The Man I Killed is a short vignette in Tim O’Brien’s part-fact part-fictional account of his tour in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. Reading the whole of O’Brien’s forceful, sometimes touching narrative, one soon figures out that ‘the things carried’ are both external (photographs of girlfriends or wives, good-luck charms) and internal (the guilt of having survived when so many died, the longing for home). In this brief chapter in O’Brien’s book, he describes in excruciating detail, again and again, the dead man laying at his feet, the man he killed. O’Brien’s narrator is consumed with images of who this dead enemy soldier, “a slim, dead, almost dainty young man,” was before the narrator’s bullet ripped through his neck. The narrator, O’Brien, studies every detail of the enemy soldier’s corpse, convinced that the life he took would have, absent the war, lived a peaceful, productive life, probably in the field of science or mathematics. He imagines that this young soldier was that and nothing else, a soldier in the service of his country:
“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.”
When one of his fellow soldiers, Azar, approaches and comments favorably upon the sight of the dead Vietnamese guerrilla ("Oh, man, you fuckin' trashed the fucker”), Kiowa, the Native American with the quiet demeanor and spiritual nature, tells the foul-mouthed, callous Azar to “go away.” Kiowa then repeatedly attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince O’Brien that he did what he had to do, that the dead enemy soldier was no “Heidi,” and was armed with a rifle and ammunition belt and, most importantly, that he, O’Brien, hadn’t pulled the trigger, one of his colleagues would have. O’Brien, though, cannot stop imaging his victim’s potential as a human being, noting that the dead guerrilla at his feet “wore a gold on the third finger of his right hand,” and probably spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal, [taking] pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations.” O’Brien acknowledges that this faint, skinny and probably educated young man knew he was dead the second he set off for war, but, deep inside, the American believes he killed a better man that some of those with whom he serves.