How did killing a VC soldier affect Tim O'Brien?
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“The Man I Killed” employs the narrative form of a confession. The very title is almost a confession; it is a very slight variation on “I killed a man.” The story is a form of self-flagellation: O’Brien forces himself to stare at the corpse as punishment. And writing a story about the man is a continuation and extension of staring-as-punishment.
The image of small blue flowers and a butterfly fluttering around the dead man’s mouth are ironic. Even with death and disaster, the physical beauty of Vietnam is inescapable. That beauty also serves to make the dead man’s mangled face seem more gruesome and unnatural. The writer pairs natural with unnatural and displays the contrast.
The story ends with a one-sided conversation: Kiowa trying to get O'Brien to talk and O’Brien remaining silent. This conversation illustrates the limits of friendship. No measure of companionship can make up for the stark reality of life and death, and the moral consequence of what O’Brien has done. O’Brien feels guilty, and his friends cannot console him.