✪✪✪ Literary Analysis: Ambush, By Tim O Brien

Monday, November 01, 2021 12:38:24 AM

Literary Analysis: Ambush, By Tim O Brien



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Tim O'Brien's Ambush, B

Cross asks O'Brien to write a story about him that makes him appear to be the best platoon leader ever, hoping Martha would read it and find him. Mitchell Sanders sends his body lice to his hometown draft board. Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins play checkers every night. O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen , says he should stop writing so many war stories. Ted Lavender adopted a puppy that Azar blew up. Kiowa told O'Brien he had no choice but to kill the armed man on the path. O'Brien says he must write stories because that's all that's left when memory is gone. O'Brien credits Berdahl with being "the hero of his life. Berdahl takes him out on a boat so he's only yards away from Canadian soil. O'Brien feels forced to go to war for fear of embarrassing himself and his family, more than he fears death.

After Strunk returns from a few days in medical care, Jensen becomes paranoid that Strunk will retaliate by killing him. Jensen isolates himself for a week, and eventually loses it and starts shooting his gun in the air until he's out of ammo. Then he breaks his own nose with a pistol and asks Strunk if they're even. Strunk says they are. They make a pact and sign it that reads one is obligated to kill the other if one is harmed so badly in battle that they would be wheelchair bound. Later that month, Strunk gets most of his right leg blown off in combat. As the soldiers wait for a medic chopper, Strunk comes in and out of consciousness begging for Jensen not to kill him. Jensen promises he won't. Strunk dies in the chopper, and Jensen appears relieved.

O'Brien tells the story of Rat Kiley's reaction to Curt Lemon's death as an example, as well as Mitchell Sanders' story about a platoon of soldiers that started having auditory hallucinations. When O'Brien tells the story of Lemon's death, usually an older woman will say it's too sad, and O'Brien resolves he has to keep telling the stories and adding to them to make them truer. Lemon enjoyed combat and was known for his dangerous antics, but he was terrified of the Army dentist that all of the soldiers had to see. When the dentist touched him, Lemon fainted. When he came to, he spent the rest of the day in a stupor, cursing himself.

In the night, Lemon woke the dentist and forced him to pull out a perfectly healthy tooth. There was so little action there that one soldier, Mark Fossie , snuck his girlfriend Mary Anne Bell in by helicopter. Things don't go as Fossie planned, though, because Bell becomes infatuated with the war, leaves Fossie, and joins the Green Berets in battle. At first Dobbins was made fun of, but then the platoon started to believe in the power of the stockings because Dobbins was never hurt in battle, even when he was standing in open fire and stepped on a mine that didn't go off.

When Dobbins' girlfriend breaks up with him, he still wears the stockings and says the magic didn't leave. The two monks like the soldiers, but they particularly love Henry Dobbins. Dobbins tells Kiowa he might become a monk after the war, but confesses he could never be a minister because he can't answer the hard questions about life and death. Kiowa, who always carries the New Testament, doesn't feel that it's right that they're using a church as a base. Dobbins agrees. Kiowa keeps insisting that O'Brien quit staring at the body and talk to him. He lies and says he hasn't, but then addresses the story to an adult Kathleen and promises to give the truth.

He recalls the image of the young man outside of My Khe and how the memory haunts him still, but in his memories the young man keeps walking down the path and survives. Azar keeps asking why she is dancing. From where her house was, the soldiers find the corpses of the girl's family. She continues to dance. Later, when the soldiers have left the village, Azar dances like the girl in a mocking way. Henry Dobbins picks up Azar and holds him over a well, threatening to drop him if he won't stop and "dance right. Bowker drives repeatedly around a lake in his hometown, reminiscing about the night Kiowa died. He remembers seeing Kiowa's boot and trying to pull but Kiowa was too stuck so Bowker fled.

Bowker has convinced himself he would have won the Silver Star if he had pulled Kiowa out, and that Kiowa would still be alive. Bowker feels like he has no one to talk to, and imagines telling his father that he was a coward. He imagines his father consoling him with the many medals he did win. Bowker wades into the lake and watches the fireworks. O'Brien feels guilty and compelled to oblige, and writes a version of "Speaking of Courage" that he publishes, sends to Bowker, but is not truly proud of.

Or both. O'Brien makes Lemon's death seem almost beautiful, because that was how it seemed to him, that moment seared into his memory, and somehow the beauty makes it more horrible without becoming any less beautiful. In a true war story, it's difficult to distinguish between what happened and what seemed to happen. The memories get confused. After, when you try to tell the story, there is always "that surreal seemingness," which makes the story sound like a lie, "but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

The idea O'Brien describes here is echoed in "Good Form," with the concepts of story-truth and happening-truth. It's often the case that the craziest parts of the story are true and the normal things are made up because they're there to make you believe the crazy things. For some things, there is no way to tell a true war story, "it's just beyond telling. That the craziest parts of the story are often true while the benign things aren't shows how devastating and brutal war is and can be, so much so that they surpass a "civilian's" wildest imagination. O'Brien recalls a story that Mitchell Sanders told him about a six-man patrol in the mountains. If they heard anything suspicious, they were to call in artillery to take the enemies out.

Otherwise, they had to remain completely quiet. After a few days they start to hear music with weird echoes. They tried to ignore it, but soon they start hearing instruments, voices and clinking glasses like they're at a cocktail party. Finally they lose it and call in airstrikes. But the guys still hear the sounds. When they return to base camp the colonel demands to know what they heard, but the guys just look silently at the colonel, "and the whole war is right there in that stare. In this story the men are driven so mad by things that they cannot distinguish are real or imagined. When they are asked about what they heard, they can't explain it.

It was unsayable, unspeakable. Those things that cannot be said or put into language because they're so horrific or strange or unbelievable—that's the war, and those are the things that can only be expressed through stories so that those who weren't there, who didn't experience, can maybe understand. O'Brien says you can tell a true war story by how it never ends, or never seems to. He recalls how Mitchell Sanders showed frustration in telling the story of the men at the listening post because he wanted to get all of the details right. The next night at O'Brien's foxhole, Sanders touched O'Brien's shoulder and said the moral was that no one listens: the colonel, the politicians, girlfriends.

The following morning, Sanders approached O'Brien and said he had to confess to lying about a few parts of the story, but he insisted that it was still true—those men heard things out there. O'Brien asked what the moral was, and Sanders was quiet for so long it felt embarrassing. Then he told O'Brien that the quiet he was hearing was the moral. Sanders keeps coming up with more morals for the story. The first is that no one listens. The second is that there isn't even anything to listen to, that even if there were people listening there isn't something they could hear or understand.

Another way of looking at the story is that there are lots of morals to it, that there are endless morals in it, that war contains everything and at such intensity it is beyond anyone's ability to directly communicate. But a story doesn't have to communicate directly. O'Brien claims in a true war story, if there is a moral, it's impossible to fully tease out. One meaning only leads to a deeper meaning and then in the end there's not much to say about a true war story, "except maybe "Oh. He says it comes down to whether your stomach believes the story to tell whether it's a true war story. In the rare case a war story does have a moral a revision of his earlier claim that war stories cannot have one—we see that there aren't really rules!

On the day Curt Lemon died, the platoon saw a baby water buffalo and captured it. After dinner, Rat Kiley pet it and offered it some of his food, which it refused. Rat shrugged and then shot the animal again and again, careful not to kill it. Everyone was watching but didn't say anything. Rat Kiley was crying, and he walked off holding his rifle. Everyone else stood around without speaking. Then someone kicked the animal. It was barely alive.

Dave Jensen said he'd never seen anything like that in his life. Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders carried the baby buffalo and dumped it into the village well. Everyone then sat waiting for Rat to pull himself together. Dave Jensen was still astounded, "A new wrinkle. I never seen it before. Rat Kiley's behavior is, in a way, a gross parallel between how he feels towards Curt Lemon's sister: he tries to write her a letter and when she doesn't respond he reduces her to just a "dumb cooze," except here Rat Kiley is acting out his anger and pain on the baby water buffalo. The war and its lack of moral rules opens up the space for acts that were without name yet—they were unsayable. Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders don't shoot the animal to put it out of its misery, instead they throw it down the village well—which is menacing in its own way because the animal would drown and poison village's water.

O'Brien asks how do you generalize? It's true that war is hell, but that's not all it is. It can be beautiful, mysterious, and exciting in unexpected ways. To generalize about war is the same as generalizing about peace—almost all of it is true and almost none of it is true. Any soldier will tell you that being close to death just makes you closer to life. After a firefight, there is no greater pleasure than simply being alive and you feel you are your truest self. The old rules don't exist anymore, and neither do the old truths. Right and wrong aren't what they used to be. Order gives way to chaos. The only thing that is certain is ambiguity. War is ultimately a contradiction; there is no way to generalize it. Just like there's no way to generalize peace. He suggests maybe war is another name for death, and this expresses this contradiction well because only when you're closest to death do you feel most alive.

O'Brien insists that all of the moral binaries—right and wrong; truth and untruth—are broken down in war and in war stories. O'Brien claims true war stories often don't have a point. He offers a story that wakes him up. Parts of Curt Lemon were hanging above in a tree after he died so Dave Jensen and O'Brien were ordered to retrieve them. O'Brien remembers pieces of Lemon, but the thing that wakes him up is how Dave Jensen was singing "Lemon Tree" as they threw the parts of Curt Lemon down.

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