The prologue to Last of the Annamese is set in Da Nang in 1967. Chuck and Ike visit an orphanage, and in the infirmary, they find a small boy with phosphorus still burning in his skin. They rush off to find an American military doctor to treat the boy, but when they return, the boy has died. This episode sets the stage for the drama that follows.
The boy’s death has several ramifications. First, it mirrors the way Chuck’s own son, Ben, died. Second, it establishes the theme of the boy-child in Chuck’s life. The theme recurs throughout the book.
Third, and in some ways most important, it underlines in unspoken terms the U.S. responsibility for the tragedies that the various boy-children in Chuck’s history endure. Ben, it turns out, didn’t die in combat; he was killed by another GI. Thu, the child of Thanh and Tuyet, is orphaned during the final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
And the unnamed boy in the prologue? He dies of white phosphorus burns. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong didn’t use phosphorus. Only the U.S. did. So it was U.S. fighting forces that delivered the weapon that killed the boy.
I don’t mean to use this theme to accuse the U.S. of deliberately killing innocent civilians. I meant to underline that in war even the side with morality on its side causes the deaths of innocents. That thought is endemic to Chuck’s struggle throughout the book—he tries with all that’s in him to win the war against the North Vietnamese, but in the end witnesses the destruction of South Vietnam caused in large measure by the Americans’ decision to abandon Vietnam to its fate.