Read an in-depth analysis of Tim O’Brien.
Read an in-depth analysis of Jimmy Cross.
Read an in-depth analysis of Mitchell Sanders.
Read an in-depth analysis of Kiowa.
Norman Bowker - A man who embodies the damage that the war can do to a soldier long after the war is over. During the war, Bowker is quiet and unassuming, and Kiowa’s death has a profound effect on him. Bowker’s letter to O’Brien in “Notes” demonstrates the importance of sharing stories in the healing process.
Henry Dobbins - The platoon’s machine gunner and resident gentle giant. Dobbins’s profound decency, despite his simplicity, contrasts with his bearish frame. He is a perfect example of the incongruities in Vietnam.
Curt Lemon - A childish and careless member of the Alpha Company who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round. Though O’Brien does not particularly like Lemon, Lemon’s death is something O’Brien continually contemplates with sadness and regret. The preventability of his death and the irrational fears of his life—as when a dentist visits the company—point to the immaturity of many young American soldiers in Vietnam.
Ted Lavender - A young, scared soldier in the Alpha Company. Lavender is the first to die in the work. He makes only a brief appearance in the narrative, popping tranquilizers to calm himself while the company is outside Than Khe. Because his death, like Lemon’s, is preventable, it illustrates the expendability of human life in a senseless war.
Lee Strunk - Another soldier in the platoon and a minor character. A struggle with Dave Jensen over a jackknife results in Strunk’s broken nose. In begging Jensen to forget their pact—that if either man is gravely injured, the other will kill him swiftly—after he is injured, he illustrates how the fantasy of war differs from its reality.
Dave Jensen - A minor character whose guilt over his injury of Lee Strunk causes him to break his own nose. Jensen’s relief after Strunk’s death is an illustration of the perspective soldiers are forced to assume. Instead of mourning the loss of his friend, Jensen is glad to know that the pact the two made—and that he broke—has now become obsolete.
Azar - A soldier in the Alpha Company and one of the few unsympathetic characters in the work. Every time Azar appears, he is mean-spirited and cruel, torturing Vietnamese civilians and poking fun both at the corpses of the enemy and the deaths of his own fellow soldiers. His humanity is finally demonstrated near the end of the work, when he is forced to help unearth Kiowa’s body from the muck of the sewage field. This moment of remorse proves that a breaking point is possible even for soldiers who use cruelty as a defense mechanism.
Bobby Jorgenson - The medic who replaces Rat Kiley. The second time O’Brien is shot, Jorgenson’s incompetence inspires O’Brien’s desire for irrational revenge. Although Jorgenson’s anger prompts him to kick O’Brien in the head for trying to scare him, he later apologizes, redeeming himself as a medic by patching things up with O’Brien.
Elroy Berdahl - The proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River near the Canadian border. Berdahl serves as the closest thing to a father figure for O’Brien, who, after receiving his draft notice, spends six contemplative days with the quiet, kind Berdahl while he makes a decision about whether to go to war or to escape the draft by running across the border to Canada.
Kathleen - O’Brien’s daughter and a symbol of the naïve outsider. Although O’Brien alludes to having multiple children, Kathleen is the only one we meet. Her youth and innocence force O’Brien to try to explain the meaning of the war. Frustrated that he cannot tell her the whole truth, he is inspired by her presence since it forces him to gain new perspective on his war experience.
Mary Anne Bell - Mark Fossie’s high school sweetheart. Although Mary Anne arrives in Vietnam full of innocence, she gains a respect for death and the darkness of the jungle and, according to legend, disappears there. Unlike Martha and Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend, who only serve as fantasy reminders of a world removed from Vietnam, Mary Anne is a strong and realized character who shatters Fossie’s fantasy of finding comfort in his docile girlfriend.
Mark Fossie - A medic in Rat Kiley’s previous assignment. Fossie loses his innocence in the realization that his girlfriend, Mary Anne, would rather be out on ambush with Green Berets than planning her postwar wedding to Fossie in Cleveland.
Linda - O’Brien’s first love, whose death of a brain tumor in the fifth grade is O’Brien’s first experience with mortality. From his experience with Linda, O’Brien learns the power that storytelling has to keep memory alive.
Kiowa is pretty much the most decent character in the entire book. He's thoughtful, respects the Vietnamese, isn't a coward, and he even has a sense of humor. We quickly learn that he's O'Brien's best friend in the war, not that either of them would say the words "best friend." They're way too cool for that.
Kiowa is Native American—he carries his grandfather's hunting hatchet—and was raised Christian. His father teaches Sunday school, and he likes the way it feels inside churches. When he gets reflective about Ted Lavender's death, we know that he's also a good guy. And when O'Brien needs a friend, Kiowa's there:
"You did a good thing today," [Kiowa] said. "That shaking hands crap, it isn't decent. The guys'll hassle you for a while—especially Jensen—but just keep saying no. Should've done it myself. Takes guts, I know that." (The Lives of the Dead.20)
But Kiowa's also an important symbol. We mean, come on: He's an American Indian (so, an original American), he's morally the most awesome character in the book, and he drowns in a field of sewage. We'll be talking more explicitly about what this might mean over in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section, but we're pretty sure that you can draw your own conclusions.