‘The Man I Killed’ is a story from The Things They Carried, a 1990 collection of linked short stories by the American writer Tim O’Brien. The collection focuses on a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.
As the title of this short story suggests, ‘The Man I Killed’ is about a man whom O’Brien’s narrator killed in the village of My Khe during the war. He invents a history for the man, and imagines him to have been a gentle person.
‘The Man I Killed’: plot summary
The first-person narrator of ‘The Man I Killed’ begins by describing the dead body of the young man he has killed with a hand grenade. The incident, he tells us, took place in My Khe, a village in Vietnam. The man has a dainty and delicate appearance, and the narrator speculates that he might have been a scholar. He would have been raised to defend his country, although he is not a fighter himself.
He finds it difficult to forget the sight of the man he has killed, especially the star-shaped wound in the man’s neck. His comrade Azar revels in the destruction of the man, while another soldier, Kiowa, tells ‘Tim’ (O’Brien’s semi-fictional stand-in in the story, and the narrator of the tale) that he shouldn’t feel bad about killing the man, because he had no choice and they are in a war. He points out that the man had a weapon, so he was clearly ready to fight.
O’Brien’s narrator imagines the life of the man he has killed, envisioning him as being good at mathematics and a reluctant fighter who just wanted the war to be over. He didn’t want to disgrace himself or his village, so although he had no stomach for war, he pretended that he was desperate to do his patriotic duty and defend his homeland against the American enemy.
The narrator imagines the dead man’s perseverance, and his determination to continue studying mathematics. He imagines the man as the sort of person who would have kept out of politics and concentrated on his studies. He wrote romantic poems and, although he knew he would eventually be called upon to do his bit in the war, he tried not to think about it before the time came. He imagines the man falling in love with a fellow student who admired his quiet manner and delicate, small wrists.
Kiowa looks through the dead man’s keepsakes, and tells O’Brien that if he hadn’t killed the man, one of the other men would have. He was dead as soon as he stepped out onto the road. But the narrator can’t stop imagining the man he killed returning to My Khe with his wife and enlisting into the Vietcong army.
Kiowa covers the dead man’s body with a poncho, but O’Brien keeps coming back to the star-shaped wound in the man’s eye. The story ends with Kiowa asking O’Brien to talk to him about how he’s feeling.
‘The Man I Killed’: analysis
One of the remarkable aspects of ‘The Man I Killed’ is the way in which O’Brien’s narrator gives us, in effect, two different responses to the dead Vietnamese man. We get the impression that immediately after he had killed the man with his grenade, he became strangely fixated on the details of the man’s body, its delicate features, the star-shaped wound his grenade made in the man’s face.
But O’Brien is narrating these events some two decades on from when they originally happened. And the impression we get is that he is still strangely transfixed by the sight of ‘the man he killed’, and can remember every detail. In other words, the trauma – if we can use such a word about his experience – of killing another man was both immediate and long-lasting.
Although the story is titled ‘The Man I Killed’, O’Brien’s narrator repeatedly emphasises the feminine qualities to the man’s ‘dainty’ appearance: his body is likened to that of both a woman and a child in the course of the story. This underscores his physical weakness and vulnerability and intensifies the narrator’s guilt and sadness over killing him. There is a sense that the man – despite legally being old enough to fight – was still in fact a ‘child’ in some respects, too young to be fighting in such a war. (This was true of Americans too: as Paul Hardcastle’s song ‘19’ reminds us, the average age of an American soldier in the Vietnam War was just nineteen years old – although Hardcastle’s claim about the precise age has been disputed.)
He is also depicted as an intellectual, a mathematics scholar and a quiet, unassuming young man. He is a world away from the conventionally butch, masculine powerhouse people tend to think of when asked to imagine a soldier. He is really almost more a civilian than a soldier, a reluctant combatant who finds himself being called upon to defend his village against the enemy.
The title of ‘The Man I Killed’ may have been intended partly as an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Man He Killed’:
‘Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
‘But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
‘I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
‘He thought he’d ’list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
‘Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.’
Two men who would have sat down and drank with each other or lent some money to in peacetime find themselves, in time of war, sworn enemies. In imagining such a rich and detailed history for the Vietnamese man he has killed, O’Brien identifies with his ‘enemy’ and emphasises their common humanity.
However, whilst O’Brien’s narrative does humanise the dead man and emphasises his vulnerable, fragile state, there is a sense that the description of the young man is almost too beautiful. The feminised aspects of his body, its ‘daintiness’ and ‘delicate’ form, along with the star-shaped hole where his eye had been and the butterfly on his chin, stand in striking contrast to the details of the man’s missing teeth (blown away by the blast), his neck open to the spinal chord, and the ‘thick and shiny’ blood from his wound. Stars, of course, are poetic symbols of beauty par excellence; here, the star is also a black hole, a void, a nothingness as dark and as deep as the man’s death itself.
Of course, O’Brien is not romanticising death in ‘The Man I Killed’, much less suggesting that the man looks more serene and beautiful in death than in life. But these aesthetic details, which are sharply juxtaposed with the horrific damage the man’s wounds inflicted on his young body, do lend the man’s death a certain symbolic dignity despite the horrific nature of his death.