Tim O'Brien believed that the story of war can be best told from the foot soldier who experienced it each minute, hour, and day. O'Brien's central point in writing stories from this perspective is to reveal the condition of war that faces the soldiers fighting it: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories." The central idea in "The Things They Carried" is to depict these war stories.
In O'Brien's work, the full exploration of war is evident. There is not an overwhelming politicization of war. Rather, there is the soldier who experienced it, and these stories that define it. In the work's dedication, O'Brien believes that his writing is meant to represent "the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa." Their narratives become the central idea that forms the work. In being able to talk about "the things they carried," individual objects and experiences that depict the story of the soldier, O'Brien is able to develop an insight into what war was like from the bottom level. The central issue of the story is to reveal this perspective. While war is dizzying in the array of emotions it features, O'Brien believes that the centrality in its narrative must reside in the foot soldier's experience. It is in this understanding that the central idea of the story becomes evident.