Many years later, a plastic surgeon is still haunted by memories of the war atrocities he committed as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He returns to Vietnam searching for atonement. He spends two weeks there as a medical volunteer, repairing the cleft lips and palates of 30 children. He meets the director of the hospital, Dr. Lieh Viet Dinh, who once was a member of the North Vietnamese Army.

During the war, Dr. Dinh was tortured and both his thumbs were cut off. He asks the plastic surgeon to perform a toe transplant to replace one of his missing thumbs. Despite the initial optimism of both men, the operation ultimately fails as the digit becomes gangrenous and then dead. Once again, Vietnam has proven to be a dangerous place seeping hardship and disappointment. Only now the surgeon is capable of accepting the land and its risks as he makes peace with the country and himself.


This story displays many types of festering wounds in need of healing. These injuries belong to individuals and nations as well as doctors and patients. Time alone is incapable of healing all emotional and physical wounds. When a cure is not possible, reparation just might lessen the suffering. The sometimes terrible force of the past is depicted as an assailant of both life and memory.

The plastic surgeon-narrator and Dr. Dinh share many similarities. Both men served in the army during the Vietnam War and are surgeons. Each man was mutilated by the war. Dinh lost his thumbs and the narrator lost peace of mind and a part of his soul. Cultural and philosophical differences between two countries are highlighted in this story.

The feelings of restlessness, anger, remorse, and exile experienced by the American narrator are in contrast to those of the Vietnamese people. They are described as patient and understanding. Dr. Dinh says, "We believe life is circle. Everything comes and goes. Why grasp and cling? Always things will come around again if you give them time" (92). And, for the plastic surgeon, that might just include making things right and achieving reconciliation.

The transplanted toe-as-thumb is an intriguing metaphor for hope, risk, and failure. In at least one sense, the thumb is a symbol of humanity. Our opposable thumbs separate human beings from other animals. Yet this story illustrates how war reduces us to animals. "I Am the Grass" makes a powerful statement about the destructive force of war and how the damage reverberates long after the last shot is fired and the final bomb dropped.

Primary Source

The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 285, No. 6, June, 2000: 88-97


The Atlantic Monthly Group

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