The Language of Literature
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"Ambush" by Tim O'Brien


In this story, O'Brien uses a first-person narrator to recount an incident of war. The narrator's nine-year-old daughter, knowing that her father writes war stories, asks him if he has ever killed anyone. The narrator says no but resolves to tell her the truth when she is grown. He then recalls how he killed a young man in Vietnam. He and another soldier were on patrol, taking turns sleeping and keeping watch. Out of the predawn fog, a young man approached carrying a gun. Instinctively, the narrator pulled the pin on a grenade and threw it, wanting to make the man disappear, not to kill him. Then he describes seeing the man's corpse with a hole where an eye should be. The narrator realizes that he could have let the man pass unharmed and that there was no real danger. Years later, the incident still haunts him. Sometimes he can forgive himself, sometimes not.


This story addresses

  • accepting responsibility for one's actions,
  • living with regret.

Instructional Focus

To encourage students to

  • empathize with the narrator's regret about both lying to his daughter and killing the soldier,
  • identify alternative reactions to the moral dilemmas presented in the story and predict their outcomes,
  • rectify or cope with troubling situations.


Oral Reading
Have students read the story aloud, stopping to discuss the various judgments they are making as events unfold.
For example, pause at the end of the first paragraph to discuss the manner in which the narrator handles his daughter's question. Ask students what they perceive the difference to be between lying to children and providing them with age-appropriate detail.
Continue reading aloud, encouraging students to intervene with questions or comments as they arise. Focus on questions and comments that develop the moral dilemmas presented and/or offer fresh insight to the problems posed.

Class Discussion
Use the following questions as springboards to solutions:

  • Why does the narrator lie to his daughter, and how does he justify it? Do you think she will ask him the same question when she's older? Why/Why not?
  • The narrator "keep[s] writing war stories." What does he expect the writing to do? Do you think it is working?
  • Why doesn't the narrator let the soldier pass? How do you think you would have reacted in a similar situation?
  • Why do you think the narrator focuses on the gory details of the soldier's death?
  • Kiowa tells the narrator that it was a "good kill." What does this phrase mean in its military context? Do you agree or disagree with Kiowa's interpretation? Why/Why not?
  • How do individuals justify killing during wartime when they would not kill during times of peace? What does this tell you about humans' tendencies toward self-preservation?
  • What steps could the narrator take to end his own torment about killing the man? How can we come to grips with the guilt we feel over some of our actions?

Written Response
Instruct students to write about an event that causes them guilt. Have them identify ways they can redress the wrong committed or, barring that, assuage their guilt.

Internet Art
Ask students to work in pairs to search the Web for two organizations devoted to nonviolent resolution of conflict as it relates to adolescents. Have students download appropriate information that explains the ideals and activities of the organizations and then compare them to determine which they think is the more effective. Instruct pairs to prepare a collage that symbolizes the ideals and activities of their chosen organization and share it with the class.

Group Debate
Organize the class into groups of five or six. Assign each group a pro or con stand on the issue of wartime violence as a means of resolving conflict. After allowing adequate time to research the topic and prepare appropriate defenses, host debates between opposing groups.

Real World Connection

Instruct students to conduct interviews of family friends and relatives who have participated in military operations. Determine what the veterans have or have not discussed about their participation (particularly with youngsters). Students can synopsize "Ambush" for the veterans and ask them whether or not they agree with the narrator's decision to withhold the truth from his daughter. Students may also discuss the veteran's level of regret (if any) about participating in the operations. Have students present their information orally to the class.
*Remember, for students not having family friends or relatives with military experience, local veteran's administrations and VFWs are frequently delighted to oblige.



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