illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 18 Summary

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The eighteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Good Form.” In this story, the narrator  discusses the nature of truth within his experiences in Vietnam. He reflects on events recorded in previous stories from The Things They Carried like “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush.” The narrator begins “Good Form” by admitting that he is forty-three years old. He now works as a writer, but in his youth he was a foot soldier in a platoon that humped through Quang Ngai Province during the Vietnam War. After that, almost every detail in his stories is invented. 

The narrator thinks about his position as a writer and how he wants to explain why the book is written the way it is. The book is not written as a game, but as a form. He wants to tell his audience that he watched a man die on a trail near My Khe twenty years ago, but he did not actually kill that man. He was present, and considers that enough to take on the guilt of the young man’s death. The narrator can remember the way that the man looked and he can remember blaming himself. Even now, he blames himself. However, the narrator cautions, that story is made up as well. 

The narrator explains that his goal is to make the reader feel what he felt. Further, he explains, there is a “story-truth” that is sometimes more true than the “happening-truth.” The happening-truth is that the narrator was a soldier and that he saw many bodies. At the time, he was young, and so he did not look at the bodies out of fear. Now, as the writer reflects, he is left with responsibility and grief, but they are not accompanied by faces. In the story-truth, the bodies have more than bodies. They have details that include the looks on their faces. And in the story-truth, the narrator killed the man on the path outside of My Khe. The narrator concludes that stories can make things that happened in the past enter the present.

From the writer’s perspective twenty years removed, the narrator can look at the things that the young soldier never looked at. The writer can attach faces to feelings like love and pity. The narrator can be brave and can feel like himself in the story. This is why when his daughter Kathleen asks whether he killed anyone during the war, the narrator can honestly answer that he did not. Or he can honestly answer that he did kill people during the war.

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