You all take a good look at this lump of shit. Remember what it looks like. You f*ck up
in a firefight... and I goddamn guarantee you a trip out of the bush - in a body bag!
Out here, assholes, you keep your shit wired tight at all times! And that goes
for you, shit-for-brains
A young US Army soldier, Private Chris Taylor, arrives in South Vietnam with several other replacements and is assigned to the 25th infantry division. As the new men step off the plane upon arrival in Vietnam, they see the seasoned veterans who have just finished their tours of duty, taunting the new guys as they board a transport plane home. Along with fellow soldier Private Gardner, Taylor joins an experienced rifle platoon that has suffered in recent combat operations. His enthusiasm quickly evaporates as he goes on endless patrols and, as a new guy, is assigned to dig foxholes and perform other arduous tasks.
On his first night ambush patrol, his unit is set upon by a squad of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops who walk into the squad's ambush position. The soldier meant to be on guard duty (Junior) has fallen asleep. Private Gardner dies after being shot while standing up in a firefight and Tex has his leg blown off from a grenade thrown by Sgt. Red O'Neil. Private Taylor is grazed in the neck.
As Chris recovers from his wound—a rite of passage that grants him greater social contact with his platoon mates—he reveals that he dropped out of college to volunteer for service in Vietnam (Stone himself had dropped out of Yale twice). He states that he felt college was leading him nowhere and that it was unfair that lower-class youths had to carry the burden of the fighting in Vietnam, while rich kids could avoid the draft. His new friends among the more experienced troops introduce him to the "Underworld," a bunker converted into a pseudo-nightclub, where they smoke cannabis and opium, drink beer, and dance with each other to soul music.
After returning to field duty, Chris sees more combat and, during another patrol, a bunker complex is discovered. (In real life, the 25th Division encountered tunnel complexes at Ci Chi much like the ones in the film. During the examination of a campfire left by the enemy, two soldiers, Sanderson and Sal, are mortally wounded by a trap. After leaving the bunker complex area, the soldiers come across another member of their unit, Manny, who has been snatched from his guard duty, tied to a post, and mutilated.
Reaching a nearby village several kilometers north of the bunker with a belief that the enemy was spotted there, the platoon discovers food and weapons caches. The villagers insist they were given no choice by the Viet Cong. The troops, tired and angry because of the deaths of some of their comrades, take out their frustrations on the village, murdering and torturing several civilians. Barnes kills a woman while interrogating her husband. The platoon burns the village and leaves, with a final scene depicting the gang rape of a teenage girl (which Chris stops).
Sgt. Elias, having witnessed Sgt. Barnes' and Lt. Wolfe's illegal actions, attacks Barnes and then puts the two men on report to their Company Commander. Chris, having originally admired Barnes, now finds his loyalties leaning towards Elias, while Barnes' supporters talk of fragging Elias to prevent him from acting as an eyewitness in a formal report about the illegal killings.
On yet another patrol, the platoon is ambushed. Lt. Wolfe fails to take charge as the platoon suffers losses, and he calls friendly artillery fire down on his own men. Sgt. Elias, correctly anticipating an enemy flanking attack, suggests a flanking ambush to counter the threat. Although Wolfe is skeptical, Barnes agrees to the plan. Elias and three other men, including Pvt. Taylor, move around the fighting to try to intercept the flanking NVA troops. Along with the heavy fighting, many wounded need attention and Barnes calls for them to pull back. This action leaves Elias and his three troops unsupported.
While the rest of the platoon retreats to its landing zone to be airlifted out of the combat area, Barnes goes back, ostensibly to get Elias and his three men out. Barnes orders Taylor and the two others back to the landing zone, telling them that he will get Elias himself. However, instead of bringing Elias back, Barnes ambushes and shoots him.
Barnes then returns to the platoon. When Taylor asks where Elias is, Barnes tells him he is dead. During the extraction by helicopter, however, the entire platoon sees Elias alive, badly wounded and running away from the pursuing North Vietnamese. He dies in an open field after being shot several more times by the North Vietnamese troops.
Taylor now suspects that Barnes caused Elias' death and begins talking to his fellow soldiers about killing Barnes in retaliation. As a result there is a confrontation between Taylor and Barnes in the bunker.
The company is sent back into the area and builds defensive positions to bait the NVA. It had been discovered that an entire NVA infantry regiment is on the move south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This final battle ends with the obliteration of nearly the entire platoon, including Lt. Wolfe, due to the heavy NVA attack and a US aerial napalm attack. During the battle, a berserking Barnes nearly kills Chris.
At dawn Chris regains consciousness, finding himself wounded and surrounded by bodies. He takes an AK47 rifle from a dead NVA soldier and wanders around, aimlessly. Chris walks past, and ignores, a wounded but potentially dangerous NVA soldier (in the background), suggesting that now he is focused on exacting revenge on Sgt. Barnes. Eventually he finds the wounded Barnes.
Barnes demands that Chris call a medic but Chris does not budge and instead keeps the rifle trained on Barnes. Sneeringly, Barnes challenges Chris to "do it." Chris shoots Barnes three times in the chest, killing him. He then collapses and awaits medical attention. A unit of mechanized infantry arrive and begin tending to the survivors. One of the few other survivors of the platoon is Pvt. Francis, who emerges from a bunker and is seemingly horrified to find that he lived through the battle and will therefore be obliged to continue his tour of duty. He grabs a knife and stabs himself in the thigh.
The injured Chris is reunited with Francis and the two are airlifted from the battlefield. The voiceover of the final scene suggests Chris Taylor is going home to the US, profoundly affected and significantly changed as a person. He states that those who survive have an obligation to those who died there and meditates on his life as a product of two fathers, Barnes and Elias.
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