Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
When The Things They Carried appeared in 1990, critics were overwhelmingly positive in their responses. Indeed, this work continues to be O’Brien’s most studied and applauded. Another Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried does not fit neatly into any conventional generic distinction. Scholars are divided over whether to treat the book as a collection of interwoven short stories, as a novel, or as a fictionalized memoir. O’Brien calls the book simply “A Work of Fiction,” refusing to corral the book into one genre or another.
Many of the chapters of the book were at one time published as short stories in a variety of periodicals; five of the stories first appeared in Esquire. The title story, “The Things They Carried,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” are perhaps the most frequently anthologized of O’Brien’s short stories. Something happens in this book, however, that seems to push it beyond a simple collection of stories. The juxtaposition of the stories along with the additional material O’Brien wrote for the book work together synchronistically, and the effect of reading The Things They Carried as a complete work is very different from reading the stories individually. The characters, events, and memories swirl through the stories, turning back on themselves, self-revising as they go. What the reader learns in one story opens possibilities for the later stories.
The first story is,...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
A platoon of seventeen American foot soldiers is on the march in the booby-trapped swamps and hills of Vietnam. They have been ordered to set ambushes, execute night patrols, and search out and destroy the massive tunnel complexes south of Chu Lai constructed by Viet Cong guerrillas. Young and frightened, most of the Americans are ill prepared emotionally for the stresses of war. The story does not follow a traditional linear plot but instead offers fragments of their experience, including seemingly unending lists of gear and personal effects that they carry with them. What they carry links them, yet distinguishes them.
Chief among the men and one of the oldest is First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, twenty-four years old and not long out of college, who is smitten with love for a girl back home. He carries with him two photographs of Martha, an English major from Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, whom he briefly dated. He yearns for her sweatless perfection, her white skin and clear gray eyes, fantasizing a relationship with her that never existed. Although she writes to him and he carries her letters, rereading them each night, it is clear that his passion for her is not reciprocated. When Martha sends him a talisman, a white pebble from the Jersey shore, Lieutenant Cross carries it in his mouth, savoring its salty taste as something almost holy. Dreams of Martha help him escape Vietnam.
On April 16, the men draw lots to see who will wire a...
(The entire section is 594 words.)
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‘‘The Things They Carried’’ recounts the experiences of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's infantry unit leading up to and following the death of one of the men, Ted Lavender, on April 16. A third-person narrator describes the individual soldiers by the items that they carry with them.
Lt. Jimmy Cross, the main character and platoon leader, carries the letters he receives from Martha, a sophomore English major at St. Sebastian's College in New Jersey. He uses the letters, photographs, and the small stone she has sent him as a way of connecting to the world outside of Vietnam. Though he is distracted and dreamy, he also carries "the responsibility for the lives of his men.''
The other men in the platoon carry personal effects and good luck charms. The also share the burdens of combat, distributing the necessary equipment and weapons among them. Henry Dobbins, for example, the biggest man in the group, carries the M-60 machine gun, ‘‘which weighed 23 pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded.’’ He also ''carried his girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter.''
Lt. Jimmy Cross's platoon's mission in mid-April is to locate and destroy the tunnels in the Than Khe area south of Chu Lai that the Viet Cong used to hide in. Because they are required to search the tunnels before blowing them up, they draw numbers to see who will perform the dangerous and claustrophobic task of crawling through the enemy's...
(The entire section is 540 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
The first story of The Things They Carried is eponymously titled “The Things They Carried.” Set in Vietnam, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his platoon carry many things while humping across the tropical brush. Besides the machine guns, rations, ammunition, and mines, Cross lugs letters from Martha, a junior studying poetry at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. While reading her letters that discuss poetry and Virginia Woolf, Cross wonders whether she is a virgin. He thinks of the last time he saw her, her gray eyes and the way that he kissed her before he left, and he thinks of the things that he wished he had done when he last saw her. Specifically, he fantasizes about taking her to her room, tying her up, and touching her hand with his knee. In her letters, Martha never mentions the war, except to tell Cross to be careful. She sends him a pebble for good luck, which Cross keeps in his mouth.
Cross’s platoon carries many things. Some of the things the men carry are standard, such as steel helmets, which weigh five pounds. Other things are carried only by one or two members of the platoon. For example, Mitchell Sanders carries a PRC-25 radio, which weighs twenty-five pounds with its battery. Henry Dobbins, a large man, carries the M-60, a machine gun that weighs 23 pounds. Not everything that the men carry is standard issue. For example, Dave Jensen carries extra socks and foot powder to combat trench foot, Norman Bowker carries a diary, and Rat Kiley carries comic books. Kiowa, meanwhile, carries an illustrated copy of the New Testament. Ted Lavender carried tranquilizers and dope before he was shot and killed outside of Than Khe. Before Lavender died, there were 17 men in the platoon.
Lavender was scared, and when he died, he fell like “dead weight.” Kiowa saw it happen, and he cannot stop explaining to everyone around him that Ted Lavender “dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down.” The men now wrap Lavender's corpse in a poncho and wait for a chopper to collect the body. In the meantime, they smoke Lavender’s dope and they wonder what the moral of Lavender’s death was. Henry Dobbins finally says “I don’t see no moral,” to which Sanders replies, “there it is, man.”
Cross sees things differently. He leads the men into Than Khe where they burn it down and kill all of the animals there. When he hears how Lavender died, he blames himself because “he had loved...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
The second story of The Things They Carried is “Love.” It is set years after the war, and the narrator explains that the former First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross has come to visit his home in Massachusetts. There, he and the narrator drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and talk about all of the things that the platoon carried with them. The war is over, but it is not forgotten. There are photos of the soldiers from the old platoon, including Rat Kiley and Kiowa. Jimmy still carries the guilt he feels for Ted Lavender’s death. The narrator explains that he carries his own feelings of guilt and blame about things that happened during the war.
Jimmy and the narrator start drinking gin and are soon laughing about their old friends. They talk about Rat Kiley’s comic books and the way Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck as if it were a comforter. The narrator asks Jimmy Cross about Martha, and Jimmy reveals a new photo that Martha gave him after the war. It is a photo of her playing volleyball. Jimmy and Martha never got married after the war, though he did still love her when they saw each other again in 1979. It was a college reunion, and Martha had become a Lutheran missionary and a nurse. She never married.
Jimmy and Martha go on a walk. He explains that he still loves her. However, Martha shuts her grey eyes. He continues, explaining that when they had last seen each other before the war, he had almost taken her to her room so that he could tie her to her bed and touch her knee with his hand. Martha says that she is glad he never tried and that she could never understand why men do “the things men do.” When he tells her that he burned her photo, she gives him another one. Even now, Jimmy tells the narrator, he still loves Martha.
The narrator is a writer. He explains that he might like to write a story about Jimmy and Martha. Jimmy suggests that it might make her fall in love with him if she should read it. He tells the narrator to present him as a strong leader, one who is handsome and brave. As he is leaving in his car, he asks the narrator for a favor: "not to mention anything about...." Jimmy's sentence is interrupted before the request is made. The narrator replies, “I won’t.”
(The entire section is 415 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The third story of The Things They Carried is “Spin.” In it, the narrator admits to being forty-three years old and a writer that only writes about the war. Although his daughter, Kathleen, urges him to write about more frivolous things, the narrator always returns to the war. Oddly, though the memories are often horrifying, and though the horrors seem to live on in the stories, the war was more than horrible. The narrator compares to the war to a ping-pong ball that you can put a spin on.
Many memories come back to the narrator, and though some are horrifying, others are not. There are memories of Mitchell Sanders peeling lice off his body with a finger nail and mailing it to his draft board. There are memories of Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checkers, a game that was clear and without tunnels, mountains, and jungles. There were rules and the soldiers would gather around to watch them play. Once, the soldiers asked an “old pappa-san” to guide them through a mine field and after they had all survived, a chopper came to take them away, leaving the old man behind. Though the soldiers would try to relax when not fighting, the narrator compares the anxiety the soldiers felt to a sort of acid ruining their organs. This was the boredom they felt.
The narrator explains that there are “peace stories” from the war. One story the soldiers tell each other is about a man that goes AWOL, starts living with a Red Cross nurse, and eventually returns to the war because the peace was hurting him and he wanted to hurt it back. Other peace stories are just fragments, like when Norman Bowker confesses that he wishes his father would tell him it is okay to return to the war without any medals. The narrator remembers Kiowa teaching Rat Kiley how to do a rain dance, though Kiley is confused when it does not immediately begin raining. The narrator remembers how Azar, a boy, strapped an orphan puppy that Ted Lavender was nursing back to health to a claymore and then exploded it. The boys in the platoon were mostly nineteen or twenty years old, and Azar defends himself by saying, “Christ, I’m just a boy.”
The narrator reflects on the war and how even though the war happened so long ago, the memories make it feel as though it is happening now. Sometimes the memories turn into stories, and the stories connect the past to the future. They last forever, and when the memory is erased, the story...
(The entire section is 434 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
The fourth story of The Things They Carried is “On the Rainy River.” The narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains that he is about to tell a story that he has never told anyone before. It begins in 1968 while O’Brien is in college. O’Brien imagines himself as a hero that would certainly stand up to evil. Though he has not done anything heroic, he tells himself that he could save up his courage for a time when he might really need it, a theory that the narrator looks back on as “comfortable.”
He is opposed to the Vietnam War and he has even written some articles in the school’s newspaper against it. After all, it was uncertain why the war should be fought, whereas it was certain that men would die. He could list any number of reasons, ranging from historical to political to philosophical, explaining why the war was wrong. However, looking back, O’Brien admits that his opposition was more like an intellectual activity because he felt no personal danger. On June 17, 1968, the narrator receives his draft notice. He is shocked because he was an excellent student, and had even earned a scholarship to Harvard. He was too good and too smart for the war, and he was a liberal. Why not draft a “back-to-the-stone-age hawk” that supported the war?
That summer, O’Brien works at an Armour meatpacking plant in Worthington, Minnesota. He spends his days as a “Declotter” of pork products, where he works a device like a gun. At night he goes home with the stench of pigs on him. It is difficult getting a date, and he spends the summer alone with his draft notice. At night he drives around town thinking about ways to get out of the war, but knowing that there is no option that he can take. By mid-July, he begins to think about going to Canada. O’Brien’s mind becomes split as he considers his fear of the war and his fear of exile. He fears the way that the people in his hometown, who support the war, will look down on him—even though they only understand it as a simple “war to stop the Communists.”
Finally, O’Brien takes off, driving north toward Canada. He eventually stops at an old fishing resort called Tip Top Lodge. Rainy River is nearby and Canada waits on the other side. Elroy Berdahl, who is eighty-one years old, runs the lodge. He sees O’Brien and lets him have a cabin without question. They spend the next six days together, playing scrabble and working together at splitting wood...
(The entire section is 602 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
The fifth story of The Things They Carried is “Enemies.” When the story begins, the soldiers are on patrol in the LZ Gator. It is July, and Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen get into a fistfight. The fight is over something small, like a missing jackknife. The fight is close and it goes back and forth until Jensen, the larger man, eventually wins the fight, breaking Strunk’s nose. However, he continues to throw punches into Strunk’s face and it takes three other soldiers to pull him off. Strunk is taken to the rear by chopper and returns two days later with his nose covered in gauze and held in a splint.
Strunk is back, but Jensen begins to worry since he and Strunk are both soldiers and they are both armed. Though Strunk does not threaten him or say anything about getting revenge, a silent tension remains. The tension begins to affect Jensen, who begins to take precautions. He keeps his distance from Strunk when they dig foxholes and he keeps his back covered while they march. However, the precautions are not enough and eventually Jensen finds that he cannot relax: it is like he is fighting two wars, and when the rest of the platoon rests from their war, Jensen still worries that Strunk is plotting against him. Soon, the tension is keeping Jensen from sleeping at night. He thinks that he is hearing strange noises in the dark and he worries that he is hearing a grenade dropping into his foxhole. He feels a knife tickling against his ear and before long he cannot tell “good guys” from “bad guys.”
The tension continues to build until Jensen loses control. He screams out Strunk’s name while firing a machine gun into the air. The rest of the platoon takes cover, and after the magazine is empty he begins to reload before he finally sits down. They cannot get Jensen to continue marching until several hours have passed. That night, Jensen borrows a pistol and uses its butt to break his own nose. He crosses the camp and approaches Strunk to see if things are finally back to normal between them. Strunk nods and says that things are finally square between them. However, the next morning, the narrator finds Strunk, and the latter cannot stop laughing. Strunk says that Jensen is crazy, and he admits to stealing the jackknife that started their fistfight.
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
The sixth story of The Things They Carried is “Friends.” It follows the events of the previous story, “Enemies,” in which Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get into a fistfight over a missing jackknife. Though the two soldiers appeared to make peace, they do not become close friends. However, they would they go on to learn to trust each other, in part because they would team up on ambushes, cover each other while on patrol, and they shared a foxhole. At night, they would take turns on guard. By late August, they would make a pact that if one of them was ever incapacitated, or given a “wheelchair wound,” that the other would “automatically find a way to end it.” The narrator admits that he was convinced that they were serious because they turned the pact into a written contract, signed it, and even found witnesses.
In October, Lee Strunk stepped on a mortar round, which destroys his right leg up to the knee. The narrator recalls how Strunk managed a half step, like a hop, before he falls over to one side. He does not cry out, but rather repeats “damn oh damn” like he has stubbed his toe. Finally, he panics, tries to get up and run, and discovers that he can no longer walk. There is nothing there to support him and he falls again to the ground. The narrator recalls seeing bone, and the blood was squirting out like it was attached to a pump. Lee Strunk then tries to touch his missing leg before he finally passes out.
There is little that the rest of the platoon can do now. Rat Kiley puts a tourniquet on the leg and begins to run morphine and plasma into Lee Strunk. The rest of the platoon secures the landing zone, and when they finish, Dave Jensen approaches Strunk and kneels before him. The stump has stopped twitching, and for a time it is difficult to even tell whether Strunk is still alive. However, when he finally opens his eyes and looks up at Jensen, he moans and asks Jensen not to kill him. He explains that his leg is not that bad and that the doctors will be able to sew it back on. Jensen agrees that the leg is not that bad, but Strunk does not appear to believe him. However, Strunk finally gets Jensen to promise that he will not kill him. The chopper finally appears to carry Strunk away.
The rest of the platoon eventually hears that Strunk died “somewhere over Chu Lai,” news that “seemed to relieve Dave Jensen of an enormous weight.”
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
The seventh story of The Things They Carried is “How to Tell a True War Story.” It begins with a brief story about Bob Kiley, nicknamed Rat, and an assurance that “this is true.” Rat Kiley loses his friend, Curt Lemon, while on patrol in the mountains. After the patrol, Rat decides to write to Curt’s sister. He explains how heroic and tough Curt was in the letter, and that the two of them were close. He promises to take care of the sister when the war ends. However, the sister never writes back. The narrator explains that a true war story is never about a moral. There are no generalizations that can be taken from it. When Rat tells his story about the letter he wrote to Curt’s sister, he ends saying that “the dumb cooze never writes back.”
The narrator explains that the true details of a real war story are difficult to distinguish from what seemed to happen, and he shares a story that he heard from Mitchell Sanders about a patrol of six men that go to a listening-post in the mountains trying to detect enemy movement. Over time, they begin to hear rock music, chamber music, and even a cocktail party. At first they do not believe it, but the music continues until they finally call in air strikes. Afterward, everything is quiet, but they still hear it. When they return to base, a colonel asks them what they heard, but the men do not answer; they just salute and walk away. The narrator recalls that the night after Sanders tells him the listening-post story, the latter walks up to him and explains that he figured out its moral: no one listens. The following morning, Sanders explains that he made up a few things, but that both the story and the moral are still true.
There is nothing to say about true war story, the narrator explains, except “oh.” The true war story has to make the stomach believe. For the narrator, the story of how Rat responded after Curt Lemon’s death makes his stomach believe. After Lemon dies, the patrol continues until they clear an LZ (landing zone). They also discover a baby water buffalo. Rat repeatedly shoots a baby water buffalo to hurt it, but not to kill it. He shoots it many times before he walks away, leaving the wounded water buffalo suffering.
The narrator wonders how people can generalize about war. For example, many of the truths about war are contradictory. The narrator explains that war can be considered grotesque, but admits that there is also...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
The eighth story of The Things They Carried is “The Dentist.” The narrator explains that people often feel sentimental about the dead, and so he wants to tell a story about Curt Lemon. The narrator is quick to admit that he found it difficult to mourn when Curt Lemon was killed. Lemon was the sort of person that pretended to be tough, and the best thing that the narrator can remember about Lemon is when the latter dressed up and went trick-or-treating for Halloween. But Lemon was the sort of person that would brag and exaggerate about his accomplishments. Ultimately, the narrator suspects that Lemon either had too high an opinion of himself or else that he had a low opinion of himself that he was trying to erase.
Lemon’s story begins in February. The platoon is working in an area called “Rocket Pocket,” a seaside glade where the enemy would launch rockets. For the soldiers, this duty is like a vacation because of its beaches. Eventually, the army sends a dentist who has bad breath to inspect and work on their teeth. The soldiers line up waiting for their turn to be inspected in the dentist’s tent, and Curt Lemon begins to get tense. He explains that he had some bad experiences with dentists while in high school. Lemon claims to enjoy combat, but he thinks that dentists are sadistic. He proclaims that he will not let the dentist touch his teeth, but when his name is called, he enters the dentist’s tent.
However, Lemon faints before the dentist even touches him. The other soldiers end up hoisting him into a cot, and when Lemon comes to he is embarrassed. The narrator explains that any other soldier would have just laughed it off, but Lemon makes a big deal of it. He refuses to talk to anyone else and marches off to a tree where he can be on his own but still stare at the dentist’s tent. He berates himself out loud for fainting in front of everyone. The embarrassment continues to mount in his mind and that night he sneaks down to the dentist’s tent, wakes the dentist, and claims to have a terrible toothache. The dentist inspects his teeth but he cannot find anything wrong. Lemon continues to insist that he has a terrible toothache until the dentist finally removes the tooth. The next morning, the narrator recalls, “Curt Lemon was all smiles.”
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
The ninth story of The Things They Carried is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” The narrator explains that there are a lot of stories from Vietnam, but the best are the ones that rest between the improbable and bedlam. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a story he heard from Rat Kiley, who had a reputation for exaggeration, but who swore this story was true. It begins when Kiley was stationed as a medic at an aid station in the mountains west of Chu Lai, near the village Tra Bong. The compound overlooks the river, Song Tra Bong. Though the compound was not very secure, the soldiers enjoyed their duty there because there was little military discipline and no humping. The only soldiers that cared about fighting were a squad of six Green Berets, or "Greenies," who use the compound as a base for operations.
One day, the medics begin to idly discuss the idea of bringing a “mamasan” to the compound. They are quick to dismiss the idea, but Mark Fossie decides to pursue it. Six weeks later, his high school sweetheart, Mary Anne Bell, shows up wearing a pink sweater and culottes. The men all enjoy her company because Mary Anne is flirtatious, pretty, and curious. She gazes at the green mountains west of the camp, and she spends her time asking the men about mines and weapons. She eventually insists that Mark take her down to the nearby village and on the way back she swims in the river. One night, Mark Fossie wakes Rat to tell him that Mary Anne is gone. He thinks that she is sleeping with one of the other soldiers, but they search the bunks and find that she is not in the compound. She returns from an ambush with the Greenies. Angrily, he insists that Mary Anne not leave the camp and she agrees. However, her relationship with Mark Fossie now seems strained.
After several days, the medics wake up to find that both Mary Anne and the Greenies have left the compound, and they do not return for nearly three weeks. Rat explains that in a way she never entirely returned. When she does return to the compound, she ignores Mark and goes into the Greenie’s “hootch.” Mark sits outside of the hootch and eventually enters it with Rat and their NCO, Eddie Diamond, close behind. Inside, there is a strange smell, bones, and weird music. Mary Anne appears, wearing a blouse, a skirt, and a necklace of human tongues. She explains to Mark that he does not belong in this “place,” but she does not simply mean inside of...
(The entire section is 586 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The tenth story in The Things They Carried is “Stockings,” and it is about Henry Dobbins. Dobbins, the narrator explains, is like America in many ways: he was a good person, an excellent solider, and he was always plodding along, however slowly. He was not a sophisticated man, he had a roll of fat in his belly, and “the ironies went beyond him.” He was a soldier who was there when needed. He believed in simplicity, direct thoughts, and hard work. And he was drawn to sentimentality.
This sentimentality could be seen in the way that he used his girlfriend’s stockings to bring him good luck. Before leaving camp on ambush, he would always wrap the pantyhose around his neck. At night, he would sleep with the pantyhose against his face. He would smell the stockings and he would breathe in the scent of his girlfriend’s odor to recall his memories of her. The narrator compares Dobbins to a baby, particularly in the way that an infant would feel secure and peaceful when near something it recognizes.
Henry Dobbins would explain to the rest of the platoon that the stockings were a good-luck charm for him. The rest of the platoon, naturally, doubted it, though the narrator admits that many of the soldiers felt the “pull of superstition” while in the war. Regardless, Dobbins’ faith in the stockings and their protective properties was absolute. For him, they were like body armor, as important to him as the flak jackets were to the rest of the platoon. To the narrator, the stockings were like Dobbins' talisman because of the way that they seemed to transport him to a spiritual world where he and his girlfriend might someday live. Dobbins even had rituals related to the stockings, including a special knot he used to tie them around his neck.
While much the platoon might have doubted the protective properties of a pair of nylon pantyhose, they eventually came to appreciate their mysteries. Dobbins was never injured – not even scratched. In August, Dobbins set off a Bouncing Betty, a massive mine, but it did not even detonate. A week after he set off the mine, he found himself without cover during a firefight. However, the narrator recalls that Dobbins just pulled the pantynose over his nose and breathed in the magic of the stockings. The platoon became believers in the pantyhose.
Toward the end of October, Dobbins’ girlfriend would dump him, and for a while Dobbins took in the blow as...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The eleventh story in The Things They Carried is “Church.” The platoon is in the Batangan Peninsula when they come across a pagoda that they initially think is abandoned. However, there are actually two monks inside who speak very little English. They have a few broken shrines and maintain a modest garden. The platoon digs foxholes around the pagoda so that they can base their operations out of the pagoda for the next week. When the monks see that the platoon has turned their pagoda into a fortress, one of them makes a washing motion with his hands. None of the soldiers understand what the gesture means. Still, the platoon and the monks get along. They even bring the soldiers watermelons and buckets of water and Lieutenant Cross is given an old chair to honor his position. However, none of the soldiers bond as strongly with the monks as Henry Dobbins does.
They call him “Good soldier Jesus.” He and the monks even disassemble and oil his gun together, and as they do so the other soldiers observe how Dobbins and the monks share a quiet understanding with each other. While the monks clean his gun, Dobbins admits to Kiowa that after the war he might join the monks, or at least become a monk. As a child, Dobbins never understood religion. During church, he would count bricks on the walls rather than listen to the sermon. Ironically, he often wondered what it would be like to be a minister. He may not be smart enough to explain why bad things like pneumonia exist, but he does feel like he could be nice to people. Kiowa, who carries a bible and hardly even swears, explains that he would never be a minister. However, he does like to be inside of churches because though they are really quiet, there is also a sound that cannot be heard. After Kiowa explains how he feels when he is inside a church, he sits up and tells Dobbins that turning the pagoda into a fortress is wrong. Dobbins agrees.
By this time, the monks have finished cleaning the gun. Dobbins reassembles it, wipes off the oil, and hands each monk a can of peaches and a chocolate bar. He tells them to “beat it,” and the monks bow before moving out of the pagoda and into the morning sunlight. Dobbins makes a washing motion with his hands and says, “all you can do is be nice. Treat them decent, you know?”
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
The twelfth story in The Things They Carried is “The Man I Killed.” The narrator, Tim, stands before the body of a man he has just killed. He looks down at the body and notices that the face is mangled. One eye is shut and the other is a “star-shaped hole.” The man had been a soldier because he had a gun and ammo. However, as the narrator looks down at the man he killed, he notices the dead man’s fine wrists and his arched eyebrows. He is poorly muscled. He wears an ammunition belt and a gold ring. The narrator guesses that he was born in 1946 in the village of My Khe, which is near the coastline of Quang Ngai Province. Perhaps his parents farmed there for centuries and perhaps his family fought for independence against the French. He was not a Communist, but rather someone who fought because of Quang Ngai’s tradition of patriotic resistance. He was not a fighter, but a scholar—someone that wanted to someday teach mathematics.
While the narrator considers these things, Azar and Kiowa watch him. Azar boasts over how Tim “scrambled” the man like oatmeal and how “on the dead test, this particular individual gets A-plus.” Tim does not respond and Azar walks away, but Kiowa stays. He tries to comfort the narrator, asking what else could have been done. He reminds the narrator it is a war and that Tim could very well have died in that exchange. Further, all of the other soldiers in the platoon were about to fire on the dead man. After all, he was carrying a gun and ammunition. However, Tim does not respond.
Instead, the narrator continues to look at the dead man. A butterfly passes over his forehead. He thinks about how the dead man had always been small, and how the kids around him made fun of him for being pretty. The dead man would have been afraid to fight, but would not have wanted to reveal that to his family. He had managed to attend the University of Saigon, avoiding politics and focusing on calculus. In his final year at the university, he fell in love with a 17 year-old who admired his narrow waist and liked his quiet demeanor. One day, they exchanged gold rings, and now, the narrator reflects, the dead man has a star for one eye. The dead man is like a “constellation” of possibilities.
Kiowa covers the body with a poncho and encourages the narrator to talk to him about what just happened. He remains silent, still looking at the dead man and thinking about the hole shaped...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
The thirteenth chapter in The Things They Carried is “Ambush.” The narrator explains that his daughter, Kathleen, once asked him whether he killed anyone during the war. She was nine at the time, knew he had been in the war, and knew that he wrote war stories. The narrator explains that it seemed right to tell her that he had not killed anyone, which is what he ultimately told her. However, he hopes that she will someday ask him again. In this story, the narrator explains, he will pretend that she is grown up and explain what he remembers when he killed that man. This is also, the narrator explains, why he continues to write war stories.
He explains that the platoon had moved into an ambush site outside My Khe. They spread out in the brush along the trail and wait. It is shortly after midnight and for five hours, there is no sign of the enemy. The men are arranged in groups of two: one man sleeps while his partner stands guard, alternating in two-hour shifts. It is the final watch when Kiowa wakes up the narrator for the final shift. He is groggy and lines up three grenades in front of him. It is humid, there are mosquitoes, and after an hour a man walks out of the fog. He is just over ten meters away.
The narrator automatically throws a grenade at him. The grenade is thrown without feelings of hate or consideration of morality. If anything, he throws the grenade to make the man disappear. It is a high lob and the narrator can remember seeing it in the air and in the fog. It bounces and rolls across the trail, catching the man’s attention. He begins to run, glancing at the grenade and trying to protect his head. When the grenade goes off, there is a puff of smoke and the man seems to pull away as if he is attached to wires. There is a “star-shaped hole” where his eye used to be. Afterward, Kiowa would tell him that it was a good kill and would try to reassure the narrator that he had no reason to feel guilty. However, the narrator would find himself incapable of doing anything but staring at the dead man’s body.
To this day, he still considers that moment, and he explains that sometimes he forgives himself but sometimes he does not. Sometimes when he is reading the newspaper or sitting alone, he will see a man come out of the morning fog. The narrator watches him approach and walk past him with a smile at some private thought. He watches the man continue walking down the trail until he...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
The fourteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Style.” The story is set against the backdrop of a burning Vietnamese village. In front of one house, a girl stands dancing. The dark-haired girl is perhaps fourteen, her eyes are half closed, and she stands barefoot. She is dancing on her toes, but there is no music playing. Azar wonders why the girl is dancing and Henry Dobbins replies that it does not matter. The narrator explains that the girl’s family is dead. The dead family's bodies were burned when the soldiers discovered them. There was an old woman, a woman whose age the soldiers cannot discern, and an infant. There was also a girl, whom they dragged out of the wreckage, and who is dancing in small steps with an occasional smile on her face. She sometimes covers her ears, a gesture that the soldiers try and fail to interpret. They look at her movements, sometimes backwards, sometimes side to side, sometimes swaying her hips, and again cannot figure out the girl’s dance.
As the soldiers search the wreckage, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross radios the gunships to notify them that they can leave. The narrator compares the smell of the smoke coming from the burning hootches to straw. The fires have mostly burned out and the smoke that remains is not very thick. It moves in “faint ripples like fog,” and sometimes the dancing girl moves through those plumes of smoke. There are dead pigs, but Rat Kiley ends up finding a chicken that the soldiers will eat for supper. The soldiers move out by nightfall, leaving the dancing girl behind. Azar looks at the dancing girl and thinks that she is probably doing a ritual dance, but Henry Dobbins thinks that she probably just likes to dance.
As the soldiers march away from the village, Azar begins to make fun of the girl’s dance. He mimics her motions, her hands over her ears and the way she would move sideways and then backwards. He even tries to move his hips like she did. At this point, Henry Dobbins approaches Azar from behind, lifts him up, and carries him to a deep well. The narrator notices the grace with which Dobbins moves as he carries Azar. When they reach the well, Dobbins holds Azar over the water and asks Azar if he would like to be dunked in the water. Azar does not. Dobbins agrees not to dunk Azar, but tells him to “dance right.”
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
The fifteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Speaking of Courage.” Norman Bowker is in a small and prosperous American town on the prairie, driving around a lake in his father’s Chevy. It is early evening, the Fourth of July, and as Bowker drives clockwise, repeatedly, around the lake, he thinks of how he almost won the Silver Star for bravery. Bowker is driving alone, but he thinks about the people that he might like to talk to. He used to carry a photograph of Sally Kramer in his wallet, but she is now married, named Sally Gustafson, and lives in a nice house near the lake. It would have been a good time to talk, and Bowker wonders about what he might say to his father.
In the war, Bowker was given seven medals, but they were not medals for uncommon valor. At one point, there was a chance for him to earn the Silver Star. It had been near the Song Tra Bong, a river that overflowed during the October rainy season. The overflow turned the ground into muck, and the soldiers would wake up at night discovering that they were sinking in it. One night, they bivouacked in a swampy field next to a village. The locals had come out to yell at the soldiers, but the soldiers had scared the old women away. The rain continued and by midnight, the field turned to mud. Bowker remembers that the worst part was the smell, and it was not long after they noticed the smell that one of the soldiers realized that the field was actually the village toilet. All of the village’s waste is in the field, and the soldiers are camped in it, sinking as the rains continue through the night. The platoon takes mortar fire, which fills the air with color. At one point, Bowker realizes that he can see Kiowa sinking into the muck. Bowker tries to wade into it to rescue Kiowa, but all he is able to grab is Kiowa’s boot before the bubbles and the smell repulse him.
Bowker continues to drive around the lake as he imagines the ways that his father or Sally might respond to his story. He drives into the clean, sanitary town, and stops at an A&W. At first, he does not realize that he can order food through an intercom next to his parking space. The voice on the other side takes his order and afterward asks Bowker is there is anything he wants to share. Bowker declines to share his story and drives away. He drives around the lake until the sun begins to set and pulls up to the lake. As he exits his car, he thinks of how he was braver...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
The sixteenth story in The Things They Carried is "Notes." It is a series of notes about the previous story in the collection, “Speaking of Courage.” The narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains that he got the idea for the story after receiving a letter from Norman Bowker. Three years after sending the letter, Bowker would hang himself in the gym of his local YMCA. In the letter, Bowker explained how he was struggling to find a purpose now that he had returned to America. He had taken on a variety of jobs and he had enrolled in school, but none of these pursuits seemed immediate and meaningful. He slept through the mornings, played pickup basketball in the afternoons, and drove around in the evenings. He wanted to talk about the war, but he could not find the words.
Bowker explains that he liked O’Brien’s memoir about the war, If I Die in the Combat Zone, and he suggests that O’Brien use Bowker’s experiences to write a story. O’Brien, who had been writing the novel Going After Cacciato at the time, did his best with the story. He wrote “Speaking of Courage” over a couple of weeks, and revised it afterward. However, he did not include what happened to Kiowa in the “shit field.” Consequently, he felt that the story had lost its power. The story did not fit in with his novel, so O’Brien ultimately chose not to include it. However, he did publish it in an anthology of short fiction.
Bowker read the story and wrote O’Brien again, complaining that it did not mention what had happened to Kiowa. After he found out that Bowker had killed himself, O’Brien returned to the story. He admits that he had always felt a sort of smugness over how easily he had returned to life in America after the war. However, he acknowledges that while writing stories may not be “therapeutic,” it has helped him to objectify the experience. He admits that sometimes as a writer he is able to remain truthful and other times he is able to add content to make sense of what happened. When he returns to the story, he felt that had to confront what had happened to Kiowa, and O’Brien’s own “complicity” in it. Writing ten years after Bowker’s death, O’Brien explains that he made Bowker the center of the story and he added Kiowa’s death to it. He explains that Bowker “did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.”
(The entire section is 438 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
The seventeenth chapter in The Things They Carried is "In the Field." The men are searching for Kiowa, who has just drowned in a field of human waste outside of a Vietnamese ville. They are near the river Song Tra Bong, which has flooded the flat plain where the men were camped. The flood water turned the field to a mix of mud and excrement, and the men were attacked during the night as well. Now, the men consider their role in Kiowa's death as they wade through the field searching for his body.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross initially blames himself for Kiowa's death. He was ordered to set up camp in the field, but he now tells himself that he could have exercised better judgment. If he had done so, perhaps Kiowa, who was a good man, might be alive. As he wades through the field, Lieutenant Cross thinks about the letter he will have to write to Kiowa's father. At first, he thinks that he will take responsibility for Kiowa's death, but as he continues to wade through the field he convinces himself that he could send a more formal letter, one in which his own culpability is not necessary.
Norman Bowker, Azar, and Mitchell Sanders are wading through the field together in search of Kiowa's body. Mitchell blames Lieutenant Cross for Kiowa's death. Mitchell was the first among the soldiers to figure out that the field was actually where the ville's human waste was kept, and that they were camped in it. Azar at first makes jokes about Kiowa's death in the field of waste, which annoys Bowker. It is the trio that actually recovers Kiowa's body, and when they do, they do not call Lieutenant Cross over. Bowker looks at Azar, daring him to make another joke, but the latter declines. Mitchell continues to blame Lieutenant Cross, but Bowker maintains that it was both nobody's fault and everybody's fault.
There is another soldier in the field, a young man who, like Cross, feels responsible for Kiowa's death. He also is answering to a judge in his head. Cross cannot remember the young soldier's name, but he talks to him anyway. The young soldier explains that he is looking for a picture of Billie, a girl from back home. Cross suggests that he give up on the photo and ask Billie to send another photo, but he the young soldier explains that she is no longer his girl. He remembers that Kiowa thought she was very cute.
The story ends with Lieutenant Cross wading up to his neck in the field. He thinks that he might...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
The eighteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Good Form.” In this story, the narrator discusses the nature of truth within his experiences in Vietnam. He reflects on events recorded in previous stories from The Things They Carried like “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush.” The narrator begins “Good Form” by admitting that he is forty-three years old. He now works as a writer, but in his youth he was a foot soldier in a platoon that humped through Quang Ngai Province during the Vietnam War. After that, almost every detail in his stories is invented.
The narrator thinks about his position as a writer and how he wants to explain why the book is written the way it is. The book is not written as a game, but as a form. He wants to tell his audience that he watched a man die on a trail near My Khe twenty years ago, but he did not actually kill that man. He was present, and considers that enough to take on the guilt of the young man’s death. The narrator can remember the way that the man looked and he can remember blaming himself. Even now, he blames himself. However, the narrator cautions, that story is made up as well.
The narrator explains that his goal is to make the reader feel what he felt. Further, he explains, there is a “story-truth” that is sometimes more true than the “happening-truth.” The happening-truth is that the narrator was a soldier and that he saw many bodies. At the time, he was young, and so he did not look at the bodies out of fear. Now, as the writer reflects, he is left with responsibility and grief, but they are not accompanied by faces. In the story-truth, the bodies have more than bodies. They have details that include the looks on their faces. And in the story-truth, the narrator killed the man on the path outside of My Khe. The narrator concludes that stories can make things that happened in the past enter the present.
From the writer’s perspective twenty years removed, the narrator can look at the things that the young soldier never looked at. The writer can attach faces to feelings like love and pity. The narrator can be brave and can feel like himself in the story. This is why when his daughter Kathleen asks whether he killed anyone during the war, the narrator can honestly answer that he did not. Or he can honestly answer that he did kill people during the war.
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Chapter 19 Summary
The nineteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Field Trip.” It is twenty years after the war, and the narrator has returned to Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen, who is ten years old. The narrator has taken her to regular tourist sites, though he wishes that he could take her to all of the places that keep him awake at night. The only place that he takes her that is connected to his experience in the war is the field where Kiowa died.
Between the two of them, Kathleen has handled the trip much better than her father. The narrator and his daughter have taken a Jeep to the field and they are accompanied by a government translator. At first, Kathleen spends time with the translator, who shows her magic tricks. However, she eventually approaches her father to tell him that it is weird that he cannot move on from the past. For her, the narrator reflects, the war is as far removed from her life as dinosaurs are. She complains about the smell of the field, but does not figure out that it is human waste.
He looks over the field and considers how it has changed: it no longer looks the way that he remembers it. However, he is certain that this is where Kiowa died. Finally, he returns to the Jeep and takes a small package out of the back. Inside are Kiowa’s moccasins. He strips down to his underwear and wades into the field, noticing how close to his memory the bottom of the field remains. The narrator finally gets to the point where Mitchell Sanders found Kiowa’s rucksack, and he pushes the moccasins into the dirt at the bottom of the field. He thought that he would want to tell Kiowa that he had been a great friend, but instead he says “there it is” and he splashes the water.
In the distance, an old man watches the narrator. Briefly, the narrator thinks about what they might say if they could exchange war stories. Instead, he walks out of the field. When he returns to the dry ground outside the field, his daughter tells him that mother will be angry. The narrator tells her that she should not tell her mother as he returns to the Jeep. Kathleen next asks about the old man and whether he is angry with him. The narrator explains that he hopes that the old man is not angry and that “all that’s finished.”
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Chapter 20 Summary
The twentieth story in The Things They Carried is “The Ghost Soldiers.” Here, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains how he was shot twice. The first shot hit him in the side and Rat Kiley was there to take care of him. Even though the platoon was caught in a firefight, Kiley returned to check on O’Brien several times. When O'Brien returned to the platoon, Kiley was injured and had been replaced by Bobby Jorgenson. Jorgenson is so green that when O'Brien is shot again, this time in the buttocks, the medic leaves O’Brien wounded for ten minutes before he works up the nerve to check up on him. Even then he forgets to check for shock. O’Brien is sent to the hospital and as he lies on his stomach, his wound festering, he thinks about how he will get revenge on Bobby Jorgenson. When he recovers from the second wound, O’Brien is sent to the rear. He spends his days doing regular duty, loading choppers with supplies, and drinking beer at night.
Alpha Squad comes to the rear on a brief leave from the front in March. They and O’Brien spend the next few days drinking beers together. Bowker and Azar tell him about how Morty Phillips wasted his luck. On a hot day, Phillips sneaked out of the platoon, humped alone to a river, and went swimming. He was not shot, but when he returned he got very sick from a bug they think he picked up in the river. When O’Brien asks about Jorgenson, the members of his old platoon tell him to be cool and they point out that the medic did a fine job of taking care of Phillips. They remind O’Brien how green Jorgenson was when he joined their platoon, but O’Brien is stubborn. Jorgenson is with them now, the soldiers explain, and the reality is that O’Brien is not. Later, Jorgenson actually tries to apologize, explaining that he was too scared to move when he saw O’Brien get shot. However, O’Brien finds himself hating Jorgenson for making him not hate the medic. He resolves to get revenge, but no one in the platoon will help him except Azar.
Azar and O’Brien wait until Jorgenson is on guard alone at night. O’Brien explains how the soldiers come to believe that the Vietnamese soldiers are ghosts, a superstition that the soldier cannot help but believe in when sitting alone in a bunker at night. The two men attach ammo cartridges to rope which they drag along the ground to "spook" Jorgenson. Azar enjoys making Jorgenson feel spooked, but O’Brien soon finds himself...
(The entire section is 547 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
The twenty-first story in the Things They Carried is “Night Life.” It tells the story of how Rat Kiley was injured during O’Brien’s convalescence from the first time he was shot. Word reaches the platoon that the Russians have supplied the Vietcong with fresh artillery. Fresh troops are supposed to be in the area as well. No one, not even Lieutenant Cross, takes this warning seriously, but they agree to take precautions anyway. They stay off the trails and only hump at night, living the “night life.” Though the soldiers turn it into a joke, it is actually disconcerting to hump during the night, which is pitch-black due to steady cloud cover. There is the sound of insects and the chattering of monkeys. The men start to worry about getting cut off from the rest of the group, trapped in the darkness. During the day, it is hot, humid, and difficult to sleep.
It becomes too much for Rat Kiley. He begins to talk without stop each night, whispering about insects. He starts to obsessively scratch his bug bites. Later, he explains to Mitchell Sanders that he has hit a wall. He explains that he can see a man’s liver and feel a sense of clinical detachment from it, even if the wounded man it belongs to is still alive. Other times, while looking at the men he is patching up, he imagines what they would look like dead. He imagines how much a head would weigh and what it would be like to haul it to a chopper. He imagines what it would be like see his own organs. He imagines himself dead. Every night, he sees these images, and he cannot get rid of them. He thinks about the men that have died while he was the medic in the platoon and comments on how strange it is that people who are so alive in one moment can become so dead so quickly. The war is like one giant bug banquet.
Eventually, Rat Kiley takes action. He takes off his shoes and socks, he lays out his medical kit, he dopes himself, and, finally, he shoots himself in the foot. The men gather around him and when they discover what he has done, they do not blame him. Lieutenant Cross tells Kiley that he will report it as a legitimate accident. Henry Dobbins and Azar give him a stack of comic books to read while he is in the hospital. They tell him that now he will be living the night life in Japan.
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Chapter 22 Summary
The last story in The Things They Carried is “The Lives of the Dead.” In it, the narrator Tim O’Brien remembers the dead bodies that he has seen. He explains that stories are like dreams in which the dead can sit up and smile at you. Sometimes, he uses stories to dream about the people that he has lost, people like Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, and a young girl he once loved named Linda.
O’Brien recalls when he first joined his platoon. They call in an air strike and afterward find a dead old man. Each member of the squad walks up to the old man and shakes his hand. They greet him by saying things like “pleased as punch.” They sit him in a chair and give him orange slices to keep him healthy. O’Brien will not join in with the others. Afterward, Kiowa joins him in a foxhole and explains that O’Brien did the right thing.
O’Brien also recalls a girl named Linda that he loved when he was nine years old. They went on a date together with O’Brien’s parents. Linda showed up wearing an unusual red cap that covered her head, which little Timmy thinks is sophisticated and unusual. They go to see a film called The Man Who Never Was. It is set during the Second World War, and in it the British arrange for a corpse to be parachuted into the ocean. It washes up on the German shore with detailed plans about the British strategy. However, the documents are just a misdirection, and the ploy wins the British the war. Back in school, Linda continues to wear the cap every day. One boy, Nick Veenhof, always tries to take off her cap, and Timmy never acts to stop him. In class, Nick asks permission to sharpen his pencil and when he returns to his desk he manages to finally remove the red cap from Linda’s head. Underneath, she is nearly bald and has a band-aid across her scalp. She dies soon after of a brain tumor. Timmy goes to see the body and is struck by how dead and heavy her body looks. At night, however, he sometimes dreams about Linda, who tells him that it is OK and that once someone lives they can never die.
Now, Tim O’Brien writes stories that are like dreams in which people like Linda can come back and talk to him. He remembers friends like Kiowa and for a moment in his writing they can come back and talk to him like in a dream. Looking back, he realizes that the soldiers in his platoon, who would sometime shake hands with the dead, were doing something similar. They were...
(The entire section is 581 words.)