In his novel In the Lake of the Woods Tim O’Brien paints a vivid image of the horrors of the Vietnam War, particular the savagery of the Thuan Yen massacre. While prior to reading the novel readers instinctively blame the soldiers themselves for their immoral actions, as the novel progresses, O’Brien shows that while the soldiers may have physically committed the brutal acts of murder, blame cannot solely be placed on them. O’Brien depicts the Vietnam landscape as one that, due its elusive and chaotic nature, was partially responsible for the horrors that the men committed.
Furthermore, the very nature of man and our innate capacity for evil suggests that while the soldiers themselves committed the physical acts of terror, our capability to commit such atrocities when placed within the scenario of war means that any individual would have been taken over by the insanity of the conflict. Ultimately, O’Brien demonstrates that while the horrors of My Lai are unforgivable, there are extenuating circumstances which suggest that blame cannot solely be placed on the soldiers who themselves were at times victims to the nature of war.
While O’Brien depicts the nature of war as chaotic, he never denies the individual responsibly that each soldiers had for the evils they committed while at war. Sorcerer comments that “this was not madness, this was sin. ” By differentiating between “sin” and “madness” O’Brien shows the immorality of the soldier’s actions, rather than simply blaming the evils they committed on the Vietnam landscape.
While “madness” suggests a lack of control and that the soldiers were unable to make moral decisions, “sin” is associated with a conscious decision to commit evils and thus an understanding of one’s immoral actions. The fact that in between the savage killing and sexual perversion of the Thuan Yen massacre solders were able to take smoke breaks suggests that the soldiers knew of the “pure wrongness” of their actions and yet never made the moral decision to stop the killings. If soldiers did in fact understand their actions, O’Brien asks whether they can ever be forgiven.
“Justifications are futile” states O’Brien – the total disregard for the mores of our society means that we cannot justify nor excuse the ultimate acts of savagery that were exhibited in Thuan Yen. Such evils committed by men are unforgivable and thus, the soldiers who partook in the massacre must accept responsibility for their actions, at least to some extent. However, within a landscape as chaotic as that of the Vietnam War, O’Brien asks whether any individuals could have retained his sanity.
If not, O’Brien suggests that some blame can be placed on the insanity of the environment of war that warped the moral codes of those who fought in there. Vietnam is depicted as a “the spirit world… dark and unyielding”; a hellish environment in which the line between good and evil, moral and immoral and right and wrong had been blurred to such an extent that soldiers who had to endure the war landscape were sucked in by the chaos and the amorality.
The question of whether any individual, let alone any soldier, would have been able to make moral decisions during war is one that is ever-present in O’Brien’s text. As readers witness the total disregard for human life that was the Thuan Yen massacre, it is hard to believe that any person, no matter how sane and morally upright one may have been before the war, could have retained their sanity within an environment that appears to reach into the soul of every soldiers and dislodge the part that enables us to make moral decisions.
Varnado Simpson, a member of the Charlie Company states that “we simply lost control… we killed all that we could kill. ” In his court trial, Simpson defines the very nature of war, with its aimless shooting, elusive enemy and constant paranoia, as a scenario in which any individual would have been taken over by the hysteria that war created. Ultimately, O’Brien graphic depictions of the war landscape allow readers to sympathise with the soldiers and thus allow the blame to shifted, however not excused, from the soldiers themselves.
In light of the very nature of war, O’Brien suggests that despite the atrocities of their actions, the inability to make moral and ethical decisions within the world of “ghosts and graveyards” means that the evils committed by the soldiers must be, at times, viewed with sympathy as well as the scorn that readers naturally thrust upon them. Furthermore, O’Brien demonstrates that it is the very nature of man and our innate capacity for both undying love and unbelievable destruction that ensures that, while their actions are unforgivable, soldiers can be viewed with sympathy.
The “impossible combinations” of the war depicted by O’Brien reflect the ability of man to express both the dichotomies of love and destruction equally and at the same time – a seemingly “impossible combination” of its own. However, the very fact that these two traits are not mutually exclusive suggests that it is in our very nature to commit acts of evil when placed within a landscape such as that of war. John Wade did not go to war to kill or brutalise or even to “be a good citizen. ” O’Brien ensures through repetition of the statement that “it was in the nature of love” that Wade went to war.
How then, O’Brien asks, can Wade be solely blamed for his actions when his intentions in going to war were pure? While we cannot simply forgive Wade for the massacre in which he partook, O’Brien leads readers to view Wade not “as a monster, but a man. ” Despite the horrors that he committed while at war, it appears as if John Wade was a victim not only of the war landscape, but of ultimately of human nature. In the concluding pages of the novel, as Wade slowly loses himself within the tangle of his own deceit, O’Brien asks if Wade was “innocent of everything but his own life.
” The more poignant question, however, is whether Wade and the rest of the Vietnam veterans are innocent of everything but human nature and our innate ability to commit acts of evil. It is thus that O’Brien suggests that while the actions of the soldiers at Thuan Yen cannot be excused completely, the soldiers themselves cannot solely be blamed. “Can we believe that he was not a monster, but a man? ” It is with this open ended question that Tim O’Brien draws to a conclusion the enigmatic story of Vietnam veteran John Wade.
Despite the horrors that he committed throughout his life, most notably the Thuan Yen massacre, O’Brien asks whether humanity can view Wade as a man who was a victim to the chaos of war, to the capacity of human nature to commit evil and ultimately, to his own reality. The actions of soldiers at war cannot be justified – it is with this sentiment that O’Brien writes this antiwar protests – however there are undeniably extenuating circumstances which lead soldiers to commit acts of evil.
While culpability should not be lifted from the soldiers completely and their actions should not be excused, O’Brien ensures that we sympathize with the soldiers as many of them were simply swept away in the amorality of the landscape. Ultimately, O’Brien explores human nature and the capacity that man had for destruction. It is this weakness, rather than that of any individual soldiers, that is ultimately responsible for the evils of war.