… He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty youngman. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chestwas sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar, maybe. His wrists were thewrists of a child. He wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a grayammunition belt, a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand. Hisrubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a fewmeters up the trail. He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village ofMy Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where hisparents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, andwhere, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles andmany neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was nota Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier. In the village of My Khe, asin all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, whichwas partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man Ikilled would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters andTran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s final victoryagainst the Chinese at Tot Dong. He would have been taught that todefend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He hadaccepted this. It was never open to question. Secretly, though, it alsofrightened him. He was not a fighter. His health was poor, his body smalland frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher ofmathematics. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himselfdoing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes ofthe stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. Hehoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hopingand hoping, always, even when he was asleep.
The short story “The Man I Killed” opens with this description of the man fictional-character-omnipotent-author-narrator-demigod Tim O’Brien killed. This seems like a normal description, or at least, the type of description you would expect to hear about a man that was killed, especially when the book is trying to portray him as an important human being to further illustrate the inhumanity of the Vietnam War. What was not expected was almost exact repetition of this passage two times later:
…The skin on the right cheek was smooth and fine-grained and hairless.Frail-looking, delicately boned, the young man would not have wanted tobe a soldier and in his heart would have feared performing badly inbattle. Even as a boy growing up in the village of My Khe, he had oftenworried about this. He imagined covering his head and lying in a deephole and closing his eyes and not moving until the war was over. He hadno stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thinand arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased himabout how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers,and on the playground they mimicked a woman’s walk and made fun ofhis smooth skin and his love for mathematics. The young man could notmake himself fight them. He often wanted to, but he was afraid, and thisincreased his shame. If he could not fight little boys, he thought, howcould he ever become a soldier and fight the Americans with theirairplanes and helicopters and bombs? It did not seem possible. In thepresence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doinghis patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed withhis mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he wasafraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But allhe could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up toofast.
and a third time:
The young man’s fingernails were clean. There was a slight tear at thelobe of one ear, a sprinkling of blood on the forearm. He wore a gold ringon the third finger of his right hand. His chest was sunken and poorlymuscled—a scholar, maybe. His life was now a constellation ofpossibilities. So, yes, maybe a scholar. And for years, despite his family’spoverty, the man I killed would have been determined to continue hiseducation in mathematics. The means for this were arranged, perhaps,through the village liberation cadres, and in 1964 the young man beganattending classes at the university in Saigon, where he avoided politicsand paid attention to the problems of calculus. He devoted himself to hisstudies. He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal,took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations. The war,he knew, would finally take him, but for the time being he would not lethimself think about it. He had stopped praying; instead, now, he waited.And as he waited, in his final year at the university, he fell in love with aclassmate, a girl of seventeen, who one day told him that his wrists werelike the wrists of a child, so small and delicate, and who admired hisnarrow waist and the cowlick that rose up like a bird’s tail at the back ofhis head. She liked his quiet manner; she laughed at his freckles andbony legs. One evening, perhaps, they exchanged gold rings.
I noticed that this was a fairly unusual form that I had not run into, and what do we say about form? Form=Function.
So what could be the function of repeating this passage multiple times? It could be that fictional-character-soldier-omnipotent-author-mythological creature-narrator-demigod Tim O’Brien wants to very firmly stress the fact that this man who he killed, who some soldiers would kill without thinking, was a significant human being with a life, family, and expectations. One of the major goals it seems O’Brien had in writing the book was to show the utter horrors of the war. By illustrating the dehumanized enemy as a human being that is relate-able to the reader, O’Brien gives his book a major appeal to emotion. The entire short story actually seems to be one large appeal to emotion, as it continues to talk about the shock that fictional-leader-character-soldier-omnipotent-author-mythological creature-narrator-demigod Tim O’Brien goes through after the man is “laid out like Shredded ******’ Wheat,” and even has some symbolism of beauty in the utterly horrifying image of the destroyed carcass, like the butterfly that crawls on his face.
Kiowa tries to snap O’Brien out of it repeatedly in the course of the story:
“Tim, it’s a war. The guy wasn’t Heidi—he had a weapon, right? It’s a tough thing, for sure, but you got to cut out that staring.”
Kiowa, although showing a little bit of remorse for the dead man, is focused on keeping O’Brien mentally stable. He has just gone through a tremendous shock. Kiowa tries to further dehumanize the victim, hoping that it would desensitize O’Brien so he wouldn’t feel guilty. This doesn’t work, as O’Brien keeps repeating the above monolauges about the man – which of course he couldn’t have possibly known, but he is fictional-leader-character-soldier-omnipotent-talented-author-mythological creature-narrator-demigod-buissnesman Tim O’Brien after all.