He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.
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“The Man I Killed” begins with a list of physical attributes and possible characteristics of the man whom O’Brien killed with a grenade in My Khe. O’Brien describes the wounds that he inflicted. The man’s jaw was in his throat, he says, and his upper lip and teeth were missing. One eye was shut, and the other looked like a star-shaped hole. O’Brien imagines that the man he killed was born in 1946 and that his parents were farmers; that he was neither a Communist nor a fighter and that he hoped the Americans would go away.
O’Brien describes the reaction of his platoon-mates—insensitive Azar compares the young man to oatmeal, Shredded Wheat, and Rice Krispies, while Kiowa rationalizes O’Brien’s actions and urges him to take his time coming to terms with the death. All the while, O’Brien reflects on the boy’s life, cut short. He looks at the boy’s sunken chest and delicate fingers and wonders if he was a scholar. He imagines that the other boys at school might have teased this boy because he may have had a woman’s walk and a love for mathematics. A butterfly lands on the corpse’s cheek, which causes O’Brien to notice the undamaged nose. Despite Kiowa’s urging to pull himself together, to talk about it, and to stop staring at the body, O’Brien cannot do so. Kiowa confesses that maybe he doesn’t understand what O’Brien is going through, but he rationalizes that the young man was carrying a weapon and that they are fighting a war. He asks if O’Brien would rather trade places with him. O’Brien doesn’t respond to Kiowa.
O’Brien notices that the young man’s head is lying by tiny blue flowers and that his cheek is peeled back in three ragged strips. He imagines that the boy began studying at the university in Saigon in 1964, that he avoided politics and favored calculus. He notices that the butterfly has disappeared. Kiowa bends down to search the body, taking the young man’s personal effects, including a picture of a young woman standing in front of a motorcycle. He rationalizes that if O’Brien had not killed him, one of the other men surely would have. But O’Brien says nothing, even after Kiowa insists the company will move out in five minutes’ time. When that time has passed, Kiowa covers the body and says O’Brien looks like he might be feeling better. He urges him again to talk, but all O’Brien can think of is the boy’s daintiness and his eye that looks like a star-shaped hole.
In “The Man I Killed” O’Brien’s guilt has him so fixated on the life of his victim that his own presence in the story—as protagonist and narrator—fades to the back. Since he doesn’t use the first person to explain his guilt and confusion, he negotiates his feelings by operating in fantasy—by imagining an entire life for his victim, from his boyhood and his family to his feeling about the war and about the Americans. His guilt almost takes on its own rhythm in the repetition of ideas, phrases, and observations. Some of the ideas here, especially the notion of the victim being a “slim, young, dainty man,” help emphasize O’Brien’s fixation on the effects of his action. At the same time, his focus on these physical characteristics, rather than on his own feelings, betrays his attempt to keep some distance in order to dull the pain.
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Because O’Brien tells this story from the perspective of the protagonist rather than the narrator, there is no narrative commentary on the protagonist’s action, and we can only infer what O’Brien is feeling. He conveys an implicit silence surrounding death in Vietnam that first becomes evident with Ted Lavender’s death. After Lavender’s death, men like Kiowa and Norman Bowker struggle to find words and perspective on the tragedy. Similarly, all O’Brien can remember of the day of Curt Lemon’s death is the sunlight. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien employs the same distancing tactics but pushes them to an extreme, offering no insight into the way he feels. In the action is the implicit contention that by focusing on other aspects of the death, like the sunlight or, in the case of the man O’Brien killed, his physical features and the flowers growing on the road, he finds safety from guilt.
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The ineffective comments and attempted consolations of O’Brien’s fellow soldiers and the palpable silence demonstrate that nothing can erase the stark facts of life and death. Azar’s tasteless offers of congratulations to O’Brien and comparisons of the dead boy to cereal ignore the painful guilt that O’Brien feels. The kinder Kiowa is patient with O’Brien’s pain, but he knows that he can identify with O’Brien only to a certain degree. Ultimately, anyhow, Kiowa seems more interested in trying to convince O’Brien that the killing is no big deal than in helping him work through his emotions. In between the remarks from the others, O’Brien sits in the inevitable silence of Vietnam—a stillness that forces one to confront the realities of war.
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O’Brien both consoles and tortures himself by indulging in a fantasy that he shares several characteristics with the man he killed. Ironically, the similarity that he imagines is a consolation for him, despite the implication that he has killed a replica of himself. By relating to his victim in this way, O’Brien grapples with and tries to understand the arbitrariness of his own mortality. He imagines that like himself, the man is a student who, in the presence of his family, pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty. By doing so he in effect imagines his own death by putting himself in the Vietnamese soldier’s shoes. But with the same fantasy, he also tortures himself, by imagining exactly why the man’s death might be such a horrible tragedy. O’Brien feeds his guilt by imagining that the man he killed was in the prime of his life. By imagining that the man he killed wrote romantic poems in his journal and had fallen in love with a classmate whom he married before he enlisted as a common rifleman, O’Brien can more easily identify with his victim and understand the terrible nature of the killing.
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O’Brien illustrates the ambiguity and complexity of Vietnam by alternating explicit references to beauty and gore. The butterfly and the tiny blue flowers he mentions show the mystery and suddenness of death in the face of pristine natural phenomena. O’Brien’s observations of his victim lying on the side of the road—his jaw in his throat and his upper lip gone—emphasize the unnaturalness of war amid nature. The contrast of images is an incredibly ironic one that suggests the tragedy of death amid so much beauty. However, the presence of the butterfly and the tiny blue flowers also suggests that life goes on even despite such unspeakable tragedy. After O’Brien killed the Vietnamese soldier, the flowers didn’t shrivel up, and the butterfly didn’t fly away. They stayed and found their home around the tragedy. In this way, like the story of Curt Lemon’s death, “The Man I Killed” is a story about the beauty of life rather than the gruesomeness of death.
Read about what the killing of the young Vietnamese man foreshadows.