I Smell A Mega-Post (Stockings-Ambush, The Things They Carried)

… He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young
man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest
was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar, maybe. His wrists were the
wrists of a child. He wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a gray
ammunition belt, a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand. His
rubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a few
meters up the trail. He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of
My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his
parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and
where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and
many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not
a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier. In the village of My Khe, as
in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which
was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I
 killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and
Tran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s final victory
against the Chinese at Tot Dong. He would have been taught that to
defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had
accepted this. It was never open to question. Secretly, though, it also
frightened him. He was not a fighter. His health was poor, his body small
and frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher of
mathematics. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself
doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of
the stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He
hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping
and 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 to
be a soldier and in his heart would have feared performing badly in
battle. Even as a boy growing up in the village of My Khe, he had often
worried about this. He imagined covering his head and lying in a deep
hole and closing his eyes and not moving until the war was over. He had
no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin
and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him
about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers,
and on the playground they mimicked a woman’s walk and made fun of
his smooth skin and his love for mathematics. The young man could not
make himself fight them. He often wanted to, but he was afraid, and this
increased his shame. If he could not fight little boys, he thought, how
could he ever become a soldier and fight the Americans with their
airplanes and helicopters and bombs? It did not seem possible. 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.
and a third time:
The young man’s fingernails were clean. There was a slight tear at the
lobe of one ear, a sprinkling of blood on the forearm. He wore a gold ring
on the third finger of his right hand. His chest was sunken and poorly
muscled—a scholar, maybe. His life was now a constellation of
possibilities. So, yes, maybe a scholar. And for years, despite his family’s
poverty, the man I killed would have been determined to continue his
education in mathematics. The means for this were arranged, perhaps,
through the village liberation cadres, and in 1964 the young man began
attending classes at the university in Saigon, where he avoided politics
and paid attention to the problems of calculus. He devoted himself to his
studies. 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 let
himself 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 a
classmate, a girl of seventeen, who one day told him that his wrists were
like the wrists of a child, so small and delicate, and who admired his
narrow waist and the cowlick that rose up like a bird’s tail at the back of
his head. She liked his quiet manner; she laughed at his freckles and
bony 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.
-Paulie
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s