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.
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.