Trauma in "Ambush"

This chapter illustrates the need to discuss and communalize trauma, especially when the experience has been shared. Cross' isolation after Lavender's death exacerbates his grief. By contrast, Bowker and Kiowa have the interact with one another. Kiowa's repetition of the same information helps him to relieve his stress as described by Shay, van der Kolk, and van der Hart. The talking, though, makes Kiowa feel better. Similarly, Bowker does not want to re-confront Lavender's death, but after Kiowa obeys Bowker and goes quiet, Bowker immediately requests Kiowa keep talking. Upon this request, Kiowa responds and effectively masks his feelings with the statement, "One thing I hate, it's a silent Indian" (18). Bowker does not want to talk about Lavender's death but the only thing worse than talking about the experience is not talking about it.

"While Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.
He tried not to cry. With his entrenching tool, which weighed 5 pounds, he began digging a hole in the earth.
He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war" (O'Brien 125).

Identity and Gender in "Ambush"

“Ambush” begins with Tim’s daughter asking Tim if he has ever killed before, to which he responded with a lie. Tim recalls being stationed on Night Duty to watch over his battalion as they sleep. Soon after, he spots an enemy soldier exiting a nearby tunnel, to which Tim immediately reacts by throwing a grenade at the man. This chapter uses the theme of identity to express how the war has gradually altered Tim's identity as he continues to witness violent events. When Tim spotted the man approaching, he did not think before throwing the grenade - was an instinctual reaction. Even so, when the grenade was thrown, all Tim wanted to do was make the man disappear, he did not want the enemy soldier near him. Kiowa attempts to explain to Tim that the soldier's death was inevitable, but as Tim sees the body before him, he begins to recognize the gravity of what he’s done and he becomes silent. Tim mentions that it still bothers him that he killed that soldier and took his life, something that Tim apprehended. 

“The grenade was to make him go away-just evaporate- and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and felt it fill up again” (O'Brien 127).

Loss of Innocence in "Ambush"

In the chapter, “Ambush,” O’Brien addresses the loss of innocence through the exchange between Tim and his young daughter, Kathleen. She asks her father if he ever killed anyone in the war, to which he responds with the lie that he had never. Tim’s decision to lie to Kathleen was driven by his desire to preserve her perception of her father as a man of innocence and morality. The chapter thereby raises the issues of embarrassment, pride, morality, and truth, which are all issues faced by veterans like Tim, along with their loss of innocence.

“It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, with was to say, ‘Of course not,’ and then to take her onto my lap and hold her for a while”  (O’Brien 125).

The Nature and Effects of War

“Ambush” demonstrates the effects of war in reference to traumatic memory and the shrinking of the moral horizon. The act of killing another man caused a traumatic memory for Tim, because it ruptured his prior conceptions about himself and the world. He never would have expected to take another man’s life, and therefore it is difficult to return to his original identity as a decent human being. Once someone’s reality is shattered it is difficult to reconstruct it, leading to a destruction of Tim’s moral horizon. He never would have thought he would kill a man, and the act completely contradicted his prior moral conduct.

 “Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I dwell on it, but now and then, when I’m reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I’ll look up and see the young man step out of the morning fog” (O’Brien 128).

Love in "Ambush"

In O’Brien’s chapter, “Ambush,” he confesses that when asked by his daughter if he’d ever killed anyone, he said no. It is a common belief that lying is immoral, yet this does not apply in all cases however, as Tim’s emotions towards his daughter are polar opposite from dislike. O’Brien is showing the reader that sometimes, one must lie to their loved ones to protect them from an uncomfortable truth. O’Brien knows that his daughter never would have recovered had she known that her dad had taken the life of someone else. Because of his immense love for Kathleen, he protects her by lying and presents himself as a man free from the burden of inflicting death upon another.

“Someday, I hope, she’ll ask again. But here I want to pretend she's a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep writing war stories…” (125).

Fracturing of Themis in "Ambush"

“Ambush” depicts the fracturing of Tim’s themis with his recollection of when he killed a man. In this chapter, he particularly recalls the moment he killed the man with vivid details and the feeling of guilt. He hoped that he would never have to kill someone, and he didn’t feel right taking one’s life for the sole reason of being their enemy. When he killed the man, his themis was ruptured because he went against his own beliefs. In fact, before he killed the man, he wanted to warn the man to run from the grenade. However, this warning came too late for the man and soon after, Tim felt a sense of guilt and remorse. This causes a state of disbelief in his own actions and contributes to his mental instability. Altogether, his recollection of killing adds to the fracturing of his themis, because the killing of the man went against his moral beliefs.

"I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself o throw it... It occurred to me then that he was about to die. I wanted to warn him...Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don't" (O'Brien 127, 128).


Death in "Ambush"

The chapter, “Ambush," provides further insight into Tim’s killing of the Vietnamese man, a prominent example of death in the novel. This specific instance shows the desensitization that comes with war. Tim, like all the other soldiers, is trained to kill by joining the army. The devastating effects of this are shown as Tim’s instincts cause him to kill a young man, and he quickly realizes what he has done: “I wanted to warn him” (127). Such a simple act of instinct caused a series of devastating effects for the man and his loved ones, which are clearly laid out throughout the previous chapter. The chapter not only shows the effects of death on its victims but on its perpetrators as well. Tim says that he had to lie to his daughter about killing someone. While this could possibly be explained as a safeguard for children, it is doubtable that Tim would like to share this story with anyone else as he claims a large portion of the novel has never been shared before. This therefore shows Tim’s lasting guilt over the situation and how it has plagued his life for many years after the war.

“It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low” (126).

Courage in "Ambush"

“Ambush” illustrates that when faced with a hard decision in war, one is more prone to submitting to fear and losing all sense of courage in the sense of upholding morals. This is shown when Tim kills the Vietnamese soldier. The Vietnamese soldier did not notice Tim and would have passed him by if Tim had not shot him. Even though he believed himself to be a moral man, Tim still reacted out of fear when shooting the Vietnamese soldier, an action that completely contradicts the morals that he thought he would always be able to uphold. He therefore submitted to his fear and committed a cowardly act.

“He was a short, slender young man of about twenty. I was afraid of him-afraid of something and as he passed me on the trail I threw the grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him” (O'Brien 125).

Morality in "Ambush"

Ambush expresses the theme of morality through its utilization of the concept of moral luck. The protagonist of this chapter, Tim, finds himself in a dangerous and morally difficult situation. He is forced to kill a young man and becomes severely traumatized by this event. While describing his experience, he says, “for me, it was not a matter of live or die. I was in no real peril. Almost certainly be young man would've passed me by. And it will always be that way”(O’Brien 127). In his analysis, he understands that he would've been forced to kill this man no matter what. The concept of moral luck explores the idea that the person involved did not have full control of the situation and the results which occurred. In Tim’s case, he had no choice but to protect his men and kill the stranger from the opposing force. Although he may not have done this under different circumstances, he did not have a choice in the matter. Overall, this chapter helps develop the theme of morality through the display of Tim’s moral luck.

"It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty" (O'Brien 126).

Ambush describes how morality is often challenged in the face of fear. In this chapter, Tim is left on night watch with nothing but three grenades. When he notices a Vietnamese soldier in the distance, he throws a grenade, but instantly questions his decision. Although he understands his duty as a soldier is to protect himself and his team, he struggles with the idea of killing a man who he has never met. The idea of countering his morals continues to affect Tim years later. At this point, he understands that the soldier would have died anyway, but struggles to comprehend why his decision was so automatic and responsive. When asked, Tim lies to his daughter saying that he has never killed anyone, hoping that one day he will be able to understand and explain why he refused to obey his morals in the face of fear.

“I did not ponder issues of morality...or military duty...I was terrified” (O'Brien 126).

Atomization in "Ambush"

The language used in “Ambush” directly correlates to the atomization of the Vietnamese boy - he is broken down and destroyed by the grenade. While Tim begins to see this boy as a real person who he killed, characters like Kiowa and Azar simply see him as an enemy. For them, his death is as meaningless as any other enemy death. This shows that during war, the enemy is portrayed as nothing more than another obstacle to overcome. Their atomization, both literally and figuratively, is often disregarded by the men in this environment.

"Later, I remember, Kiowa tried to tell me that the man would've died anyway. He told me that it was a good kill, that I was a soldier and this was a war" (O'Brien 127).

Key Authorial Choices in this chapter

  1. Kathleen asking if Tim had ever killed anyone.
  2. "You keep writing war stories, so you must've killed" (125).
  3. Repetition of the event - traumatic memory.
  4. Effacement of the man he killed - star shaped hole
  5. Kiowa saying that the man "would've died anyway".
  6. The resemblance of the man to Tim.
  7. Innocence to impurity with Kathleen to Tim
  8. Clear narrative control and strong sense of perspective is not seen in "The Man I Killed"
  9. Use of fog represents the confusion of O'Brien's actions in killing the man
  10. Tim acted without thinking and he still thinks about it

1 thought on ““Ambush””

  1. Authorial choice#2 : “You keep writing war stories, so you must’ve killed” (125).
    Kathleen’s observation accurately describes the effects of trauma on the soldier, and this authorial choice conveys that many soldiers grapple with trauma following war, and they are often forced to relive traumatic memories. Because Tim continues to tell the stories of the Vietnam War, he is likely still haunted by these memories. As Shay wrote in “Achilles in Vietnam,” narrativization is a key component of overcoming traumatic memories, and Tim’s practice of writing war stories is a method of putting words to unspeakable events.

    Authorial choice #5: Kiowa saying that the man “would’ve died anyway” (127).
    Kiowa’s observation illustrates one aspect of war’s nature – disregard for human life. When Kiowa speaks about the dead man, he does not demonstrate any pity or remorse on Tim’s behalf. Rather, he asserts that the man would have been killed by someone else, or he would have killed Tim. In war, it is “kill or be killed,” and this mentality detracts from the humanity of the soldier.

    Authorial choice #9 – Use of fog represents the confusion of O’Brien’s actions in killing the man
    O’Brien’s usage of fog illustrates the lack of clear morality in war. According to Foster, fog symbolizes confusion in literature, and this novel is no exception. On the foggy night that Tim kills the Vietnamese soldier, he is unsure why he does what he does. His actions are more of a reflex than a planned approach to the situation. Furthermore, this fog echoes the idea that there is no clear-cut moral in war. While Tim is troubled by his murder, Kiowa attempts to assure him that it was the necessary action to take. The two men are not able to come to a conclusion whether the murder was moral or not; rather, Tim is trapped in a mental fog concerning the place of morality in war.

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