Tim O’Brien - The narrator and protagonist of the collection of stories. O’Brien is a pacifist who rationalizes his participation in Vietnam by concluding that his feelings of obligation toward his family and country are stronger influences than his own politics.
The work recounts his personal experience in the Vietnam War and allows him to comment on the war. He enters the war a scared young man afraid of the shame that dodging the war would bring him . He tells stories about Vietnam in order to cope with his painful memories. To cover the distance between himself and what he recounts, O’Brien weaves a prominent thread of memory through the work.
Jimmy Cross- Jimmy Cross’s character represents the profound effects responsibility has on those who are too immature to handle it. Cross’s guilt is palpable every time one of his men dies, but it is most acute in the case of Ted Lavender. He doesn’t care about the war and has no desire to be a team leader.
Mitchell Sanders - One of the most likable soldiers in the war. Sanders strongly influences the narrator, O’Brien. He is kind and devoted, and he has a strong sense of justice.
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, although he carries the thumb of a Vietnamese corpse.
Henry Dobbins - The platoon’s machine gunner and resident gentle giant. Dobbins’s profound decency, despite his simplicity, contrasts with his bearish frame. Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck as a good luck charm.
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. Rat Kiley, medic, is distraught over his best friend’s death, which is described as simultaneously horrifying and beautiful.
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, carrying dope and popping tranquilizers to calm himself.
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.
Elroy Berdahl - The 82 year old owner of the Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River near the Canadian border. Berdahl serves as the closest thing to a hero figure for O’Brien, who, after receiving his draft notice, spends six 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. Berdahl gives Tim opportunity and money.
Kathleen - O’Brien’s daughter and a symbol of the naïve outsider.
Mary Anne Bell - Mark Fossie’s blond-haired, blue-eyed 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 becomes a part of the Greenies-the Green Berets-a squad described by Tim as loners. According to legend, Mary Anne disappears into the mountains. Mary Anne dispels all images of women as peaceful, non-confrontational beings.
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.