A Whole New World: Construction and Destruction in The Things They Carried
While the Vietnam War was a complex political pursuit that lasted only a few years, the impact of the war on millions of soldiers and civilians extended for many years beyond its termination. Soldiers killed or were killed; those who survived suffered from physical wounds or were plagued by PTSD from being wounded, watching their platoon mates die violently or dealing with the moral implications of their own violence on enemy fighters. Inspired by his experiences in the war, Tim O’Brien, a former soldier, wrote The Things They Carried, a collection of ...view middle of the document...
Because his description of the man follows the passive pattern of “his (body part) was (attribute),” O’Brien’s own presence in the story fades. In the last line, O’Brien avoids saying that he inflicted this wound upon the soldier, instead merely stating that “it was this wound that had killed him,” purposely constructing this sentence to remove his own agency from it. The sentence itself is lengthy and repetitive, punctuated only by commas between the numerous descriptions. He does not use first person to explain his guilt and confusion, but it begins to take a rhythm: the choppy descriptions emphasize his compromised mental abilities as a result of the killing, repeating the same basic passive structure to reveal his biting guilt and fixation with the man he has killed. O’Brien does not actually state who this man is until farther down the paragraph; while we can infer that the chapter is about the man he killed from the title, we do not get verification that this is for sure “the man I killed” (119) until he begins to spin a history for him, showing that he does not even admit to his actions until later. Since we are not given an emotional first person narrative confrontation with the moral implications of his actions, the lack thereof and the repetitive structure illustrate the psychological shock that O’Brien faces. This authorial silence reflects the inevitable silence of Vietnam that forces soldiers to confront the horrible realities of destructive battle and guilt that many soldiers experienced due to war.
At the same time, O’Brien struggles with destructiveness of the conflicting images of violence and peace in death through the juxtaposition of the imagery of the dead man. While “his one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.” The dead man has one shut eye that resembles a peaceful sleep, while the other side is obliterated by the grenade into a star-shaped hole. The image of the star-shaped hole in the dead soldier’s eye represents the hopes that he once had when he was alive: “He hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping and hoping, always” (119). Furthermore, “his right cheek was smooth and hairless,” an image of untouched innocence that contrasts with his left cheek, which was “peeled back in three ragged strips,” destroyed by the violence O’Brien inflicts upon it. The juxtaposition of the butterfly that settles on his chin and the fatal wound on his neck, “open to the spinal cord…blood…thick and shiny” illustrate the complexity and ambiguity of the unnaturalness of war, depicted by the image of the dead man’s wrung neck, contrasted with the ironic peace and naturalism of death in the image of the fragile butterfly. These select images are also those that O’Brien chooses to fixate upon and develop throughout the chapter as he struggles to comprehend the moral implications of his actions. The innocence of the “slim, dead, almost dainty young man” is further reinforced when O’Brien...