B.D. and Ryan are completing their tour of duty in Vietnam. They are bonded to each other--"some kind of cultish remnant"--because they are the only men from the original unit who have not returned home. Unexpectedly, a new lieutenant takes command. He views the unit as undisciplined; he lacks patience and a sense of humor.

Ryan's reaction is sarcastic mimicry, which the lieutenant overhears. When challenged, Ryan responds with a scurrilous comment. This initiates a menacing, deadly interaction between them. B.D. watches this interaction helplessly. He tries to persuade Ryan: "All you have to do . . . is keep quiet." (22) But Ryan can't help himself; his mission is to make the lieutenant aware of "what an asshole he is." (21)

B.D. feels increasingly desperate, fantasizing that he will blow the lieutenant up with a grenade. When he tries to enlist help from the former unit head the latter suggests that B.D. put himself in the line of fire in place of Ryan. B.D. realizes that officers stick together, and, even worse, he feels "weak, corrupt, and afraid." (30) Soon thereafter, Ryan is killed during a routine mission.


Several aspects of this story offer parallels to medical practice and training: the power relations inherent in institutional hierarchies and the need to make choices in coping with them; the forging of friendships that are based, not on shared interests, but on having survived a common ordeal together; being at the mercy of changes in personnel; the capriciousness of who dies and how and when; ambivalence, feelings of guilt and fear.

The story undergoes a startling shift in narrative point of view when Ryan dies. Suddenly, the perspective has undergone a time shift as we learn that the story we have been following in the present was related "years later" by B.D. to his future wife, and that B.D. "had not felt grief that day [when Ryan died] . . . He had felt delivered--set free." (30) Then the narrative voice switches to the nurse who tends Ryan as he is dying, as she holds his hand, and links it to the hand of another wounded soldier. It is as if grief must be expressed through the nurse, who, on finding Ryan dead, requires her own anodyne--"I'm going to need a little something after all." (32)

Primary Source

The Night in Question



Place Published

New York



Page Count