Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried looks at war through the experiences of a number of characters, including the on-again, off-again first person narrator. At times we are in the mind of this narrator, at other times we see the war through other characters. O’Brien’s book does not just look at the combat aspect of war. Part of what makes the book worth reading are the depictions of the other effects of war, the emotional and psychological changes that characters must grapple with as a result of war.
Early in the novel, the reader learns a lot about the character of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross is a conscientious leader, trying his best to lead and protect the soldiers under his command. Cross’s manner of coping with the stress of war is to think about a girl named Martha. His thoughts sometimes turn to ruminations and daydreams that can command a great deal of his attention.
One day, while thinking about Martha, one of his men, Ted Lavender, is killed by a sniper. Although it isn’t his fault, Cross feels guilty about it. His guilt is exacerbated by the fact that it happened while his mind was diverted—he can’t help but feel that if he had been doing his job, Lavender might not have died:
He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.
The war, which caused him to feel the need to daydream in the first place, will now haunt him through his feelings of guilt. Thus, war is not just a matter of physical danger, it is also a source of emotional and psychological danger. What happened to Lavender was not Cross’s fault, but he will suffer for it anyway.
The Things They Carried is metafiction: a story about storytelling. So, it's more about memory and oral storytelling than it is about war.
War is certainly a vivid backdrop to set the novel, but it is not framed as a "soldier's story" from which a truth or moral may be derived. Instead, O'Brien uses war like a game of ping-pong in "Spin" to show how war can be, ironically, beautiful and horrifying, peaceful and harrowing. In short, war is a paradox: a synthesis of contrasting experiences and feelings.
Most of all, war is source of memory. Since war is so traumatic at the time, a soldier trying to remember its details 20 years later is futile. So, it because an exercise in bringing back "the lives of the dead." With his stories, O'Brien resurrects the dead: Kiowa, Bowker, Lavender, Lemon, even Linda (a childhood love). By keeping their memories alive, O'Brien's stories transcend the war.