The Things They Carried is a story about war. Do you think it is an anti-war story? Why or why not?

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My answer to this question is yes. An author does not necessarily have to state explicitly that "war is wrong" or "war is stupid" in order to make an antiwar point. The reader can infer the writer's perspective on war from the incidents in a story and from the way the story is told, regardless of the lack of preaching or any specifically didactic approach to instruct the reader about the "message."

O'Brien's narrative through the interlocking stories of The Things they Carried is often understated and ironic. The lists of things of sheer weight, the physical implements the soldiers are carrying, seem endless. In the first story, itself titled "The Things They Carried," we are told that the men burn a village. It's stated matter-of-factly, as business as usual. Lt. Cross feels guilt when one of his men is killed, and dreams of his girl at home. But one senses that numbness has enveloped officer and soldier alike. The platoon smoke grass, as everyone in the war did, and move on. They discard items because they know a chopper will come along and easily re-supply them, because the U.S., waging this seemingly irrational war 10,000 miles away, is rich and bountiful.

In O'Brien's writings, as in most war literature from Crane to Remarque to Ron Kovic, the men in the field have no connection to the master plan behind the war or generally even to the reasons for the specific missions they are on. They go through the motions and do what they are told to do. It is not so much a conception of the "wrongness" of war as it is a theme of the impenetrable nature of war, of the motivations for it which the men in combat are charged with fulfilling. This is the essence of "antiwar" writing.

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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is an anti–Vietnam War story. The story details the mental and physical weight of the war. O’Brien never states outright that the story is anti-war, but he doesn’t need to do so. His descriptions help the reader understand the burden of being in a foreign land and fighting an unknown enemy. These men are literally and figuratively lost while fighting a war they don’t really understand.

The fighting seems secondary to the mental anguish the soldiers endure—most notably the fact that they could die at any moment. Simply put, the men have to fight if they want to survive. That being said, the men are not necessarily compelled to fight. O’Brien explains the soldiers’ greatest fear is the “fear of blushing. Men killed . . . because they were embarrassed not to. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.” The story seems anti-war because we see troops grappling with the emotional baggage that comes along with going to Vietnam, instead of men fighting for glory or valor.

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Before answering this question, it's important to understand that it's quite difficult to say anything definitive about Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Indeed, the book's confusing structure defies efforts to define its meaning at every turn. That said, I think one could say that it is, in fact, an antiwar story, at least for the most part.

Consider, first of all, the book's chaotic structure. This structure has several effects. First, it mirrors the chaotic state of warfare in which the characters are embroiled. Jumping back and forth in time, revisiting certain events more than once, and generally lacking any kind of linear structure, the "plot" (if there is one) of The Things They Carried mirrors the confusing, chaotic, illogical nature of the Vietnam War. Moreover, it mirrors the psychological states of most of the work's characters. Faced with war and death, the soldiers in O'Brien's work experience the deterioration of their own mental landscapes. Norman Bowker, for instance, carries the thumb of a dead Viet Cong child and then, after returning from the war, commits suicide. Additionally, Rat Kiley, unable to deal with the death of one of the platoon's members, brutally tortures a water buffalo. Clearly, the characters in O'Brien's fiction are suffering and psychologically traumatized, and the fragmented, confusing nature of the author's prose reflects this notion.

With these points in mind, I think it's possible to say The Things They Carried is an antiwar story. By focusing on the chaos and the trauma, and by mirroring these realities in a fragmented, chaotic narrative, O'Brien skillfully illustrates the calamity of war and death.

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