‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ is the story of Paul Berlin’s first night in the Vietnam War. Paul Berlin is terrified. He is in a strange, dark landscape. Earlier that day, he witnessed the death of one of his fellow soldiers, a death made even more terrifying by the medic Doc Peret’s assertion that Billy Boy Watkins died not from the grenade wound but as a result of his own fear. Subsequently, Paul Berlin’s understandable fear of this new and lifethreatening situation takes on an even darker hue, for if fear alone can kill a soldier, and if Paul Berlin is afraid, then his fear must be putting him at an even greater risk. As a result, Paul Berlin spends his entire first night of the war trying to avoid not only the sort of physical exposure that would allow the enemy to shoot at him but the sort of emotional exposure which might humiliate him in front of his fellow soldiers. Because he will depend on these men he does not yet know, he must somehow ensure that they do not think he has been made unreliable by his fear. Finally, he is trying very hard to avoid exposing the true depths of his fear to himself, for as he saw in the afternoon, a soldier’s own fear is capable of killing him. Just as Paul Berlin must navigate the frightening external landscape of the Vietnamese jungle in order to reach the safety of the sea, so must he navigate his own interior landscape of frozen terror in order to reach some position of emotional safety from which he can continue as a soldier.
The story opens with a line of men moving slowly, ‘‘like sheep in a dream,’’ through a dark landscape. Although Paul Berlin understands that they are marching at night so that the darkness will protect them, the darkness adds another level of confusion to his experience. He quite literally cannot see what is happening most of the time. He is in the Southern Hemisphere, so even the stars are foreign to him. He recognizes the Southern Cross but cannot yet name the other stars. He can, however, recognize the moon, and throughout the story he keeps a close eye on its progress across the sky. On the one hand, it is the only thing he recognizes, and so bears the comfort of the familiar. On the other hand, the moonlight will expose the soldiers to the enemy, and so the one thing that is familiar to him is also the thing that could get him killed. The progress of the moon is symbolic of Paul Berlin’s emotional state. At the beginning of the story, when he is still hiding from the reality of his situation by pretending that he is camping, the moon has not yet risen and so cannot expose this pretense. Later, when he first sees the moon, it is ‘‘pale and shrunken to the size of a dime.’’
This appearance of a small and weak moon coincides with Paul Berlin’s nearly stifled memory of being ‘‘unable’’ to fire his gun that afternoon. Although he can admit that he was unable to fire, and although it is safe to assume from his resolution ‘‘that next time he would be ready and not so afraid’’ that he failed to fire during a moment of fighting, his ability to tell himself the truth about what happened is still pale and small, like the moon. He cannot fully admit to himself that he failed in his first real moment of fighting. Finally, the moon appears ‘‘very high now, and very bright,’’ bright enough that the platoon must stop and wait for cloud cover before continuing their march. It is at this point, when the moon threatens to physically expose the soldiers, that Paul Berlin succumbs to a fit of giggles. The moon is bright, and he is making unnecessary noise; both circumstances threaten not only his safety but that of the soldiers around him. It is not until the moon goes back behind the clouds that Paul Berlin manages to regain control over himself. His terror at Billy Boy Watkins’s death cannot survive the bright light of emotional exposure, and he retreats into a state of semihysteria.
In another story, ‘‘The Things They Carried,’’ O’Brien makes an observation that applies as well to Paul Berlin. He says that all soldiers carry their ‘‘greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. . . . They died so as not to die of embarrassment.’’ Paul Berlin spends the bulk of this story trying very hard to avoid being embarrassed by having his own terror exposed to his fellow soldiers. Early in the story, when Paul Berlin is pretending ‘‘he [is] not a soldier,’’ he is awakened from his reverie by the soldier next in line, who accuses him of sleeping. ‘‘I’d shoot you if I thought you was sleeping,’’ the soldier says, expressing the danger Paul fears from his fellow soldiers. He does not yet know the men in his platoon. The soldier next to him is a ‘‘shadow,’’ and even later, when they share water and a stick of gum, Paul cannot ‘‘find’’ the soldier’s face in the darkness. The soldiers are indistinguishable to Paul at that point, although he resolves to ‘‘learn their names and laugh at their jokes,’’ so that afterward he would have ‘‘war buddies.’’ But for the duration of this story, all the other soldiers, even Buff after he introduces himself, remain indistinct and frightening to Paul. It is upon these indistinct and frightening others that Paul will depend for his survival. Just as he resolves not to tell either of his parents how frightened he had been, Paul must also hide his fear from his fellow soldiers.
Try as he might, Paul Berlin cannot break out of the isolation of his own terror, just as he cannot truly admit to himself how crippled he is by his fear. Early in the story, Paul Berlin tells himself they will be safe when they reach the sea because ‘‘their rear would be guarded by five thousand miles of open ocean,’’ ocean across which lies home, the United States, a safe harbor. He cannot go home, but he can get to the sea, across which lies home. However, Paul succumbs to the fanciful belief that, when the platoon reaches the sea, they will ‘‘swim and dive into the breakers and hunt crayfish.’’ These are the actions of boys at play, not soldiers at war, and this reverie, coming on the heels of Paul Berlin’s pretense that he is not at war but camping ‘‘along the Des Moines river’’ with his father, indicates that he is clinging to false hopes that the war will somehow change into a situation not of continual danger but of adventure and play. Paul spends much of the story attempting to escape the actual experience of war, whether by pretending to be someplace else, or by counting, or by singing songs inside his head. He also seeks to control his terror by making up stories, stories in which he ‘‘would never let on how frightened he had been.’’ ‘‘A good war story’’ is what he seeks, one that contains the experience and covers up how terrified he had been.
What Paul Berlin learned that afternoon when Billy Boy Watkins was ‘‘scared to death’’ was that fear can kill. It is not enough to stay in the darkness, to wait for the moon to go back behind the clouds. It is not enough even to remember his training, to remember to stay off the center of the paths, or to remain ‘‘ag-ile, mobile, hos-tile’’; he would somehow have to learn how to stop the fear that left his ‘‘brain flopping like wet cement in a mixer.’’ It is that fear, the fear that Paul Berlin expends so much effort hiding even from himself, that can kill a person. That is what killed Billy Boy Watkins, after all: his own fear. If Billy Boy Watkins, who was ‘‘tough as nails,’’ could die of fright, then what hope does Paul Berlin have, a boy so frightened he was unable to discharge his weapon in the afternoon, a boy so terrified he succumbs to a hysterical fit of the giggles while on a night march to the sea? Despite his terror of being exposed as a coward, Paul Berlin learns during the course of the story that he can depend on his fellow soldiers to save him, even if being saved means being ‘‘smothered.’’ Buff does not shoot Paul Berlin for his terror; instead, he does what he can to help him get past the crippling fit of giggles that endangers them all. The trick, Buff tells him, is ‘‘to stay calm.’’ Paul Berlin spends the whole first half of the story attempting to calm himself with counting, with songs, and with stories he makes up in his head about what he will tell his parents when he gets home. At the story’s end, he returns to these ‘‘tricks,’’ but they do not work for him anymore. The numbers come ‘‘without sequence, randomly, a jumbled and tumbling and chaotic rush of numbers that [runs] like fluid through his head.’’ Once again he tells himself the kind of story that helped earlier in the night, but he finds that no matter how much he tries to convince himself that ‘‘he would never be so afraid again’’ it is not true. The last words of the story sum up Paul Berlin’s truth, the truth he can finally admit to himself: ‘‘He could not stop being afraid.’’
By the end of the story, Paul Berlin has not been able to conquer his fear, in part because any sensible person should be deeply afraid in a war. The only soldiers who are not afraid in war are psychopaths and characters in propaganda movies. What Paul Berlin has managed to accomplish is to make real contact with another person in his platoon. He has been exposed to Buff as terrified and not in control of his own emotions, but rather than being shot, as threatened at the beginning of the story, he has learned that he can count on a fellow soldier, even in a moment of humiliation. He also manages, by the end of the story, to admit his own fear to himself, and to begin to learn how to carry it. He might never stop being afraid, but he might just survive the war, might just survive long enough to go home and tell ‘‘war stories.’’
Charlotte M. Freeman, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.