Summary of “The Man I Killed”
When the story begins, O’Brien is standing in front of a man he just killed in My Khe. He repeats the same details about the man he killed, over and over again: one eye is a star-shaped hole; he lies face-up on the road; there are strips missing from his cheek; he has thin, arched eyebrows, like a woman; he is thin, with a concave chest, like a scholar. O’Brien is fixated on the details.
Azar tries to congratulate O’Brien on killing a member of the Viet Cong. Kiowa is a good friend to O’Brien, sees that his friend is shocked and tells Azar to leave them alone. Kiowa reasons to O’Brien it was a “good kill.” It was at least a reasonable kill; the man turned out to be carrying ammunition. Kiowa also finds a photograph of a woman in his pockets.
O’Brien imagines what the man’s life must have been like. He makes up a whole fictional biography for his victim: He was always afraid to go to war, after hearing about the exploits of other war heroes in his village. He never thought he could be a hero, had avoided politics, was a scholar who loved math, was possibly in love with a classmate.
Stop staring at him, says Kiowa. His friend shakes O’Brien out of his reverie. O’Brien notices small blue flowers near the dead man’s head and a white butterfly fluttering near his mouth. “Talk to me Tim,” says Kiowa (125). But O’Brien remains silent, staring at the body.
“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.
Summary of “Ambush”
When she is nine years old, nearly 20 years after the Vietnam War is over, Kathleen asks her a question. Has he ever killed someone, she wants to know. O’Brien decides to tell her that he hasn’t. It felt like the “right thing to do”; he thinks when she is a grown-up she will understand better. Maybe then O’Brien will tell her about the slim young man who still obsesses him, whom he still thinks about when reading the newspaper.
O’Brien briefly relives the night in My Khe. He had been on watch after midnight. He saw the young man emerging from the mist, carrying a gun. He grabbed a grenade and threw it without really thinking. Right after he threw the grenade, he felt guilty. But it was too late. The grenade dealt a fatal blow. And, twenty years later, O’Brien is still living with the guilt.
This section of the book again raises the question of truth in storytelling. O’Brien confesses that he has lied to his own daughter. Again he is drawing attention to the nature of the story as a story that he chooses to tell, rather than something that is necessarily true. This is meant to put the reader on his or her guide against false sources, and unreliable guides to the war. But O’Brien also disputes the notion that there is a stable truth to be found. He views a story’s content as mutable. He writes:
“It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, which was to say, ’Of course not,’ and then to take her onto my lap and hold her for a while. Someday, I hope she’ll ask again.” (129)
The difficulty for O’Brien is double-pronged. He must decide whether or not to lie to his daughter. He must also relive and confront a deeply traumatic event. The title is an ironic pun. O’Brien ambushed the soldier with a grenade and Kathleen ambushed her father with a wrenching question. O’Brien killed the soldier, and Kathleen threw her father into moral confusion.
“Ambush” presents a classic conundrum for soldiers. They have done something that seemed reasonable in a certain context (killing a man during war) but is utterly incomprehensible out of context, for example in its retelling to an innocent child. The fact that he killed a man is one of the heaviest burdens that O’Brien carries. It is a burden he will pass along to his daughter when he deems her old enough to help him carry it.
The company enters a burnt-down compound full of dead bodies. They find only one living person. She is a fourteen year old, dancing by herself. There is no music. Azar thinks she is performing some strange funeral rite. Dobbins thinks she was dancing just because she likes to dance. On the way out of the village, Azar imitates her dance, pretending that it had been erotic. Dobbins picks up Azar and brings him to the edge of a river. He says that Azar had better stop if he doesn't want to get thrown into the river.
“Style” contains one of the book’s few encounters with the Vietnamese -- the "other.” The girl is a stand-in for the rest of Vietnamese society, filtered in turn through O’Brien’s sympathetic perspective. She is attractive, mysterious, and innocent. The “other” is a literary figure pioneered by French existentialists, mostly in connection with the former French colonies in Northern Africa. Camus’ “The Stranger” is the most famous example of the trope and illustrates that the encounter with "other” is not always pleasant. The troops’ reaction exemplifies the wider American mis- or nonunderstanding of Vietnamese culture that infuriates O’Brien in “On a Rainy River.” Dobbins understands the girl no better than Azar does. But he at least shows himself to be an honorable man by trying to stop Azar from misrepresenting or humiliating the girl.
The young Vietnamese girl also doubles another young girl, Kathleen. By putting the stories next to one another in the book, O’Brien implies a sense of guilt about the Vietnamese village. “Ambush” and “Style” are a pair of stories that illustrate the unfairness of one family (and by extension, nation) being preserved while another is destroyed.