The Man I Killed by Tim O’Brien
In The Man I Killed by Tim O’Brien we have the theme of letting go, tradition, time, rationality and acceptance. 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 letting go. Despite the passing of time, twenty years, O’Brien is unable to forget or let go of the young Vietnamese solider he killed. Something that is clear to the reader by way of the fact that O’Brien can still remember staring at the man for so long and noticing each detail on his body. Something to which O’Brien repeats several times throughout the story. It is as though O’Brien is looking for an answer to his killing of the man. He goes into detail about the man’s life, his parent’s life and his grandfather’s life. This may be significant as O’Brien appears to be exploring Vietnamese tradition yet he is unable to relate to the tradition. He is American not a Vietnamese man who has different goals and agendas.
It may also be a case that O’Brien will never get over killing the man. Even the passing of time has not helped. Such is the detail that O’Brien is able to remember. If anything it is possible that O’Brien is in shock over what he has done. Despite Kiowa saying that everyone had the man in their gun sights. Kiowa is an important character in the story as he seems to want to pull O’Brien through the trauma he is feeling. He is rational with O’Brien but O’Brien may be past being rational. Such is the shock that O’Brien feels. One benefit of O’Brien repeating what the man looked like is the fact it highlights to the reader the possibility that O’Brien is not only in shock but he will also never forget his first (and only) kill.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which is important. Kiowa as mentioned appears in the story in order to pull O’Brien through. For O’Brien to accept his actions and move on. Something which Kiowa knows is vital. He needs O’Brien to be in the right frame of mind. It is after all a war that is being fought. Sentimentality or regret cannot be allowed to enter the equation. The man’s gold ring offers symbolism too. O’Brien knows that he has been given the ring by someone else and that the man had a life outside of being a soldier. The man’s nail clippers are important too because they show that the man took pride in his appearance. Something he may be doing for someone else. Appearance was important to the man. The fact that O’Brien also describes the man’s wrists as being child-like may suggest that the man was not only young but that he was too young (at twenty) to be holding a gun or fighting in a war. Something that O’Brien himself might identify with considering he is only twenty one.
The end of the story is interesting because Kiowa remains by O’Brien’s side. He knows that O’Brien has been affected by the killing and that he needs to talk about it. Something that O’Brien is not prepared to do (at that time). This too may be significant as the story may be O’Brien’s first attempt to make the illogical in his mind, logical. It is as though O’Brien is living the event all over again in order to understand what has happened. Such is the impact the event has had on his life. Like many young soldiers on both sides of the war. Their memories would serve them only too well. With many of the men becoming alcoholics or drug addicts due to their inability to understand their actions and the actions of others. In war there is never really a winner. Each individual soldier will have things that they carry till the day they die. Unable to let go of them or realizing that time is not the great healer that people think it is.