We all know the feeling of guilt. The way it rips our conscience apart and makes us flee to the nearest corner of the room. Most people try to avoid it, but it can be difficult since actions are often controlled by one’s fear and impulse. In the short story „Ambush”, from the collection “The Things They Carried” from 1990, Tim O’Brien tells a story of a man who can’t.
One day, a child asks her dad whether he has ever killed anyone. This initiates a long flashback sequence where the reader gets the chance to look into the past, in order to understand the present better. The story is told with a first-person narrative, which adds intensity and reliability to the events. The main character is the story’s protagonist. We do not know his name, but it is very likely that the character is O’Brien himself. He is a soldier who fought in the Vietnam War, and he killed a man whom he probably did not have to kill.
The main character is feeling guilty because of this fatal decision. Before the main character tells the story about the man he killed, he says, “This is why I keep writing war stories”(p.129, l.9-10). O’Brien’s way of trying to cope with his own guilt is by keeping the dead soldier alive through a story. The soldier is also kept alive by the great amount of details, “I remember the grenade seeming to freeze above me for an instant, as if a camera had clicked, and I remember ducking down and holding my breath and seeing little wisps of fog rise from the earth”(p.130, l.22-25).