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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien
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What does Tim O'Brien say about war in The Things They Carried?

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In the first few pages of The Things They Carried , O'Brien lists, with almost mechanical precision, all of the tangible items carried by troops in Vietnam, and these details tell the reader a great deal about what items are necessary to wage war, as well as protect one's psyche...

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In the first few pages of The Things They Carried, O'Brien lists, with almost mechanical precision, all of the tangible items carried by troops in Vietnam, and these details tell the reader a great deal about what items are necessary to wage war, as well as protect one's psyche during war, but O'Brien concludes the litany of combat and personal-related items—weapons, radios, medical supplies, good luck charms, tranquilizers—with what the soldiers carry in their souls as an inescapable load created by war:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.

These "intangibles," which are as heavy as the tangible items weighing on each man, describe the true and lasting effects of war, because if a man lives through the experience and returns to "the World," he has lightened his physical load but still bears the unbearable weight of war—what war is—summed up as "grief, terror, love, and longing."

In a later section of the novel titled "How To Tell a True War Story," O'Brien becomes explicit in his description of war in general and the Vietnam War, in particular:

If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.

One can argue, of course, that the war in Vietnam, as opposed to the Second World War, was not what many people oddly call a "good war," but for O'Brien and the men whose lives are chronicled in the novel, war—any war—is devoid of any redeeming qualities, and war stories, if true, make one blush rather than swell with pride. In other words, because war itself is hell on earth, stories about war are horrific by their very nature.

After O'Brien illustrates the horrors of war by describing medic Rat Kiley's killing of a baby buffalo after his friend Kurt Lemon is killed while playing catch with a grenade, O'Brien himself has some trouble articulating all of the elements that make war a paradox, especially for those immersed in it:

War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.

This binary nature of war—it attracts and repels at the same time—makes war the horror that keeps its victims awake at night, trying to understand something that is, as he puts it,

. . . about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

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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.

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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.

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