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“The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1757
  • Category: Fiction

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 Tim O’Brien’s 1998 work of fiction takes its readers’ imagination to the series of events or chapters around the lives of those who were part of the Vietnam War, including the “things they carried”. The author looks into the delicate and perilous aspects of uncertainty, transforming the blood and horrible features of war such as burning bodies and crying children, into objects of beauty.

One of finest novels of its generation, “The Things They Carried” is a collection of stories about difficulties, courage and cowardice. In addition to this, it refers to the stories of how people dealt or endeavored to battle their conscience, as well as their solitude. In the author’s descriptions and accounts of the Vietnam War, readers are compelled to continuously read it and soon realize that they are both experiencing reality through fiction.

            One of the most thought-provoking part or chapters in “The Things They Carried”, is chapter 13. Chapter 13 in Tim O‘Brien’s “The Things They Carried”, starts with the depiction of, as the chapter title suggests, “The Man I (O’Brien) Killed”. The author imaginatively creates the physical attributes and possible features of the wounded man who was allegedly killed by O’Brien’s grenade.

O’Brien describes the man having wounds all over his body, with missing upper lip and teeth. Gruesomely, the author describes the dead man’s jaw which was already in his throat and his blood-shut eye with the other looking like a “star-shaped hole” (O’Brien, 1998). O’Brien believes that the dead man is probably the son of a farmer, born in the year 1946. O’Brien also thinks that the dead man is not a Communist, not even fit to be considered a fighter.

Tim O’Brien also describes his comrades’ reaction towards the dead body. The insensitive Azar responds and compares the dead man with Rice Krispies, and worst, to Shredded Wheat. On the other hand, Kiowa tries to rationalize O’Brien’s reaction to the man he killed. Kiowa also tells O’Brien to take his time in accepting what he did to the young man. However, O’Brien wasn’t listening much to his comrades, and instead, contemplated on the life of the man he cut short. The author describes the dead man having sunken chest, as well as delicate fingers which might indicate that when he was alive, he might be a scholar.

O’Brien assumes or further imagines the young man being teased by other students at school, probably because of a love for mathematics, or probably because he had a woman’s walk. O’Brien’s daydreaming was suspended when O’Brien noticed the butterfly which landed on the dead man’s undamaged nose. At this moment, again, O’Brien’s comrades tried to talk him out from staring at the dead body. Kiowa continued urging O’Brien to pull himself together and to try moving on, however O’Brien doesn’t budge at all.

Kiowa, despite being rejected, further states that he might not understand the feelings which O’Brien has at the moment, but killing the young man was the logical thing to do because the young man has a weapon and they are all struggling in this difficult war. Kiowa states a scenario where O’Brien was the one killed and the young man was the one staring at the body, and asks O’Brien if he wanted that scenario. However, still, O’Brien was speechless, ignored him and continued daydreaming.

O’Brien, still staring at the dead body, notices the tiny blue flowers where the dead man’s head was lying.  He also notices the dead man’s cheek which was peeled back in three ragged stripes, and assumes that the man might have studied in a university in Saigon. Furthermore, he assumes that as a student, he loved calculus and hated politics. By the time O’Brien notices the butterfly leaving the dead body, Kiowa bends down and searched for any items which the dead man might be holding.

Kiowa after finding a picture logically insists that in one way or another, he will die because someone will kill him. He further states that in five minutes, their company will be leaving the area. O’Brien continues to be speechless and after five minutes, Kiowa covers the dead body. After covering the body, Kiowa persistently talks to O’Brien and asks him to respond or at least utter some words. However, O’Brien after all this time kept silent and at the moment, all he could think about is the young man’s daintiness, especially the young man’s eye which looks like a “star-shaped hole” (O’Brien, 1998).

From these events or particular chapter in “The Things They Carried”, it can be noticed that the guilt felt by O’Brien engrossed him towards the life of his victim. Furthermore, it made his character in the novel, playing both as narrator and protagonist, recede in the back. It can also be noticed that the O’Brien does not use the first person point of view when narrating the depicted or assumed life story of his victim. This indicates that O’Brien is trying to rationalize or deal with his feelings by moving towards a place of fantasy, entirely devoted to the life of his victim and the victim’s family, from childhood up to the war.

The guilt which O’Brien feels is further emphasized because of the repetition of observations, ideas and phrases, such when O’Brien describes the man as “slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty (and) lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive” (O’Brien, 1998). It also strengthened the attraction which O’Brien had on the dead body and made him more attached to the life of the dainty man. Somehow, this causes O’Brien to be utterly speechless towards his comrades and feel the pain of killing a human being.

In “The Man I Killed”, narrative observations or comments are not present which compels readers of this novel to think that the emotions and feelings in this particular chapter are entirely of the protagonist. It can also be attributed to the fact that the author is telling the story from the point of view of the protagonist, instead of the narrator’s point of view. The author’s style of employing silence or the state of being speechless over death, through emotions and the character of O’Brien, is first apparent in Ted Lavender’s death.

Correspondingly, O’Brien in Curt Lemon’s death could only think or imagine of the sunlight. In “The Man I Killed” O’Brien uses the same strategy of isolating himself from the actual events to the limits, where he could no longer provide any insight with regards to his feelings or emotions. By contemplating or paying attention to other aspects of death, such as the sunlight Curt Lemon’s death or flowers and physical features in “The Man I Killed, the protagonist O’Brien finds comfort and safety from guilt.

The author’s style of illustrating the other characters’, like Kiowa and Norman Bowker, endeavor to rationalize and search for perspectives regarding death is also noticeable. Azar’s insensitivity towards the feelings of O’Brien and his comparison of the dead man’s body to cereals pays no attention to guilt. On the other hand, Kiowa who seems to be a sensitive and patient individual tries to connect with O’Brien’s pain, but also understands or realizes that there is a limit to it.

Though readers know better that Kiowa is more concerned in giving a logical reason for killing another human being, instead of helping O’Brien overcome his feelings and emotions. The failed comments and consolations of these characters and the obvious silence of O’Brien, highly indicates that nothing can compensate for the harsh facts of life, especially death. In addition to this, the silence which surmounts the war in Vietnam compels O’Brien to contemplate on the harsh realities of war.

Ironically, daydreaming and the pleasures of fantasy both console and torture the protagonist. By sharing numerous features with his victim, O’Brien consoles his feelings and the guilt which he felt despite the suggestion that he killed a copy of himself. In addition to this, by relating his personal emotions, feelings and thoughts to the dead man in this manner, the protagonist tries to comprehend and be aware of the uncertainty of his own mortality.

The protagonist imagines the life of young boy similarly close to his own life and thinks of the same family and patriotism which he had. In this manner, the protagonist also dreams or foresees his own death by putting himself in his victim’s shoes. On the contrary, this tortures him and strengthens the guilt which he felt by emphasizing and imagining that the dead man is at the prime of his life and that death is a terrible tragedy. By thinking or visualizing that the dainty young man had a blossoming love-life before joining the war as a common rifleman, O’Brien easily finds himself in his victim’s shoes and furthers the guilt and the dreadful nature of the killing.

The author provides an illustration of the uncertainties and complexities of Vietnam describing the beauty and gore of the Vietnam War. By describing or indicating the presence of the tiny blue flowers and the butterfly on the undamaged nose, O’Brien illustrates both the obscurity and suddenness of death in the face of an untouched natural phenomenon. By describing the dreadful physical characteristic of the dead man’s body which was found in the side of the road, O’Brien gives emphasis on the oddness or strangeness of war in the midst of nature.

These extraordinary ironies found in this chapter puts forward the tragedy of death along with a great deal of beauty. Conversely, life still goes on even with an unspeakable tragedy, emphasized by the existence of the tiny blue flowers and the butterfly in the terrible event. It can be noticed that even if the young man was already dead, the butterfly was still there and the flowers did not wither. Considering these things, readers learn that “The Man I Killed”, despite being introduced by the gruesomeness of death, is a story about the beauty of life.

Beautifully crafted in details, ironies and illustrations of events and physical characteristics of both beauty and gore in the eye of the protagonist, “The Man I Killed” is definitely one reader-catcher; a story which compels its readers to continuously read it regardless of the difference in period or generation.


O’Brien, T. (1998). The Things They Carried. USA: Broadway Books.

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