The setting is the Vietnam War, but also postwar Vietnam as O'Brien's character, the narrator, revisits the country and the old battlegrounds where he had once fought. The story focuses both on the things he remembers in the war and on the things they carried, and then he closes the circle at the end of the story by returning some of the things they carried to Vietnam and burying them. The reader gets the impression its to honor not only his comrades in arms, but the land itself, the losses, and the unfinished business they left behind there.
This powerful story is set in the Vietnamese war, a war which is remote for many of today’s readers but which remains possibly vivid with their parents or adults in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The story itself is unusual because of O’Brien’s emphasis on the details of "the things they carried" and also because of the many characters who make themselves instantly real. In the story’s brief duration, O’Brien successfully conveys the entire way of life of the men in the unnamed platoon. He does not make claims about the ugliness, dirt, and horror of the war, but arranges the story’s accumulating details to point toward this conclusion.