His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of his skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him. He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man.
In the chapter “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien describes in great detail the look of the dead young Vietnamese soldier. O’Brien distances himself from the event by talking about it in a passive voice. At the same time, the amount of detail he provides illustrates how much O’Brien is affected by the death of this soldier, as it shows how O’Brien can’t get certain images out of his head. His description also makes the reader look closely at the horrible acts of war for which humanity is responsible. The dead young Vietnamese soldier symbolizes all of the lives taken by the war, all of the life and beauty wiped out by violence.
He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a solider. In the village of My Khe, as in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s final victory against the Chinese at Tot Dong.
In the chapter “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien imagines the dead young Vietnamese soldier’s personal story, symbolizing that although readers never learn much about him, this young man was a human being with a history, a family, hopes, and fears, just like anyone else. The imagined background story humanizes the young, dead man and shows sympathy for why he was fighting. This is in direct contrast to the crude, dehumanizing ways Azar describes what happened to this soldier. Although O’Brien says nothing about his feelings in this chapter, his envisioning of this soldier’s personal story indicates O’Brien’s sense of guilt as well as the fact that his heart has not yet hardened from the horrors of war.
In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village.
In the chapter “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien continues to give the dead young Vietnamese solider a backstory. In envisioning that this solider was not built for fighting but did so out of a fear of being a disgrace, O’Brien parallels his own story—his reluctance to go to Vietnam and his decision to go because he was too embarrassed not to. Through imaginatively identifying with the young Vietnamese man, O’Brien reveals his remorse about his death, even though O’Brien doesn’t express this outright. The sympathetic portrait of the Vietnamese solider highlights the tragedy of war.
The one eye did a funny twinkling trick; red to yellow. His head was wrenched sideways, as if loose at the neck, and the dead young man seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped flowers along the trail. The blood at the neck had gone to a deep purplish black. Clean fingernails, clean hair—he had been a solider for only a single day. After his years at the university, the man I killed returned with his new wife to the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the 48th Vietcong Battalion.
This is one of multiple descriptions O’Brien gives of the dead body of the young Vietnamese soldier. The repetition emphasizes how much O’Brien is affected by this death, although O’Brien doesn’t express his feelings. O’Brien’s sense of guilt is exacerbated by his looking closely at what the grenade did to the man’s body. He contrasts this gruesome description that illustrates the horrors of war with an imagined, sympathetic portrait of this young man’s inexperience and the life he might have lived. In doing so, O’Brien indirectly identifies with the solider and turns him into a symbol that represents the human cost of war for which humanity is responsible.
This is why I keep writing war stories:
He was a short, slender young man of about twenty. I was afraid of him—afraid of something—and as he passed me on the trail I threw a grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him.
Here, O’Brien responds to his nine-year-old daughter’s question about why he continues to write war stories, and whether it is because he killed somebody during the war. This is only one of a number of references O’Brien makes to the death of this young Vietnamese man. The repetition illustrates how much O’Brien is affected by this killing and his intense sense of responsibility and guilt surrounding it. The storytelling allows O’Brien to examine this event and process his feelings.