The Things They Carried

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The Man O'Brien Killed Symbol Analysis

The Man O'Brien Killed Symbol Icon
The young man that Tim O'Brien killed on a trail outside of My Khe is a recurring symbol throughout The Things They Carried, as O'Brien struggles to deal with being responsible for the death of another human being. The young man becomes a symbol of the meaninglessness of the categories of enemy or ally after death has taken you, as well as a symbol of O'Brien as a dead soldier. O'Brien consistently draws parallels between the young, dead man and himself—though the parallels are all conjecture. O'Brien speculates that the man was a scholar who disagreed with the war, but only fought to make his family and town proud—which is a fairly good description of O'Brien.

The Man O'Brien Killed Quotes in The Things They Carried

The The Things They Carried quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Man O'Brien Killed. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin edition of The Things They Carried published in 1990.
The Man I Killed Quotes

In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too fast.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien weaves in episodic reflections about the the Vietnamese youth he killed in the war, as Kiowa tries to comfort him in the battlefield. In reflecting on the man, O'Brien finds himself giving the man a story. He imagines the family the man has left behind, and the things that the man used to enjoy as a boy. He imagines the sense of patriotic duty that the man feels socially obligated to fight for even though he is afraid. The man would not want to embarrass himself by failing to meet this obligation, and even if he no longer cared about embarrassing himself then he has to worry about embarrassing his family and his village.

O'Brien projects his own fears and insecurities about fighting in the war onto the dead man through this invented narrative. There is no need for O'Brien to come out and say this fictional story about the man, because of the way these reflections are situated between the telling of Kiowa's attempts to comfort O'Brien. This mirrors how O'Brien could not believe Kiowa in the moment; he could not even hear him or focus on the present. He was overcome by guilt for killing the man, and kept getting lost in inventing a life for the man - a guilt that pulls him deeper and deeper into new, false details about the man's family, the man's village, the man's education. 

These reflections echo O'Brien's anxiety throughout the book towards the limits of social obligation and the role of blame in war. O'Brien does not want to fight in this war, but if he flees or refuses, he fears the embarrassment this would bring upon himself, his family, and his town. Similar to the man he killed, whom he says "pretended" to care about his patriotic duty, O'Brien feels throughout the war that he is masquerading as a soldier. He is simply trying to survive, but it is fear of humiliation that brought him to combat, not patriotism. He believes he probably shared this anxiety with the young man he killed.

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Ambush Quotes

I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were not thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien prefaces the story by saying that he lied to his daughter, Kathleen, about not killing a man in Vietnam. He takes this story as an occasion to tell the "adult" version of what really happened. In describing the act of killing, he insists upon how fast it all happened. There was no sustained calculus of political or social obligation that drove him to throw the grenade, and he felt no ill will towards his target - the response was overwhelmingly automatic. The fact that another man's death is the result of a reaction clearly troubles O'Brien, given how absolutely final death is as a result. While he can offer no moral or even superficial justification for throwing the grenade, besides a need to make the man disappear, he nonetheless goes through the list of all of the things he did not think about the man. Thus we see both how O'Brien could blame himself for not thinking more about the man or the reasons for the war in the moment, as well as empathize with how fast these life and death decisions take place. This passage communicates the fleetingness of mortality - how life can become death in an instant without any time to process or understand. War is defined by these indigestible instants that defy explanation or justification - which is why O'Brien is so haunted by their memory. He can't help but feel things in the present and map them onto his recollections of the past. 

Good Form Quotes

"Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?" And I can say honestly, "Of course not." Or I can say, honestly, "Yes."

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kathleen (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien uses this extremely short story as a direct address to the reader. This is one of the most obvious times that O'Brien writes with awareness of an audience in the book. He spends the pages expressing an ambivalence in regards to historical truth. It is true that he has and hasn't killed someone in the historical sense—but to O'Brien, it is story truth that is more important and affecting. In stories, his feelings can be articulated in the present. The guilt he has about feeling responsible for another man's death and his part in the war can change shape, take new forms. Sometimes the story is that no one died—he absolves himself of that historical event, and he allows himself to be guiltless of another young man's killing in the war. Other times he blames himself. The story shifts with the present feeling. The feelings, therefore, give birth to the story—they actualize as the story's truth, tapping into what was authentically true for O'Brien at the moment of their telling. Storytelling functions as an exercise in fantasy fueled by very true emotions. O'Brien doesn't feel wed to telling the whole truth in the empirical sense because, for him, emotional resonance is what keeps him tethered to the present. Without stories that pull him into the now, he could get completely lost in obsessing over the past. 

The Lives of the Dead Quotes

But this is true too: stories can save us. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kiowa, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, Linda
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien opens the story this way following the title "The Lives of the Dead," as a thesis to argue the point of the story itself. The title itself is somewhat ironic, since death is not a lived experience, but O'Brien contends that stories save the dead. As a forty-three-year-old writer, he keeps Linda, Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, the man he killed, and the scores of anonymous dead he saw in the war alive. He raises them from the dead with words. Stories' imaginative space allows people to come back to life and engage with the still-living. Through writing, O'Brien defies death itself. 

It was a kind of self-hypnosis. Partly willpower, partly faith, which is how stories arrive.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

A young Tim O'Brien recalls conversations he dreamed that he had with his deceased friend Linda. Before sleep, Tim would fabricate elaborate schemes in order to conjure Linda in his dreams. As a child, he believed these dreams to be miracles, though in retrospect he sees them as coping mechanisms for how to reconcile with mortality. His need to tell stories in order to remember Linda's life became his way of dealing with her passing. It's a method of self-care through will and make-believe, a way for his friend to live beyond her physical death. 

The young Tim's impulse to keep his friend alive through stories is one that is seen throughout The Things They Carried – in every story that O'Brien writes about the friends he made and lost during his deployment in Vietnam. He frequently emphasizes the importance of storytelling as a means of coping with loss and despair, by both acknowledging and partially evading it. For instance, the rich history he invents for the unidentified man he killed in battle serves as a way of both grieving for a life he is responsible for ending and giving that man a life again, at least in story. By giving the man a full life in writing, he can - partially - absolve himself of the man's total death, since he lives on in the book. At the same time, by writing about that man he acknowledges that the man was a human being who was just as complex as he himself, and takes responsibility for having killed him. The same goes for Linda. 

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The Man O'Brien Killed Symbol Timeline in The Things They Carried

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Man O'Brien Killed appears in The Things They Carried. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Spin
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
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...to normal when the chopper went away. A trail outside My Khe, a hand grenade, a dead young man , Kiowa telling O'Brien he had no choice. (full context)
On the Rainy River
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...his family, Linda, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, his wife, his unborn daughter, his two sons, and the young man he killed outside My Khe. O'Brien tries to jump into the water, but can't. In... (full context)
The Man I Killed
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The story begins with a description of the dead man : jaw in his throat, one eye shot the other forming a star-shaped hole, thin... (full context)
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...done. He keeps repeating this, and urges O'Brien to stop staring at the corpse of the man he killed. Kiowa asks O'Brien if he'd prefer to be in the dead man's shoes.... (full context)
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O'Brien describes the man 's face again, repeats the same details: the undamaged nose, the frail figure. He notes... (full context)
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...maybe he doesn't know. O'Brien keeps staring at the body and describes the wounds on the dead man 's corpse, he notes a gold ring on his right hand. Kiowa tells O'Brien again... (full context)
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...he's sorry, then asks O'Brien to talk about it. He keeps asking O'Brien to talk. The young dead man was about twenty, and he lay with a leg beneath him, his jaw in his... (full context)
Ambush
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The young man was short, thin, and frail—about twenty years old. O'Brien was afraid of the man, and... (full context)
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...of him. The sun began to rise and the trail became more visible. He saw the young man emerge out of the morning fog, wearing all black and sandals, and carrying a weapon.... (full context)
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...He ducked down and held his breath. He claims he didn't hear it land, but the young man must have because he tried to make a run for it. The sound of the... (full context)
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O'Brien notes his life wasn't in immediate danger. It's likely the young man would have just kept walking. "And it will always be that way." (full context)
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O'Brien remembers Kiowa trying to console him by saying that the young man would have died regardless, told O'Brien it was a "good kill." Kiowa said it was... (full context)
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...about it. Occasionally, though, when he's reading a newspaper or sitting alone he will see the young man again. He will step out from the fog in the morning and O'Brien will see... (full context)
Good Form
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...reader about why the book was written. Twenty years ago near My Khe he saw a young man die on a trail, but he didn't kill him. His presence was enough to make... (full context)
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The story-truth: the young, dead man was slim and around the age of twenty. He died in the center of the... (full context)