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.