Wars come to an end but the misery created by them never ceases to exist. The views of war shared by the writer progress harmoniously along with the story. The characters of the short story represent the human world at large; and specifically the very notion of war as irrational. O’Brien’s “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” is an insight into the human psyche caught up in a war situation which goes through shocking as well as absurd experiences, and according to O’Brien, soldiers are not necessarily heroes, but are just normal guys dealing with fear, which he substantiates by unravelling the ways with which soldiers deal with fear.
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms “Realism is a mode of writing that gives the impression of recording or ‘reflecting’ faithfully an actual way of life.” O’Brien uses realism in his story as he makes Paul Berlin experience the world of war around him through his tired but vigilant senses. The description of sights like, the soldiers moving, “One by one, like sheep in a dream, they passes though the hedgerow…”, “…the string of soldiers wading into the flat paddy…” ; “…moonlight was reflected off a machine gun or a wrist watch.”, and, “The moon was very high now and very bright, and they were waiting for cloud cover.” very well establish the visual settings for the story. A soldier like Paul Berlin is a normal guy who is dealing with his fear even by shutting his eyes tightly to keep away the reality. However, he is very much in the battlefield as O’Brien describes; Paul Berlin feels, “…warmth of the paddy waters rising up to his cut knee.”, he smells, “…mud and algae and cattle manure and chlorophyll, decay, breeding mosquitos and leeches as big as mice…”, and, “They were quiet awhile. And the night was quiet, no crickets or birds…”. All these moments of perception makes the setting feel so realistic that we feel what Paul Berlin feels. By doing so, and Paul Berlin being the representative of the soldiers, the writer is making us realize that soldiers are just normal guys dealing with fear.
O’Brien ends the story as the protagonist reaches the sea which is supposed to be the moment of liberation; liberation from fear and haunting memories of tragic experiences. The writer is being realistic as he states Paul Berlin “...smelled salt and heard the sea, he could not stop being afraid.” The moments that witnessed death and absurdity of human lives will not go away even if one gets away from the place where one has experienced them. The differences among the men in terms of willingness to serve and fight in this war are that some of the men were willing to fight as it is said that they were excited but some were not; those who were afraid, however happened to be in the situation as they were drafted into the military service by the government and did not choose to be there. Some are described as being exhausted form the long night march; "... some of them excited by the adventure, some of them afraid, some of them exhausted from long night march, some of them looking forward to reaching the sea where they would be safe." Paul Berlin is the representative of men who were drafted into the military service by government and the ones who were new to the warfront. Toby, on the otherhand, represents the excited and experienced men in uniforms. Even the very presence of the soldiers adds to the absurdity as some of them are dragged into it not knowing how to cope with the situation.By means of portraying Paul Berlin, the writer is personifying the concept of death, fear, alienation, solitude, hope, and optimism. War, for O’Brien, is a sadistic endeavour to overcome the inbuilt fear and inferiority complex of man, and thus carries no dignity or meaning. Moreover, he thinks there can never be any emancipation from the horrible memories of war for those who were in it. Each incident in the story is crafted to substantiate the writer’s view of war.
The whole story takes a course which is optimistic in appearance. The tone up until the very last sentence is positive and that of “overcoming fear”. The last sentence, like an O. Henry short story, brings in a twist to the plot; Private First Class Paul Berlin is not going to overcome the war instead he is going to live with its after effects for a long time. On one point we are made to believe that Paul Berlin’s “fear was mostly the ear being so terribly afraid again”. However, we are told otherwise only in the last sentence, “But even when he smelled salt and heard the sea, he could not stop of being afraid.” It is over here the whole discussion is overturned upside down as this statement negates the very development of the plot. Paul Berlin’s optimistic thoughts of the future are found throughout the narration letting us know one of the ways with which the soldiers deal with fear; which support the writer’s views that soldiers aren’t necessary heroes, but are just normal guys dealing with fear, as O’Brien writes, “He was pretending he was a boy again, camping with his father in the midnight summer along the Des Moines River. In the dark, with his eyes pinched shut, he pretended. […] He pretended he was not a soldier.”
The story, “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” would have been subjected to a different reading had there not been the last sentence. It could very well be the story of a young soldier overcoming his fears and inhibitions if we were not told in the end that “he could not stop being afraid”. Paul Berlin along with other soldiers enact a play (the war) on the stage (battlefield) to prove O'Brien's thesis that soldiers aren't necessarily heroes. Paul Berlin's life as a soldier shows us, they are just normal guys dealing with fear. This conclusion very well serves the intention of the author, i.e. defining the war as an absurd entity which is irrational in its very foundation and causes only destruction as well as fear. The author is successful in crafting the plot, and weaving together the fear and the life of Paul Berlin as a soldier. He never frees himself from fear inflicted by the war. This is what a war does to humanity.