In the lake of the woods

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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...
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