One of the main themes of the novel is the allure of war. This trope, common in war literature, is made more complex here as O’Brien adds the layers of a Conrad-esque “heart of darkness” fascination in the character of Mary Anne.
The seductive allure of war is inextricably linked to the tendencies of human nature in O’Brien’s novel. War, more specifically the act of killing, acts as a catalyst for some individuals, causing them to become primal versions of themselves, to become less human, to become killing machines. O’Brien revisits this idea numerous times throughout the text, adding subtle variations on the theme as he introduces different characters that struggle with the same core issue. O’Brien initially creates this tension by offering the counterpoint of O’Brien’s daily work duty of declotting slaughtered pigs with his anxiety about his imminent service as a soldier in Vietnam. O’Brien merges the ideas of killing with animals, a symbolic linkage he revisits by describing the soldiers of Alpha Company as animal-like, “humping” their packs and “saddling up” their gear.
O’Brien struggles to hold onto the obverse of this animalism, this barbarism, which is a sort of hyper-civility. He succeeds in doing this by continually offering a highly self-conscious and self-aware cultural criticism that frequently draws on the archetypal works that are the foundation of western civilization like Plato’s Republic.
Contrary to the protagonist “O’Brien’s” experiential insulation from Vietnamese culture, which is a kind of “uncivilized other” according to the terms of U.S. rhetoric that largely defined the war, Mary Anne Bell is a character who deliberately strove for cultural immersion. For “O’Brien,” the landscape and the Vietnamese occupying that landscape, such as the elderly Vietnamese men who watch him revisit the spot where Kiowa perished, are mostly incidental. Mary Anne actively sought out the ways of the Vietnamese, not just to observe from a distance,...
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