green.
  • When O'Brien is shot the second time—this time in the butt—Jorgenson is too scared to crawl over to him. O'Brien nearly dies of shock, and the wound is so poorly treated that his butt then gets gangrene.
  • As you might imagine, O'Brien isn't too happy with Bobby Jorgenson. People make fun of O'Brien pretty much constantly. It's the worst wound he's ever gotten, and he can't even talk about it without being an object of ridicule.
  • After he's released from the hospital, O'Brien is transferred away from the Alpha Company to the battalion supply section. There's no fighting there, and he's basically safe. Despite this, he misses the front.
  • And he keeps thinking about how he can get back at Bobby Jorgenson when he sees the guy again.
  • Eventually, the Alpha Company comes to the battalion supply section for a break. O'Brien gets to see most of his old friends—Mitchell Sanders, Azar, Norman Bowker, Henry Dobbins, Dave Jensen—and, as usual, there are plenty of stories to tell.
  • Mitchell Sanders tells one (Azar interrupting all the while) about Morty Phillips and how he used up his luck:
  • It's an incredibly hot day, and Morty disappears. Everyone's flipping out, and then, at dark, Morty shows up again. He's soaking wet. He went skinny dipping in a river. He could easily have been killed (it wasn't exactly safe territory) but he wasn't.
  • But! The water wasn't safe to drink. Morty gets polio and then becomes paralyzed.
  • It's a good story, but O'Brien can't stop thinking about how much he doesn't belong with these men anymore. He misses the companionship.
  • And he keeps wondering, and asking, where Bobby Jorgenson is.
  • The butt wound continues to be humiliating. He has to spread ointment on it three times a day, which stains his pants and prompts another round of hilarious jokes.
  • Mitchell Sanders tell O'Brien to forget about Bobby Jorgenson—the kid was new and scared and he's better at his job now. He tells O'Brien that Jorgenson's one of them now, and O'Brien isn't, really.
  • That doesn't exactly make O'Brien feel better. It just makes him feel betrayed.
  • Jorgenson comes to talk to O'Brien and apologizes. He tells O'Brien he just froze, and he has nightmares about it. He nearly cries, but gets it together. O'Brien  ignores him.
  • The apology just makes him angrier—now he can't even hate the guy.
  • O'Brien realizes that it's probably wrong to want revenge, but he wants it anyway. He thinks it needs to happen. He tries to enlist Mitchell Sanders to help him mess with Jorgenson's head, but Mitchell Sanders wants no part in it.
  • So he asks for Azar's help. (It's worth noting that the moment you've asked for Azar's help on anything is a moment for deep introspection and possibly a life change.) Azar, of course, agrees happily.
  • Their plan is to scare Jorgenson while he's on watch, playing on the fears that all the soldiers feel in the dark. Azar and O'Brien rig up a whole series of contraptions to make Jorgenson think that there are ghosts out there.
  • O'Brien considers backing out, but when he sees Jorgenson fitting in well with the group at evening chow, he decides to go ahead with it.
  • The two wait until midnight to start, going to a Jane Fonda movie to kill time. O'Brien knows that dark is the best time to freak out a soldier, because soldiers will already be hearing plenty of things on their own.
  • O'Brien feels like he's in a movie. First, O'Brien and Azar pull on ropes that are hooked up to noisemakers. Jorgenson tenses.
  • Watching Jorgenson, O'Brien feels himself rise out of his body. He feels like he's part of the country, part of the war, the atrocity itself.
  • Next, after waiting a bit, they set off some trip flares. It gets really bright, like daylight. Jorgenson panics and rolls for cover, terrified.
  • O'Brien thinks this makes them even. Now Jorgenson knows what it feels like to think you're going to die, and how completely not like a movie it is. He feels close to Jorgenson, even.
  • He tries to call off the rest of the game, but Azar refuses. Azar loves this stuff.
  • Azar mocks O'Brien's fear when O'Brien tries to call him off. He tells him that all O'Brien really wanted to was to pretend to be a soldier again, when he's really just a has-been. (This is why we don't enlist Azar as a partner-in-crime, among other things.)
  • O'Brien starts to freak out. He feels like he did when he got shot the second time. He's back there, and he feels himself rising out of his body, trying to tell Jorgenson to treat him for shock but unable to say a word. He feels like he's dying.
  • He tries to get Azar to stop, but Azar won't stop. Azar fires up a couple of red flares, and throws a tear-gas grenade. Finally, Azar pulls out the final touch, something that O'Brien devised himself: a pulley system with a white sandbag that looks like a ghost.
  • Jorgenson shoots the sandbag. He does not freak out. He shoots at the sandbag again. Then he walks out to the sandbag, sees it's a sandbag, yells O'Brien's name, and shoots the sandbag again, calmly, at point-blank range. Whoa.
  • O'Brien is huddled on the ground, shivering. Azar drops the rope, glares at O'Brien, calls him pathetic, and kicks him in the head. (Again, this is why we don't make deals with Azar.)
  • Jorgenson treats O'Brien's head wound and admires the cinematic vision that went into playing the prank. He admits that it got him for a moment. He tells O'Brien that he should go into the movies or something.
  • The two feel closer now. O'Brien apologizes; so does Jorgenson. Then O'Brien suggests that the two of them kill Azar, and Jorgenson laughs.