Ambush by Tim O’Brien
In Ambush by Tim O’Brien we have the theme of honesty, regret, forgiveness, acceptance and conflict. Taken from his The Things They Carried collection the story is narrated in the first person by O’Brien himself and after reading the story the reader realises that O’Brien may be exploring the theme of honesty. O’Brien’s daughter, when she is a child, asks O’Brien did he ever kill anybody. Rather than tell the truth O’Brien lies. This may be significant as by hiding the truth the reader suspects that O’Brien regrets his actions. He knew or at least he felt he knew the young Vietnamese man would pass him by on the trail. That they would not encounter one another. This plays on O’Brien’s mind and as such he has written this story in order to be able to tell his daughter the truth. With the passing of time O’Brien may have accepted his actions and reconsidered the position he found himself in.
In reality though O’Brien at times imagines the young man to be alive however he nonetheless has accepted his killing of the man. This too might be significant as by accepting the killing of the man O’Brien in fact has let go. An essential part of recovery for any soldier. O’Brien does forgive himself and is able to categorize the war. Though as mentioned it is notable that at times O’Brien can still consider that the man is alive. He will always have some form of regret. How deeply O’Brien feels is in contrast to how he feels when he first tells the reader that he has killed a man (The Man I Killed). In that story O’Brien is riddled with guilt and unable to function properly. Though he knows he has killed a man he does not accept it. This is where Ambush is different. There is a sense of acceptance, though limited, on O’Brien’s behalf.
There may also be some symbolism in the story that might be important. O’Brien is sleeping at one stage of the story. It is as though he is at peace with himself and unaware that things will change dramatically and alter his life permanently. This may be important as O’Brien could be suggesting that the war thus far had not been that difficult for him. He was yet to face the reality of killing someone. Just as there is an explosion when the grenade explodes there is an even bigger explosion in O’Brien’s mind with O’Brien suggesting that the killing of the young man was not an essential part of being a soldier. He could have and the reader suspects O’Brien feels as though he should have let the young man walk away from him and continue his track through the trail. Kiowa plays a significant part in the story in so far as he is there to reassure O’Brien and tell him that he had no choice but to kill the young man. It is also noticeable that the conflict O’Brien feels inside is mirrored by the conflict outside (war). In many ways and at times O’Brien can feel at war with himself.
The end of the story is also interesting as O’Brien goes in and out of accepting what he has done and in some way forgives himself despite the fact that the young man’s death can still play on his mind. It is on simple and some would say normal occasions (without being triggered) that O’Brien can remember the events of what has happened. Though as mentioned O’Brien sometimes sees the young man as still being alive. If anything O’Brien has reached a point in whereby his life is manageable even if he does incur times of doubt. It is these times of doubt which leave the reader realizing that O’Brien may never fully accept what has happened. He, despite the passing of time, appears to be unable to not only let go but to fully appreciate what has happened. It is interesting that O’Brien never wonders as to what would have happened should the young man have seen him first. In all likelihood the young man would have felt obliged to kill O’Brien. He was after all the enemy but this never enters O’Brien’s mind. He still has feelings of guilt that are again noticeable in the story The Man I Killed.