What is the theme of "The Men I Killed" in the book The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This disturbing short story concerns the man that the narrator killed as part of his time in Vietnam. What is interesting about this story is the way in which the speaker gives this man he killed--a complete stranger--a full background and life story that eerily matches the speaker's own life story and background. By insisting on developing him as a full character, the author shows the way in which killing people represents the extinguishing of an entire life and a whole flotilla of hopes and dreams and makes it impossible to accept the view that Kiowa tries to convince him of, that he is just a nameless casualty of war. Consider the following quote that comes towards the end of this story as the speaker meditates on the sight of the man he killed:

Clean fingernails, clean hair--he had been a soldier for only a single day. After his years at the university, the man I killed returned with his new wife to the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the 48th Vietcong Battalion. 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.

This story therefore is a fascinating investigation into the psychological effects of killing somebody on the killer, and also shows us how we can never just write off the death of another person as being a regretful necessity in a time of war. The way in which the speaker identifies so strongly with the man he killed shows that killing somebody--even in war--is something that can haunt you for a very long time afterwards.

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