In his descriptions of the war in Vietnam, O’Brien confronts the concept of evil. In the village of Thuan Yen, American soldiers—many of them young and seemingly innocent—murder unarmed men, women, and children, sometimes because their commanders tell them to do so, and sometimes because they want to do so themselves. At one point, speaking in a footnote, the narrator of In the Lake of the Woods claims that it was “the sunlight” that made the soldiers in Vietnam commit their atrocities. While this could suggest that the soldiers aren’t fully accountable for their actions, the universal and constant presence of sunlight everywhere suggests that all humans are capable of committing atrocities—in other words, that it’s within human nature to kill and obey orders to kill.
During the Peers Commission court-martial for soldiers involved in the massacre of civilians in Vietnam, American soldiers are vilified and called monsters. Later, when it comes out that John Wade was involved in the massacre at Thuan Yen, and killed two people— one a fellow American soldier, and the other an unarmed old Vietnamese man—the voters of Minnesota come to think of John Wade as an “evil” man. The assumption here is that John, in taking other human lives, was a free agent who chose to kill, and thus should suffer the consequences.
O’Brien can’t possibly deal with all the issues of evil, human nature, and freedom that arise from the Vietnam War in only 300 pages. Nevertheless, he devotes a significant portion of his book to trying to explain how John came to kill other people. On one hand, he provides copious evidence for the influences that “led” John to kill: his troubled relationship with his father and his conflicted feelings for Kathy, for instance. He also describes John’s behavior when he shot a fellow soldier as a “reflex.” On the other hand, he doesn’t absolve John of all guilt by placing the blame on other people—it was John, not Kathy, not his father—who felt the urge to kill and hurt other people.
While humanity may have the potential to commit atrocities, O’Brien suggests, human behavior can’t be classified according to easy dichotomies like “good” and “evil,” or “innocent” and “guilty.” It’s not right to say that John is solely responsible for his actions, and it’s not right to say that all the blame lies in other people. Similarly, it would be wrong to argue that all humans are evil because they’re capable of murdering innocent people, just as it would be wrong to say that humans are good and the soldiers in Vietnam are somehow sub-human. It is, however, possible to condemn John’s actions while also feeling sympathy for him—how much condemnation and how much sympathy one gives him is ultimately the reader’s choice, not O’Brien’s.
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom ThemeTracker
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods
You know, I think politics and magic were almost the same thing for him. Transformations—that’s part of it—trying to change things. When you think about it, magicians and politicians are basically control freaks.
John Wade would remember Thuan Yen the way chemical nightmares are remembered, impossible combinations, impossible events, and over time the impossibility itself would become the richest and deepest and most profound memory.
This could not have happened. Therefore it did not.
The thing about facts, he decided, was that they came in sizes. You had to try them on for proper fit. A case in point: his own responsibility. Right now he couldn’t help feeling the burn of guilt.
The unknown, the unknowable. The blank faces. The overwhelming otherness. This is not to justify what occurred on March 16, 1968, for in my view such justifications are both futile and outrageous. Rather, it’s to bear witness to the mystery of evil. Twenty-five years ago, as a terrified young PFC, I too could taste the sunlight. I could smell the sin. I could feel butchery sizzling like grease just under my eyeballs.
Curiously, as he worked out the details, Wade found himself experiencing a dull new sympathy for his father. This was how it was. You go about your business. You carry the burdens, entomb yourself in silence, conceal demon-history from all others and most times from yourself. Nothing theatrical … and then one day you discover a length of clothesline. You amaze yourself.