The Language of Literature
 Teacher Center

"Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy" by Tim O'Brien


Billy Boy Watkins steps on a mine in Vietnam, blowing off his foot. The shock of the incident grips Billy and in his ensuing panic, he dies from a heart attack. Private First Class Paul Berlin, a young, inexperienced soldier, witnesses this event and has an intense reaction to Billy's tragic death. Seized by the irony of a young man literally scaring himself to death, Paul must deal with his own fears as he moves through the jungle with his company later that same day.


This story addresses

  • the inherent violence of war,
  • involuntary physiological reactions to stress,
  • desensitization to violence and death.

Instructional Focus

To encourage students to identify and examine

  • understand and empathize with differing reactions to high-stress situations,
  • remain sensitive, yet responsive to violence and death,
  • seek appropriate levels of assistance when coping with high stress situations.


Oral Reading with Written Response
Explain to students that this story is best read straight through to appreciate its full impact. Instruct students to note passages of particular interest or concern during the reading for later discussion. Conduct the oral reading, not pausing for comment.
Following the reading, ask students to write about their initial reactions to the events in the story. Have them focus on the emotional responses aroused by the events and/or the passages they noted during the reading.
Reread the story orally, this time pausing to discuss the events/reactions students wrote about.

Class Discussion
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:

  • Private First Class Paul Berlin pretends he is not in Vietnam. How is this pretending favorable to his health? How is it detrimental? Why do people experience denial in times of stress?
  • Berlin adopts other tricks to keep himself from thinking. Why doesn't he want to think? How are some of these tricks potentially injurious to him? To others? Is this a viable coping mechanism? Explain.
  • Berlin tries to remember what his instructors said about getting over fear. Why do you think no one taught him how to be courageous? How does one develop a sense of courage?
  • Toby tells Paul he'll get used to the killing. What is good about this? Bad? How can we become inured to stress?
  • Berlin's involuntary response to stress is laughing. What others can you identify? How can one overcome "inappropriate" reactions to stress?
  • Is Toby's reaction to Paul's laughter appropriate? Explain. What were other options at Toby's disposal?
  • Do you think Paul got "used to it" as Toby said he would? Why/Why not?
  • In what ways do you think the soldiers' responses to fear compare to how people react to stress in everyday life?

Soldier Survival
Ask students to research the survival rate of soldiers. How does the rate differ between "first day" soldiers and those who have been in battle before? Have them write a report explaining the statistics, suggesting methods to improve survival of "first day" soldiers.

Stressed Students
High school students often feel like they are expected to be perfect: the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect athlete. How can such unrealistic expectations (whether self-imposed or imposed by others) lead to extreme stress? Ask students to research ways in which adolescents can healthfully respond to stress, such as exercise or journaling, and present their findings to the class.

Wars in Music
Instruct students to research public support for wars as represented in musical form. Are there differences in the songs popularized during different wars? What are the distinctions and how might they be accounted for? Have students report their findings to the class after playing samples of representative music.

Real World Connection

Have students interview veterans about their wartime experiences. What were some of the hardest things to adjust to when facing stressful situations? What did they do to facilitate the adjustment? Did others help them adjust? If so, how?

What did they do to make the readjustment back to civilian life? Was this as easy or more difficult than they thought it would be? Did the wartime experiences irrevocably alter their perception of life? How? What advice would the veteran offer a new recruit about coping with the stress of combat? Have student report their findings to the class.



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