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War Through a Man’s Shattered Mind


The Sorrow of War is a novel about the war in Vietnam and its effect on both soldiers and civilians. The book is centered around Kien, a Vietnamese war veteran who struggles to tie his life back together after horrific events that happened to him and the people around him. Throughout the book, the reader sees events happening in a chaotic order, starting with a burial and ending with a memory of Kien’s first kill before switching to a new character’s perspective in the last chapter. While Kien is not the only soldier affected by the war, his example demonstrates how war can affect one’s mind and body.

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The tragedy of Simple People

The reader observes many people in Kien’s memories, devastated by the war. He witnesses many cases of murder, assault, and other forms of violence. His fellow soldier Can is an early example of the tragedy of war: he was a simple peasant separated from his mother. Tired and traumatized by the war, he deserts the regiment but dies on the way home. While he lost his comrades before, Can’s death brings an unpleasant realization for Kien: once a soldier is gone, their memory is forever left behind, as people grow used to countless deaths happening around them. Yet Kien cannot forget as he remembers the day he left. The man sees Can’s ghost every night, as the spirit whispers to him: “My soul swims out of my corpse” (Ninh, 2012, p. 24). It is not the first time he and other characters see “ghosts” in the novel; they treat them as real as living people. To these soldiers, death is so close that to see spirits is not surprising but expected. The ghosts are many, countless, and they cannot rest dead, just like surviving soldiers like Kien cannot rest post-war even alive.

Stream of Traumatized Consciousness

The novel is written in a stream of consciousness form. The events are not told in chronological order, but the story does end symbolically with a memory of his first murder. Although it can be considered a purely stylistic choice, there is a reason for this: Kien has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the novel’s style mirrors it. Like many people who have war-related PTSD, his mind is disordered in how it processes thoughts and memories. Kien is trying to find a way to cope with it by writing a memoir, but his mind cannot forget the horrors he had witnessed. It grasps at memories haphazardly, sometimes connecting them to his modern life and sometimes merely remembering the past. In the end, Kien leaves without a trace, and a new author takes over in the epilogue. His words only highlight how broken Kien’s mind was: that even if the manuscript were fully intact, “this novel would still be a work created by turbulent, even manic inspiration” (Ninh, 2012, p. 229). What happened to Kien is left a mystery, up for the reader’s interpretation.


The Sorrow of War is a tragic novel that shone a light on the Vietnamese war in a way most other stories did not. It told a story of a soldier struggling to survive and even more to live in a peaceful time. Through his eyes, the reader can see and understand how war twists and turns people into monsters or destroys their lives completely. It looks at how PTSD affects a person from inside their mind and how big of an invisible scar it leaves. It is not a story with a happy ending, or bravado, or glorification of war, but rather the grim realities of it, despite borderline supernatural elements. Kien’s perspective demonstrates how war affects one’s mind and leaves both visible and invisible scars that affect people throughout their lives.


Ninh, B. (2012). The sorrow of war. Random House.

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