More than twenty years after the end of the war, O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen asks O’Brien if he has ever killed anyone. She contends that he can’t help himself from obsessively writing war stories because he killed someone. O’Brien, however, insists that he has never killed anyone. Reflecting on his lie, O’Brien pretends Kathleen is an adult and imagines that he might tell her the entire story of My Khe.
O’Brien recounts that in the middle of the night, the platoon, separated into two-man teams, moved into the ambush site outside My Khe. O’Brien, teamed up with Kiowa, noticed dawn breaking slowly, in slivers. As Kiowa slept, O’Brien, fighting off mosquitoes, saw a young soldier wearing an ammunition belt coming out of the fog. The only reality O’Brien could feel was the sour nervousness in his stomach, and without thinking, he pulled the key in the grenade before he realized what he was doing. When the grenade bounced, the young man dropped his weapon and began to run. He then hesitated and tried to cover his head—only then did O’Brien realize that the man was about to die. The grenade went off and the man fell on his back, his sandals blown off.
O’Brien grapples with his guilt. He insists that the situation was not one of life and death, and that had he not pulled the pin in the grenade, the man would have passed by. Kiowa contended that the young man would have died anyway. O’Brien states that none of it mattered. Even now, twenty years later, he still hasn’t finished sorting it out. He says that he sees the young man coming through the fog sometimes when he’s reading the newspaper or sitting alone. He imagines the young man walking up the trail, passing him, smiling at a secret thought and continuing on his way.
O’Brien recounts this story in the first person, using a thorough, almost historical method of storytelling. Whereas in “The Man I Killed” O’Brien avoids directly confronting the boy’s death—the word “I” is never used by the narrator in the story—in “Ambush” he tries to be clinical about it. Part of the reason for this difference is this story’s intended audience, O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen. In relaying this experience to us and in imagining he might one day tell his daughter so she understands him, O’Brien leaves out no detail, so that the taste and feeling and sense of the day he killed a man outside of My Khe is entirely intact. In this way, “Ambush” differs greatly from “The Man I Killed.” Though its intact narrative, complete with observations, is constructed nominally for the benefit of Kathleen, “Ambush” is definitely for O’Brien’s sake as well. Unlike “The Man I Killed,” which comes from a place much more immediate, “Ambush” is marked by clear narrative control and a strong sense of perspective.
“The Man I Killed” sets up ideas that are addressed in “Ambush,” just as “The Things They Carried” sets up ideas that are addressed in “Love.” The refrains of “The Man I Killed,” such as “he was a short, slender man of about twenty,” are constant, adding to the continuity of the storytelling. Unlike “The Man I Killed,” which seems to take place in real time, “Ambush” is already a memory story—one with perspective, history, and a sense of life’s continuation. As such, O’Brien uses his narrative to clear up some of the questions that we might have about the somewhat ambiguous version of the story in “The Man I Killed.” But O’Brien’s memory is crystal clear. He remembers how he lobbed the grenade and that it seemed to freeze in the air for a moment, perhaps indicating his momentary regret even before the explosion detonated. He has a clear vision of the man’s actual death that he probably could not have articulated so close to the occurrence. O’Brien’s simile about the man seeming to jerk upward, as though pulled by invisible wires, suggests that the actions of the men in Vietnam were not entirely voluntary. They were propelled by another power outside of them—the power of guilt and responsibility and impulse and regret.