Summary of “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”
There are many strange stories that O'Brien heard in Vietnam, and this was told to him by Rat Kiley. Rat has a reputation as a person who exaggerates so no one believes him, but he tells a good tale. Rat insists he served in a detachment in the mountains near Tra Bong, where one of the medics, Mark Fossie, sent for his high school sweetheart from the States to live with him there. There was no security, and the unit was isolated.
Mark's beautiful seventeen-year-old girlfriend, a tall blonde, Mary Anne Bell, was flown in and kept secretly. They were engaged and meant to get married after the war. They set up house together and were always holding hands. Mary Anne jumped into the experience with enthusiasm, learning how to use the weapons, speak Vietnamese, and camp out. Mary Anne is completely at home in the hostile environment and not afraid of the Viet Cong. She swims in the Song Tra Bong river. The guys think she is a tiger. She gets adrenaline rushes when the injured men come in needing limbs amputated, and she learns how to be a volunteer medic. She cuts her hair and stops wearing makeup. She stops talking about marriage. She starts to stay out all night. It turns out she is staying in the hut of the Green Berets, sleeping with them like another guy. She goes out on night patrol with them: “The wilderness seemed to draw her in” (p. 100).
One night Fossie breaks into the Green Beret compound because he hears Mary Anne chanting. There are candles, incense, and the decayed head of a leopard. Mary Anne has a serene face but wears a necklace of human tongues. Mary Anne assures Mark that what she is doing is not bad. She explains that she wants to eat Vietnam; she feels fully herself only when out on a night mission. Rat Kiley says at that point he got transferred out of the unit. He says he heard later that one night she just disappeared into the jungle and was never heard from again.
Commentary on “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong”
Rat Kiley is obviously telling a tall tale, but the audience, represented by Mitchell Sanders, is captivated. Mitchell keeps getting angry when Rat Kiley stops the story and starts inserting digressions. He tells Rat that he has to keep to the rules of storytelling. It doesn't matter if the story is true; he must stay out of the way of the story and let it speak for itself. Rat infuriates Mitchell when he says he does not know how the story ends because he was transferred. Finally, Rat tells an ending he says he heard second-hand of how Mary Anne disappeared, “crossed to the other side, she was part of the land” (p. 110).
This is one of the more spectacular tales of the book because it is completely unexpected and unbelievable. Mitchell keeps pointing out that the story does not ring true as fact, but he wants to hear it anyway. Rat Kiley admits that he was in love with Mary Anne, as were all the men. She is a sort of mythical woman that satisfies their needs. The interesting thing is that she is more than a sexual object or fantasy. Rat Kiley likes that she understands the men's experience of Vietnam, something they can't explain to the women back home. She comes to the war a virgin as the men are when they come, and then she changes, no longer innocent. She accepts the danger and mystery, and in fact, gets hooked on them. She no longer wants to be a wife and mother married to Mark after the war. She becomes part of the wilderness and even partakes in terrible pagan rituals where she wears a necklace of human tongues, supposedly gathered during her night patrols with the Green Berets.
Mary Anne symbolizes what happens to the men who come to war. At home they are civilized, but in Vietnam, they can shoot animals and people, as Rat Kiley killed the innocent baby buffalo. Mary Anne goes native, a female version of Joseph Conrad's character Kurtz who goes wild in Africa in “The Heart of Darkness,” killing and enslaving his black servants. This story, like Conrad's story of Africa, makes Vietnam itself a character and influence that the men cannot escape. They are unable to keep their civilized or personal points of view in the jungle. They all go crazy in one way or another. Besides showing what happens to the men during war, Rat Kiley points out that women are not that different from men. They too have instinct and primitive urges. Given the right time and place, any human will revert to basic behavior.