When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I’d been a solider. “You keep writing war stories,” she said, “so I guess you must’ve killed somebody.” It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, which was to say, “Of course not,” and then to take her onto my lap and hold her for a while. Someday, I hope, she’ll ask again.
O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen symbolizes and becomes a stand-in for the reader, asking the questions they might like to ask O’Brien. Kathleen helps O’Brien to reflect on his Vietnam experience and gives him an opportunity to have an imagined conversation with an adult Kathleen about the young Vietnamese solider he feels responsible for killing. In telling this story in two different ways—one brief and one developed—O’Brien gives himself the opportunity to reflect on his experience. O’Brien admits that the dead young Vietnamese soldier continues to haunt him after the war and that he is still grappling with his own sense of guilt.
“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”
Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”
O’Brien envisions his young daughter asking him directly whether he killed anyone in Vietnam. The story of the dead young Vietnamese man allows him to give a face to a faceless sense of responsibility and grief. Kathleen’s imagined question allows O’Brien to examine and then respond to the complexity of his experience. She symbolizes the reader who is listening to his stories and gives him a reason to tell them.
Behind me, in the jeep, my daughter Kathleen sat waiting with a government interpreter, and now and then I could hear the two of them talking in soft voices. They were already fast friends. Neither of them, I think, understood what all this was about, why I insisted that we search out this spot. It had been a hard two-hour ride from Quang Ngai City, bumpy dirt roads and a hot August sun, ending up at an empty field on the edge of nowhere.
Kathleen’s presence on O’Brien’s trip back to Vietnam after the war creates a witness for O’Brien’s experience. Once again, she represents the reader, but one who is now part of the scene and able to react to it. Kathleen also serves as a way for O’Brien to project his own doubt and questions onto her about what he is looking to do in Vietnam. She symbolizes the gap in understanding between veterans and civilians.
The war was as remote to her as cavemen and dinosaurs.
One morning in Saigon she’d asked what it was all about. “This whole war,” she said, “why was everybody so mad at everybody else?” . . .
Kathleen sighed. “Well, I don’t get it. I mean, how come you were even here in the first place?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because I had to be.”
I tried to find something to tell her, but finally I shrugged and said, “It’s a mystery, I guess. I don’t know.”
Kathleen continues to ask questions that many readers, especially those who didn’t live through Vietnam, might wonder about. Her questions also serve to reflect the doubts about the Vietnam War that some soldiers, like O’Brien, and some civilians had at the time it took place. Both perspectives invite O’Brien to reflect on his own experience and all the unanswered questions he still carries about his experience. In addition, Kathleen’s questions reflect the gap between the person telling the story and the ones hearing it—the difficulty of conveying one’s experience in a believable or tangible way.
“Listen, this is stupid,” she said, “you can’t even hardly get wet. How can you swim out there?”
“But it’s not . . . I mean, God, it’s not even water, it’s like mush or something.”
She pinched her nose and watched me wade out to where the water reached my knees.
O’Brien has returned with his young daughter to the field where his good friend Kiowa died in the mud and excrement. O’Brien intends to pay tribute to Kiowa by burying Kiowa’s moccasins in the place where his body went under. But all his daughter understands is the craziness of the endeavor and the stench of the field. Kathleen serves as the skeptical reader and symbolizes the gap in understanding between not only the storyteller and the story’s listener but also the traumatized soldier and his or her friends and family back home who might not fully understand the horrifying experiences the soldier experienced at war.