illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 12 Summary

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The twelfth story in The Things They Carried is “The Man I Killed.” The narrator, Tim, stands before the body of a man he has just killed. He looks down at the body and notices that the face is mangled. One eye is shut and the other is a “star-shaped hole.” The man had been a soldier because he had a gun and ammo. However, as the narrator looks down at the man he killed, he notices the dead man’s fine wrists and his arched eyebrows. He is poorly muscled. He wears an ammunition belt and a gold ring. The narrator guesses that he was born in 1946 in the village of My Khe, which is near the coastline of Quang Ngai Province. Perhaps his parents farmed there for centuries and perhaps his family fought for independence against the French. He was not a Communist, but rather someone who fought because of Quang Ngai’s tradition of patriotic resistance. He was not a fighter, but a scholar—someone that wanted to someday teach mathematics.

While the narrator considers these things, Azar and Kiowa watch him. Azar boasts over how Tim “scrambled” the man like oatmeal and how “on the dead test, this particular individual gets A-plus.” Tim does not respond and Azar walks away, but Kiowa stays. He tries to comfort the narrator, asking what else could have been done. He reminds the narrator it is a war and that Tim could very well have died in that exchange. Further, all of the other soldiers in the platoon were about to fire on the dead man. After all, he was carrying a gun and ammunition. However, Tim does not respond.

Instead, the narrator continues to look at the dead man. A butterfly passes over his forehead. He thinks about how the dead man had always been small, and how the kids around him made fun of him for being pretty. The dead man would have been afraid to fight, but would not have wanted to reveal that to his family. He had managed to attend the University of Saigon, avoiding politics and focusing on calculus. In his final year at the university, he fell in love with a 17 year-old who admired his narrow waist and liked his quiet demeanor. One day, they exchanged gold rings, and now, the narrator reflects, the dead man has a star for one eye. The dead man is like a “constellation” of possibilities.

Kiowa covers the body with a poncho and encourages the narrator to talk to him about what just happened. He remains silent, still looking at the dead man and thinking about the hole shaped like a star that has taken the place of the dead man’s eye.

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