The stories in The Things They Carried are O'Brien's way of processing his memories of the war, and therefore we can assume that they're the soldiers' method of processing what they're going through as well. Stories can bring dead people back to life, if only for an hour or so, and they can also reflect the horror and beauty of everything the men go through on a daily basis while on the front. What purpose do these stories within stories serve? Why do the soldiers tell stories so often in Vietnam? Where in the soldiers' storytelling do we find examples of O'Brien's own storytelling style?
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What purpose do these stories within stories serve?
In The Lives Of The Dead, Tim O'Brien tells us that stories can save us. He tells us about falling in love with Linda when they were both nine years old. Later, when Linda dies from a brain tumor, he is devastated. O'Brien keeps the memory of Linda alive by telling us stories about her, by using "memory and imagination and language" to make "spirits in the head." The way O'Brien keeps Linda's memory alive is the story within the story of how O'Brien's soldiers cope with the horrendous deaths of their peers; by keeping "the illusion of aliveness" in the front of their minds, they are able to sustain their grim hold on their own sanity.
O'Brien's daydream about Linda being alive is punctuated with a dose of cynical resignation by the Linda of his imagination. The imaginary Linda who lives in his dreams tells him: "Timmy, stop crying. It doesn't matter." O'Brien is telling us that this is the way his soldiers deal with the deaths of their platoon members. They use euphemisms to discuss death; they "slight death" by manipulating language and by channeling apathy and nonchalance.
It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human, it doesn't matter much if it's dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut.
Where in the soldiers' storytelling do we find examples of O'Brien's own storytelling style?
The best example we have of O'Brien's own story-telling style is found in How To Tell A True War Story. The story starts out with the words "This is true." He goes on to tell us how Curt Lemon dies, gives us the facts, and then tells us that "In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It's a question of credibility." We are given six different versions of how Curt Lemon died. The story is constructed, deconstructed and rebuilt with disturbing nonchalance. This repeated pattern of juxtaposing a truth and the subsequent denial of that truth becomes an exhausting exercise in separating authenticity from fiction.
Take Mitchell Sander's "true" story about hearing uncanny sounds from the rocks, the mountains, and the grass while out on a patrol in the jungle. He tells us that every word is "dead true" and that his fellow mates are spooked to hear string instruments, Buddhist chanting, a singing soprano, a choir and a barbershop quartet in the middle of the forest. They call in firepower and blast away at an unseen enemy they cannot understand nor explain. Later, when a colonel demands answers, Mitchell Sanders tells us that there are some stories that one just never tells. O'Brien then proceeds to tell us that a true war story never ends.
This disjointed, confusing style of leaping from one reality to another is O'Brien's way of portraying the Vietnam War to his readers through the eyes of his soldiers. The Vietnam War saw young men fighting for a cause they never fully understood; each command given by superior officers exposed layers of uncertainties beneath the supposed certainties of fighting in a foreign land for the cause of freedom from communist tyranny. Young soldiers found themselves facing an elusive enemy hiding behind the opportunistic ferocities of guerilla warfare. This is why O'Brien's style of telling a story, then recalling it in another form with another set of embellishments and supposedly true facts is so disturbing: this was exactly the experience of young American soldiers in Vietnam.
It's not surprising to know that many of these soldiers used marijuana and heroin to deaden their own sensibilities. In The Lives Of The Dead, Ted Lavender's tranquilizer habit allows him to describe the war as a mellow war. Many veterans came back to America to face public indifference, revulsion, and condemnation after giving everything they had to serve their country. Their alienation and marginalization from civilized society caused many of them to despair; many employers wouldn't hire veterans because of alleged drug use and many veterans faced the daunting poverty and rejection. At the time, post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) was not yet fully recognized for its insidious effect on veterans. O'Brien's soldiers tell war stories in the way they do as a form of cathartic therapy; the free-flowing stream-of-consciousness style may be extremely disconcerting, but it is an avenue to process the confusing and dehumanizing aspects of their war experience.
In the book The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien describes war and soldiers and how they try to survive. The purpose of the stories within the story serves to show how the men carry items from their former lives before the war, the people who sustain them, the love they hold onto and the death they all face. In Vietnam, death can come any instant and the killer is often unseen. The stories help them face that death and the hope of living through the war to return to where they once were. My brother-in-law was a radio man who went ahead of his platoon and radioed positions of the enemy if he could see them. One day his platoon leader made someone else the radio man, which Nate vehemently protested because he was not married and had no children, while the new man did. Of course, the new man was killed that day and Nate never forgot the man's death. He felt responsible, which made his PTSD so much worse. Soldiers tell each other the stories because people who have not been in their situations do not really understand. I think that O'Brien's style is found a bit in all the stories as I believe the stories are distilled from his own experiences and the experiences of people he knew who had been in Vietnam and faced the constant boredom, the constant threat of death, and the unknowable future.
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