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1960s Essay on Vietnam

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  • Pages: 11
  • Word count: 2591
  • Category: Vietnam

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1960s, an era commonly referred as to “The Sixties,” was the period where complex cultural and political trends occurred in the United States. 1960s was the time of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, whose assassination created a remarkable account in the country’s history. The cultural demands and political upheavals that transpired during this era were also experienced by several countries in the west such as France, Canada, Britain and Spain. However, such events were not just confined and limited to these countries because other parts in the world including Japan and Vietnam also experienced the effects of such events. The historical accounts in Vietnam during the 60s can be pulled from Tim O’Brien’s The Man I Killed, wherein a chapter in his novel The Things I Carried, tackled the commencement of Vietnam War.

            Tim O’Brien, an American who is almost synonymous and identical with Vietnam War (Gunnink, Jannusch and Hernandez), was born with the name William Timothy O’Brien on the year 1946 in Austin, Minnesota. He obtained his degree on Bachelor of Arts major in Political Science in Malaster College, St. Paul Minnesota, where he graduated as summa cum laude in 1968. In 1970-1976, he continued his education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During the Vietnam War, he served in the United States Army (Miller), wherein he joined the ranks of Philip Caputo and Eric Herr as a reporter. The Vietnam War stood as the climax of the whole generation and the event has forever altered the writers’ perspectives with the world (Gunnink, Jannusch and Hernandez). And those new viewpoints that have been grasped by O’Brien are demonstrated in his novel especially in the chapter entitled The Man I Killed.

            The Man I Killed starts with a description of the lists of the physical characteristics and possible attributes of the man whom Tim, the narrator, had killed with a grenade in My Khe. He illustrates the wounds that he inflicted. He states, “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star shaped hole.” He narrates in great detail the man’s situation, from the blood dripping from his wounds to his long elegant fingers. He assumes and imagines that the man is born in 1946 and his parents are farmers. Moreover, Tim visualizes that the man is neither a Communist nor a fighter who hoped that the Americans would soon leave their native land.

            Tim has also envisioned the future of the man if he is still alive and what his life is before he dies. For him, the man has just gone to war only to satisfy his patriotic responsibilities because it is part of traditions and legends that the man has learned and has been accustomed to during his childhood. During the unfolding of event, Tim continuously describes the man’s open wounds, torn clothes and delicate facial features; however, he never really speaks. The silence is just broken by his two fellow soldiers: Azar and Kiowa.

            Azar is insensitive and unsympathetic. He establishes brutal remarks such as comparing the tattered body with oatmeal. His observations reveal that he is hauling pleasure from the soldier’s death. On the contrary, Kiowa shows more sympathetic feelings to Tim. He strongly persuades him to move on and encourages him to talk. Nevertheless, Tim incessantly stares in silence while repeating in his mind the graphic and colorful details of the man he killed.

            The central theme in the chapter is time. Tim, the American soldier, is frozen in a moment, remembering the history of the Vietnamese soldier while the troop of American soldiers is moving forward. The mood illustrates shock because the killing of the man is a stunning event for Tim (“The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien”). It is as if the milieu around him blurs and the time halts from running; and as such, he chooses to contemplate in silence.

            The novel entitled The Things I Carried written by O’Brien talks about the Vietnam War. It tackles battles and soldiers and triumph and survival; however the message that O’Brien presents is almost contradictory to the conventional war story, where the battle transpires on corporeal battlefields and soldiers fight soldiers, testing the man’s courage. On the other hand, O’Brien’s battle happens in the dark and in a private place of a soldier’s mind (Martney). It has been divulged and illustrated in the chapter The Man I Killed, the only part of the novel where O’Brien discussed an account with regards to a Vietnamese soldier even though the novel itself revolves on Vietnam War.

            The Vietnam War began at the start of 1960s. Several debates occurred between politicians then, as worse as the war per se. The White House records unleashed that the United States military leaders voted for the utilization of nuclear bombs. Nevertheless, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy refused to use those weapons. The Vietnam War commenced in 1960s but Vietnam already had trouble prior to it. The trouble focuses on North Vietnam desiring to take over the South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese did not want it so they struggled and fought back. A little while, the Americans headed their way in the war because they thought that South Vietnamese did not want to be part of the North Vietnam. Thus, the Americans started to fight alongside the South Vietnamese forces. It is during 1968, in the Johnson’s administration, when the war got worse. The National Liberation front then began attacking some major cities of South Vietnam (“The Vietnam War”).

            The aforementioned statement is the Vietnam War’s story. However, O’Brien’s The Man I Killed did not focus on the attacks and bullets-and-bombs-exchanges of the two countries. Instead, he puts in the picture the experience and realizations of a soldier who is sent to Vietnam to fight for his country.

The Man I Killed is a concise but crucial story. It is a narrative that changes the central concerns of war in a new direction (Nagel 142). It demonstrates a myriad of pages of fantastical and realistic creation of O’Brien’s imagination. He imagines all kinds of things with regards to the dead soldier whom he addresses as “the man I killed.” He makes him appear as the best picture and as a naïve and innocent civilian in the war (Khanna).

            The situation centers on the fictional character of Tim O’Brien who killed a Vietnamese soldier on a jungle trail. He has been traumatized and devastated upon seeing the dead body (Nagel 142). The author itself uses the first person point of view; however, in the whole chapter he settles in silence. In the story, it is his mind that recounts the personal history of the Vietnamese soldier, which starts from his birthplace, moves through his career and love life and then eventually joins the army. O’Brien presents it in a way that the readers cannot simply judge and dismiss the Vietnamese soldier as a body or as an enemy, instead, it is important for him to consider and think as a man. It has been O’Brien’s manner of transforming the Vietnam War more personal rather than historical and political (“The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien”).

            O’Brien contemplates the Vietnamese soldier in the same way he earlier reserves for himself and for his friends, which is indeed essential, describing the things that the Vietnamese carried which include “a pouch of rice, a comb, a fingernail clipper, a few soiled piasters, a snapshot of a young woman standing in front of a parked motorcycle” (Nagel 142). With that, it gives an indication of the kind of things that a soldier carries with himself during the battle.

            On the contrary, O’Brien has become obsessed with the physical characterization of the man, which he tells a number of times. It does entail how Tim deals in projection. He attributes his own attitude and character to the dead man: “the young man would not have wanted to be a soldier and in his heart would have feared performing badly in battle.” He then visualizes the experiences of the young man similar to his own life, which includes education, falling in love, and serving unenthusiastically and reluctantly in the army (Nagel 142).

            O’Brien offers a strong, introspective view on the death of a Vietnamese soldier, apparently in his own hand. The story provides and forms an opposing association on the violence of death (Smith 106), because the story presents diverse perspectives on a soldier’s life. One viewpoint lies on the fact that the man is courageous and brave enough to serve and fight for his country. Moreover, death gives him independence on the duty and responsibility he unwillingly does and carries on while he is still alive.

            O’Brien tells the story in a protagonist perspective rather than a narrator because he does not give narrative comments on the protagonist’s actions. He just lets the readers assume and infer from his own feelings. He also delineates an implied tranquility regarding the death that envelopes Vietnam. He both comforts and tortures himself by indulging in an imagination that he and the man he killed share similar characteristics.

            Conversely, O’Brien yearns the readers to be aware of his guilt regarding the death of the Vietnamese soldier. He desires the readers to believe that the guilt is real (Trevenen). Thus, if the story is read intently and with full concentration, that guilt can be sifted in his voice and the way he speaks about what happened and about the Vietnamese’s life. However, at first, O’Brien denies the guilt by implying that he did not kill the man stating, “I did not kill him, but I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough” (qtd. Khanna). “I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present” (qtd. Smith 106).

With that statement, it signifies that even though he is not the one who killed the man, still his mere presence in the war and belongingness to the other party entails that he must feel guilty about the death. The repetition of the phrase “I was present” represents O’Brien’s deep-rooted remorse over the fact of his involvement and participation in the war. He does his best to demonstrate the sense of image through description and characterization (Smith 106).

            O’Brien’s treatment with the subject matter has been showcased with mastery, delineating irony, symbols and diverse point of views about the different angles of Vietnam War. The Man I Killed offers a number of symbols. Such symbols involve the Vietnamese soldier per se and the star-shaped wound.

The Vietnamese soldier, whom O’Brien called as “the man I killed,” symbolizes the soldiers who entered the army, who are sent to battles and who are killed in the middle of the fight. O’Brien presents the man as a universal soldier because it is a representation of anyone especially the one who has been killed in the midst of the conflict (Khanna). He personifies the soldier by putting himself on the soldier’s condition and by telling those crafted imaginations such as entering in the army because it is a common situation that a soldier goes through.

            Another symbol that O’Brien provides in the story is the star-shaped wound in the eye. It has been repeated several times. The star-shaped wound signifies hope because it is akin to wishing upon a star (“The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.”). It pertains to the soldier’s aspiration regarding the departure of the Americans in Vietnam. The wound is in the eye because the eye serves as a reflection of a person’s hopes and dreams. It is the organ by which the soldiers looked into and gazed the stars with.

Nevertheless, O’Brien has reversed the meaning of the star by attaching it to death because certainly it is not a matter of coincidence that the star-shaped wound be in the soldier’s eye. It does imply that the Vietnamese soldier has not seen the danger he is in. Probably, he is looking more upon the stars and upon his future rather than his current state. In his case, the stars have betrayed him (“The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.”). The stars did not grant him his wishes and prayers that the Americans will soon leave so the war will then be over, but those stars provide an alternative to his wishes. They freed him from his obligations and tasks as a soldier by leading him to death.

            O’Brien’s The Man I Killed supplies new and other viewpoints with regards to The Sixties. If the year 1960s has been prominent and known for the outbreak of cultural trends, the birth of pop culture and the political turmoil within the United States, The Man I Killed bestows a different event that transpires during the said era on the other part of the world where the United States is also involved. If numerous Americans rejoice for the appearance of The Beatles and other rock and roll bands, other Americans are caught in the midst of political upheavals such as fighting for the Civil Rights Movement and struggling in the Vietnam War.

            The 1960s has been noteworthy and significant because it is the period when the latest, exciting and radical events and developments transpired, which continue to progress on the subsequent years including 1970s to 1990s. 1960s has been decade that is full of happenings, that which created remarkable points in the course of history. It is the time where different disciplines emerged in the United States, from politics, culture, fashion, music to war.

            O’Brien’s novel gives a different treatment with the subject matter: Vietnam War. He does not illustrate the Vietnamese soldiers as antagonist characters, as well as the American soldiers who just came in and defended South Vietnam. Instead, he tells the story in a manner that reflects his own experiences as an army and as a soldier that was sent to battle.

            The Man I Killed provides a good reflection and realization on the notion of war. It does not present the negative connotations regarding war such as spreading a country’s dominion and power, imperialism and slavery and exploitation and destruction. O’Brien focuses on the life of a soldier who killed an enemy and a soldier who is killed in the midst of the battle.

Works Cited

Gunnink, Ben, Jessica Jannusch and Keith Hernandez. n.d. “Tim O’Brien: His Life and Works.” University of St. Francis. 06 March 2009 < http://www.stfrancis.edu/en/student/O%27Brien/index.htm>.

Khanna, Derek. 2009. “Book Review: The Man I Killed.” Helium. 06 March 2009

< http://www.helium.com/items/409557-book-review-the-man-i-killed>.

Martney, Jan. 1999. “The Myth-Shattering Courage of Tim O’Brien.” Metropolitan State College of Denver.  06 March 2009

< http://www.mscd.edu/~english/3230/matney.htm>.

Miller, D. Quentin. 2009. “Tim O’Brien Biography.” Brief Biographies. 06 March 2009 <http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4637/O-brien-Tim.html>.

Nagel, James. The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle: The Ethnic Resonance of Genre. United States: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Smith, Patrick A. Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion. United States: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

“The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.” 2005. Yahoo Education. 06 March 2009


“The Vietnam War.” n.d. The Groovy 1960s. 06 March 2009

< http://www.kyrene.k12.az.us/schools/brisas/sunda/decade/1960.htm#war>.

Trevenen, Thomas. 2001. “The Things They Carried.” Towards the Examined Life. 06 March 2009 <http://www.masconomet.org/teachers/trevenen/


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