O'Brien describes a Viet Cong soldier whom he has killed, using meticulous physical detail, including descriptions of his wounds. Then O'Brien imagines the life story of this man and imagines that he was a scholar who felt an obligation to defend his village.
Azar comments to O'Brien about the dead soldier and is sent away by Kiowa, who senses that O'Brien is upset. Kiowa tells O'Brien to stop staring at the body and offers justifications for what has happened. O'Brien continues to imagine that the man he killed was devoted to his studies, that he wrote poems, and that he fell in love with his classmate. O'Brien sees that the man's fingernails and hair are clean and guesses that he has been a soldier for only one day. Later Kiowa tells O'Brien that he is looking better; even later he tells O'Brien that he should talk about it, and again tries to get the disturbed O'Brien to talk.
O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen, asked him when she was nine years old if he had ever killed anyone. He told her no, but hopes that she will ask again as an adult. Again, O'Brien describes the Viet Cong soldier and tells how he saw him approach through the morning fog. He recalls being terrified, and that his action was automatic, not political and not personal. He believes, too, that if he had not thrown the grenade, the Vietnamese soldier would have passed by without incident.
The central theme of this vignette is time. "O'Brien" the soldier is frozen in a moment in time, recalling the entire history of the dead Vietnamese man while the American troop of soldiers are all moving forward, preparing for another day at war. The one word that best describes the mood of this vignette is shock. "O'Brien" is in shock from killing the man, and the rest of the world is moving around him, all in speech and imagination.
O'Brien has his two American comrades, Azar and Kiowa, try to move around "O'Brien." Azar sees only a fallen enemy and compliments "O'Brien" on a thorough job — he cannot understand what "O'Brien" is feeling. Kiowa is more sympathetic, offering textbook comments, such as switching places with the dead man and that he would have been killed anyway, in order to console "O'Brien" whom he believes regrets his action. The fact is that "O'Brien" never expresses what he is feeling — joy, regret, pain, confusion, or any specific emotion. He never says a word throughout the story. His shock is all that we can really know, expressed through his silence.
Much of this vignette is full of the personal history of the Vietnamese soldier, beginning with his birthplace, moving through his career, love life, and eventual enlisting in the army. It also details some of his hopes and ambitions. O'Brien uses this history to make the dead man more realistic — the audience cannot simply dismiss him as a body or an enemy, but must think of him as a man. This is yet another way O'Brien makes the Vietnam War more personal than historical or political.
On the other hand, the history of the dead Vietnamese soldier is fictional. We know that there is no way that "O'Brien" could know all that he thinks, or even most of it. O'Brien is again playing with the notion of truth: The personal history makes the soldier truer to us, more of a real person, but none of what "O'Brien" expresses is necessarily fact. The truth of the fallen soldier is left up to the reader. We can decide whether we feel for this man or want to think of him only as a fallen enemy.
The main image in this story is the star-shaped wound. It is repeated several times throughout the vignette. The star might symbolize hope, like a wishing star, but O'Brien has inverted its meaning by tying it in with death. It is surely no coincidence that the star-shaped wound is on the soldier's eye, for it is with the eyes that men both gaze upon the stars and see the approaching enemy. The Vietnamese soldier obviously did not see the danger he was in; perhaps he was gazing more upon the stars, upon his future, than on his present situation. In this case, the stars betrayed him, and he has no future. In this story, O'Brien changes the meaning of looking to the future and the hopefulness of the star through his use of this image.
The "Ambush" vignette collapses all time between the experience of "O'Brien" in Vietnam and O'Brien the author telling a story. There are three distinct points of time referred to in the vignette: the time when his daughter, as a child, asked him the question about killing a man; the time that the author is telling his story; and the time of the story itself, some twenty years earlier in Vietnam. For the author, though, any perspective that he now has is lost in the telling of the tale, and the confusion and fear that he felt as a soldier then is intimately entangled with the regret and embarrassment he now feels through reflection. He is as unsure now as then, and even though he acted more out of instinct when he lobbed the grenade and insists that he did not ponder "morality or politics or military duty," his reevaluation now forces O'Brien to reckon his action against those gauges.
This story, perhaps more vividly than most of the novel, puts us in the mind and body of "O'Brien" the soldier. We see through his eyes and share his thoughts. Much of what O'Brien describes is formulaic, such as not feeling hate, acting on instinct, feelings of regret afterwards, and moral confusion that lingers. What is unique about O'Brien's treatment of this killing is how he introduces his daughter into the equation. Instead of a man reflecting and reconciling his actions to himself, he now has to justify them to a new audience — one who looks to him for moral guidance. His response is to lie to her and to wait until writing this vignette to undo that lie. O'Brien gives no indication that he has ever lied to himself about what happened. Even immediately after the killing, when Kiowa tries to convince him that he did nothing wrong, "O'Brien" insists that "none of it mattered." He focused only on the body, on the physical damage done, not the moral implications.
So, competing in this vignette are O'Brien's desires to understand his own actions and his need to relate them to his daughter, as well as move beyond what he did. The final image of the soon-to-be dead soldier walking toward O'Brien and smiling is an act of revenge. The dead soldier not only lingers in O'Brien's thoughts, but also seems to enjoy that O'Brien cannot finish "sorting it out." We never know if O'Brien is seeking forgiveness or if he thinks he needs it, but whatever will not leave him is what kept him from answering his daughter truthfully. Perhaps that itself is what makes him write the story, searching for some kind of closure to either his killing or his lying.
Trung sisters (d. 42 C.E.) Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, were daughters of a powerful Vietnamese lord who lived at the beginning of the first century.
Tran Hung Dao Famous general who defeated two Mongol invasions in late thirteenth-century Vietnam.
Tot Dong Field in 1426 where the Vietnamese routed the Chinese. Two years later, the Chinese recognized Vietnam's independence.
48th Viet Cong Battalion One of the most effective Viet Cong military units.