Chapter 13 Summary

The thirteenth chapter in The Things They Carried is “Ambush.” The narrator explains that his daughter, Kathleen, once asked him whether he killed anyone during the war. She was nine at the time, knew he had been in the war, and knew that he wrote war stories. The narrator explains that it seemed right to tell her that he had not killed anyone, which is what he ultimately told her. However, he hopes that she will someday ask him again. In this story, the narrator explains, he will pretend that she is grown up and explain what he remembers when he killed that man. This is also, the narrator explains, why he continues to write war stories. 

He explains that the platoon had moved into an ambush site outside My Khe. They spread out in the brush along the trail and wait. It is shortly after midnight and for five hours, there is no sign of the enemy. The men are arranged in groups of two: one man sleeps while his partner stands guard, alternating in two-hour shifts. It is the final watch when Kiowa wakes up the narrator for the final shift. He is groggy and lines up three grenades in front of him. It is humid, there are mosquitoes, and after an hour a man walks out of the fog. He is just over ten meters away.

The narrator automatically throws a grenade at him. The grenade is thrown without feelings of hate or consideration of morality. If anything, he throws the grenade to make the man disappear. It is a high lob and the narrator can remember seeing it in the air and in the fog. It bounces and rolls across the trail, catching the man’s attention. He begins to run, glancing at the grenade and trying to protect his head. When the grenade goes off, there is a puff of smoke and the man seems to pull away as if he is attached to wires. There is a “star-shaped hole” where his eye used to be. Afterward, Kiowa would tell him that it was a good kill and would try to reassure the narrator that he had no reason to feel guilty. However, the narrator would find himself incapable of doing anything but staring at the dead man’s body. 

To this day, he still considers that moment, and he explains that sometimes he forgives himself but sometimes he does not. Sometimes when he is reading the newspaper or sitting alone, he will see a man come out of the morning fog. The narrator watches him approach and walk past him with a smile at some private thought. He watches the man continue walking down the trail until he has disappeared again back into the fog.