Quiet Conflict: The Search of Identity in Tim O’Brien’s “The Man I Killed”

by Shane Simpson

Written for Liberal Arts Seminar: College Writing (LARTS 111, Fall 2011)

            “He knew he would die quickly. He knew he would see a flash of light. He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people” (O’Brien 130). In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, Tim stands over the mangled corpse of the young man he recently murdered in battle and contemplates the motivating factors that caused this “dainty” (124) man to enter such a violent and gruesome war. Tim’s silent pondering embodies the search for identity discussed in Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey’s “Identities and Social Locations.” Their article brings up certain critical events (e.g. war) that act as catalysts in life for a shift in how one thinks about oneself. The silence portrayed in O’Brien’s story reflects this sort of introspective tone. He not only uses powerful word choice, but also removes Tim’s own spoken voice from the dialogue. By using graphic imagery and this type of dialogue, O’Brien emphasizes the silence Tim embodies as he struggles with his identity amid the dehumanizing effects of war.

            The violent language used in O’Brien’s story enhances the grotesque image of war. O’Brien opens with a mouthful: “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, . . . there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, . . . the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, . . . his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny” (124). O’Brien’s off-putting yet descriptive word choice brings an immediacy to the image of a brutally mutilated body, “the man I killed,” that is to say, the man the narrator, Tim, killed. As if baffled by it, Tim does not answer the questions, How exactly does one’s jaw end up in one’s throat? How does one acquire a star-shaped hole for an eye, and how can one’s cheek be peeled in three strips? Instead, these questions are left lingering on the page, exhibiting the appalling monstrosities of war. Brutal language is but one technique used by O’Brien to convey the silencing effects of war.

            O’Brien’s violent word choice contrasted with Tim’s silence highlights the dehumanizing effects of war. Azar, a soldier in Tim’s party, speaks first in the story. After the long graphic depiction of the mutilated corpse and a bit of Tim’s fantasy about the fallen soldier, Azar says, “Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker” (125). Brilliantly, O’Brien juxtaposes Tim’s long-winded, eloquent opening with Azar’s offhand remark. Azar goes on to compare the fallen soldier to different breakfast foods, using words like “scrambled,” “Shredded Wheat,” “oatmeal,” (125) and “Rice Krispies” (126). Azar is amused by the degree of destruction; he smiles. By essentially patting Tim on the back for murdering this young man, Azar shows he takes pride in the slaughter of the enemy forces. They are not fellow humans to him, but merely breakfast items.

            O’Brien’s use of dialogue in which Tim never speaks, interspersed with the thoughts saturating his head about the man he killed, vivifies his uncomfortable silence and inner conflict. Throughout the story, Tim’s inner thoughts are interrupted by tenacious consolation from his friend, Kiowa:

“Think it over,” Kiowa said. Then later he said, “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.” Then he said, “Maybe you better lie down a minute.” Then after a long time he said, “Take it slow. Just go wherever the spirit takes you.” (126)

This type of dialogue has a “time-lapse” effect. Between each of Kiowa’s statements passes an indefinite point of time in which Tim stares in silence at the remains in front of him. He never responds to Kiowa; he does not hear the words; the mess in front of him is all-consuming. It causes him to fantasize about the life this mangled corpse once embodied: what his passions could have been, his challenges growing up, his values, his desires, his family, all of these thoughts going through Tim’s head. The silence is broken only by Kiowa’s voice, and there is conflict between Kiowa’s deliberate dehumanization of this fallen soldier and the elaborate “re-humanization” by Tim. In addition, Kiowa’s words, although consoling, do not seem to do justice to the slaughtered man either. He rationalizes the situation, reminding Tim of the implications of war: “he had a weapon” (126). Tim remains silent. He refuses to see the man he killed as anything less than an equal.

            The silence conveyed in O’Brien’s text highlights Tim’s identity struggle. As Kirk and Okazawa-Rey argue, “Critical life events, such as entering kindergarten, losing a parent through death, separation, or divorce, or the onset of puberty, may all serve as catalysts for a shift in how we think about ourselves” (9). War itself is enough of a “critical event” in Tim’s life to cause a shift in the way he thinks about himself, let alone the brutal murder of an innocent-looking man, emphasis on brutal. (Again, how does one’s jaw end up in their throat?) With the horrors of war amplified, Tim starts to question his goals and motivations for going to war. After experiencing death first-hand, perhaps he realizes defending his country is not all it is cracked up to be. Now he is guilty of murdering a young man like himself, someone doing his duty, fighting for his country. Tim is face-to-face with his inglorious remains and so must glorify the life of this man to justify his own decision to fight in war. He is also conflicted by his comrades’ way of coping with the gruesome reality, thinking of the enemy as less than human. In searching for an identity of the man he killed, Tim is searching for his own identity.

            The horror of war, as depicted through O’Brien’s disturbing language, has a silencing effect. The absence of spoken dialogue by the narrator, Tim, deepens this feeling of silence. Contrasting with this silence is Tim’s loud internal conflict. He just murdered a man. Now he struggles with identifying himself with his dehumanizing companions who see what he did as honorable. Where now does he belong? He is a war hero, but might he regret his decision to go to war? He is now a murderer, after all.

 

Works Cited

 

Kirk, Gwyn and Margo Okazawa-Rey. “Identities and Social Locations.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. 2nd Edition. Ed. Maurianne Adams, et al. New York: Routledge, 2010.

O’Brien, Tim. “The Man I Killed.” The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

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