Some say it’s not what we do but what we don’t do that can truly define who we are. In the tenth chapter, “The Man at the Well”, from Tim O’Brien’s memoir, If I die in a Combat Zone, O’Brien manages to portray one of the most powerful messages throughout his entire journey. It’s about American ignorance, the inability to help those in need, the true meaning of humanity and whether we, as a population, are capable to break down barriers and walls that we, ourselves, have constructed.
“A blustery and stupid soldier, blond hair and big belly, picked up a carton of milk and from fifteen feet away hurled it, for no reason, aiming at the old man and striking him flush in the face. The carton burst. Milk sprayed into the old man’s cataracts. He hunched foreword, rocking precariously and searching for his balance. He dropped his bucket. His hands went to his eyes then dropped loosely to his thighs.
His blind gaze was fixed straight ahead, at the stupid soldier’s feet” (Page 100).
O’Brien’s language it’s purposefully proposed and constructed to paint one of the most vivid images in the whole memoir. He creates a scene which the reader’s innovative mind engulfs and produces it into one of the most captivating and heart wrenching pictures easily shown like a movie in our own heads. His undeniable choice of descriptive words can’t help but have the effect of a film-like image flowing through the reader’s imagination. O’Brien uses this carefully disguised writing technique to ultimately grasp the hearts of his followers and use their sacrificing vulnerability to engrave a philosophical idea in their minds – such as humanity’s opinion of right and wrong.
“The Man at the Well” produces a foundation of shame and disbelief to think that a human being, an American soldier who is looked up to by children, Vietnamese and American, can fabricate such a hurtful scene. The audacity to even act out the horror and hate is appalling to any reader it makes he or she question the motives of several American soldiers and whether or not their morals are politically correct. It is a fine line between what is right and wrong – there is little gray in a situation such as this. It’s clear the anecdote was an act of hatred. There was no question to whether the ignorance of the “stupid soldier” was right – it was far past right. However why then, did no one do or say anything? Instead an audience watched as a man, a blind and elderly man, who voluntarily was helping them, suffered from one man’s intolerable actions.
People are afraid and that fear creates a boundary. It changes people’s beliefs – and ideas one thought always to be right and those ideas could change in an instance with the doubt fear carries. People come to a crossroads in their lives; where what they once thought their morals were, what they once thought they would stand up for is no longer because fear created a wall – a wall that is unbearable to take down. It is a wall built in front of different people however sharing a common sense of right and wrong. These people cannot see past their own selfish fear to solve a crisis outside of themselves. If just a few attempted to demolish this imaginary roadblock the outcome could be greatly beneficial, however, it’s impossible to achieve unless people step outside of themselves and into a world they desire.
The chapter argues one’s sense of humanity and the pressure that people feel and sometimes are burdened by. However, O’Brien places himself, as an author, in a position which he attempts to break down the wall. He asks you, “What is and what is not right? What are you going to do? Stand there and watch? Or are you going to do something about it?” I found the section powerful, moving and inspirational, and even more so if those who did answer his underlying questions, answered with an optimistic, “yes we can do this” point of view.