The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Ambush | Summary



The narrator's nine-year-old daughter, Kathleen, assumes that he writes "these war stories" because he killed someone. He tells her "of course not." In his mind he pretends that she is an adult and that then he can tell her the truth.

The narrator writes "The Man I Killed" from a new angle. The platoon is hidden along the trail near My Khe when a young man emerges from the fog at dawn. He carries his weapon one-handed, muzzle down, in no rush, but the narrator's training kicks in; he pulls the pin and throws the grenade. The young man reacts too late. A "puff of dust and smoke" lifts him, then his torn body falls to the trail.

The narrator realizes that he "was in no peril"—the man would likely have walked on—"and it will always be that way." He sometimes forgives himself for the young man's death; at other times he remorsefully imagines the young man walking on to where the trail "bends back into the fog."


In this version of the young soldier's death, the narrator focuses on his own feelings and thoughts. When the man appears on the trail, the narrator "does not see him as the enemy" but is still terrified. He remembers how throwing the grenade was "entirely automatic."

This man who, when drafted, was appalled by the idea of death in war and by his own cowardice, now behaves like a soldier. He doesn't "ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty." He doesn't even think in terms of killing an enemy. He uses the grenade to make the man "go away—just evaporate." Years later the narrator still revisits these events. He did his duty; he protected his platoon. Yet he feels guilty. The young man's death symbolizes the toll the war has taken on the narrator, who now acts automatically from fear, without the ability to form an alternative assessment of the situation until after it has occurred.

Again, fog plays a role in events. Fog often represents confusion or inability to decide how to act. In this case the young man appears out of the fog, and the grenade's white smoke merges with the fog after the man dies. Decades later the narrator still imagines the fog, but in his vision the young man lives to disappear down a foggy trail. The narrator pushes this event out of his thoughts during the "ordinary hours of life," but the young soldier is never far from his mind.

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