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Abby Broadhurst

IB English – Pd. 1
Mr. Jameson
October 31, 2012

The Universal Atrocity of War

War is not an isolated experience. It does not affect only one side of the conflict, but

rather its effects are shared by both fronts. In battle, one man’s victory is another man’s pain,

another family’s loss. Throughout history, war has played a fundamental role in the development

of the world as it is today. However, the broad history of war often neglects the underlying

emotional toll that it takes on willing and unwilling participants alike. To combat this

unfortunate truth, many individuals have taken it upon themselves to recount their own memories

and those of others in order to expose the universal atrocity of war. Tim O’Brien, author of The

Things They Carried, and Barbara Sonneborn, director of the documentary Regret to Inform, are

two such individuals. In their respective works, both seek to convey the reality of the Vietnam

War by highlighting either the American or the Vietnamese perspective. Despite the different

viewpoints, the Americans soldiers in the novel and the Vietnamese women interviewed in the

documentary clearly suffer from kindred emotional torment and later, from survivor’s guilt. It is

these similarities between those forced to fight and those forced to endure the fighting that are

necessary to the understanding of war as a shared experience. The painful memories of the

Vietnam War offered throughout both works expose the emotional burdens shared by the

Americans and Vietnamese during the war and the survivor’s guilt that permeates both peoples’

lives after the war, thereby emphasizing war as a universal atrocity, a fact of war often forgotten.

The personas represented in The Things They Carried and Regret to Inform divulge many

personal tales of the emotional trauma experienced in war. Although O’Brien witnesses many

soldier’s emotional suffering, one of the most stunning portrayals of this internal agony is
demonstrated by Rat Kiley, an American medic who loses his best friend Curt Lemon to a

concealed explosive. Only a kid, and especially sensitive due to soldiers’ incessant exposure to

death, it seems that Lemon’s dying is the breaking point of Rat’s delicate psychological stability.

After Lemon’s death, when the troop “[comes] across a baby VC water buffalo,” Rat mercilessly

shoots the animal, aiming solely to injure (The Things They Carried 78). In this scene, the irony

of the medic’s vengeance and the pain of the buffalo reflect Rat’s emotional turmoil as he has

finally succumbed to inconsolable grief. The emotional turmoil soldiers experienced was not

only influenced by the death of fellow friends and soldiers but also by the deaths of the

individuals they are forced to kill. One morning, near a city called My Khe, O’Brien is on guard

when a young Vietnamese soldier drifts through the fog. Although “there [is] no real peril” and

the young man would “almost certainly” pass by, O’Brien responds automatically and kills the

man without pausing to think (The Things They Carried 133). However, after the kill, O’Brien

is paralyzed by his actions and despite others’ assurances that it was necessary, can only “gape at

the fact of the young man’s body” (The Things They Carried 134). The surrounding death and

difficulty of survival permeate the novel through the soldiers’ attempts to fight both an internal

and external war.

The Vietnamese women also suffer emotional trauma despite the fact that in their case, it

is caused by the Americans invading their homeland. Throughout the documentary, one

Vietnamese woman, Swan, weaves a personal history saturated by fear and shame. Although she

was only fourteen years old, Swan can still remember her five year old cousin begging to leave

the bomb shelter solely to get a drink of water. Despite Swan’s pleas to stay where it is safe, her

cousin leaves the shelter in innocent desperation. As Swan follows, she witnesses the young boy

trip and is shocked by the immediacy with which he is shot by an American soldier. Not only is
this death difficult to cope with due to her relation to the young boy, but also because of her lack

of understanding of American motives. This is similar to many Vietnamese women featured in

the documentary who are confused by the reasoning behind the American invasion and ceaseless

cruelty during the war. Swan later recounts another story of her youth in which she is forced to

consort with the enemy as a prostitute, one of the only available methods of survival for

Vietnamese women during the war. The position made even more difficult by the fact that

Americans are responsible for the deaths of her friends and loved ones, Swan must resort to

marijuana to “numb herself” (Regret to Inform). Although the emotional trauma of the

Vietnamese women has different sources, it is just as difficult to endure as that of the American


While the emotional trauma experienced by the American soldiers and Vietnamese

women led each side to harbor bitterness for the other, years later, the similarities between them

are evident as both the Americans and Vietnamese experience survivor’s guilt, a seemingly

universal effect of war. Among Swan’s other painful memories, there is one which continues to

haunt her as she was forced to “[decide] who lived and died” (Regret to Inform). One day in the

midst of a village bombing, while running for her life, Swan hears an old Vietnamese man crying

out for help. Knowing that he would die if left alone, Swan is forced to continue, pretending that

she never hears him. The guilt of having to make this life-or-death decision has pursued Swan

even in adulthood as she recognizes that her life was contingent on her ability to follow her

survival instincts and put herself first, something she feels is morally misguided. This is similar

to O’Brien’s experience outside of My Khe. Many of the other Vietnamese women who suffer

from survivor’s guilt in the documentary are mothers, their children either having died as

Vietnamese soldiers or having been killed by Americans. Tran Nghia, another Vietnamese
woman, expresses her enduring shame of having been forced to leave her dead child out in the

open, unable to go outside and bury him due to her fear of American soldiers and the looming

possibility of rape (Regret to Inform). Many of the Vietnamese women in the film who were

unwilling participants of war continue to be barraged by feelings of guilt from actions both taken

and not taken during the war.

Survivor’s guilt is also prominent in the lives of the American soldiers illustrated in the

novel The Things They Carried. The emotional suffering clearly does not end with the war as it

continues to permeate many soldiers’ lives as evidenced by the story of Norman Bowker. In

1975, Tim O’Brien “[receives] a long, disjointed letter” from Norman Bowker, a fellow soldier,

who explains his post-war feelings of guilt and resulting isolation (The Things They Carried

155). Bowker’s experiences in war clearly haunt him as he states that “it’s almost like I got

killed over in Nam”, his guilt making him feel as though he too “sank down into the sewage”

with Kiowa, a friend of his whose death Bowker believes to be a personal failure. The extent of

Bowker’s guilt at having survived in place of others is conveyed when he “[hangs] himself in the

locker room of a YMCA” three years after his initial letter to O’Brien (The Things They Carried

155). For many, the post-war guilt resulting from the deaths of friends and the murder of

enemies is too much to handle. Although O’Brien also suffers from survivor’s guilt, he is lucky

in that he is able to channel the painful memories into stories. Throughout the novel, he

repeatedly mentions how writing is his method of coping with the pain, his way of surviving the

memories. Although the American soldiers managed the guilt of survival differently, it is an

omnipresent force which shapes the men’s subsequent lives.

Despite the different perspectives maintained by the American soldiers and Vietnamese

women on opposing sides of the Vietnam War, both have clearly suffered from war’s universal
elements of emotional torment and guilt. This has enabled the Americans and the Vietnamese to

develop a shared understanding of the atrocity of war. When the American soldiers were sent to

fight in a foreign war, not all believed in the cause. However, due to the looming threat of death

which remained regardless of one’s personal convictions, the men were forced to kill or be

killed, constantly surrounded by the death of one’s friend or one’s enemy. While the women

were not active soldiers, they too were victims of war’s torment as they watched friends and

loved ones die by the hands of a foreign enemy. Although on opposing sides of the conflict,

emotional torment was evident in the experiences of both the Americans and the Vietnamese as

each fought to preserve their own lives. This universal survival instinct is also a leading cause of

the later survivor’s guilt which plagues both peoples. Despite opposing viewpoints, the

Americans and the Vietnamese seem to be searching for some type of communal healing and

reconciliation for actions taken during war. It is important to recognize the universal effects of

war and the fact that most participants “wouldn’t have done the things [they] did if [they] had

another choice” regardless of the side they belonged to (Regret to Inform). The culminating

recognition that “we are all the same” will hopefully enable the healing process to begin as the

Americans and the Vietnamese finally understand that they are not the victims of each other, but

of the war itself (Regret to Inform).

WORD COUNT: 1, 555 / 1, 500