illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 3 Summary

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The third story of The Things They Carried is “Spin.” In it, the narrator admits to being forty-three years old and a writer that only writes about the war. Although his daughter, Kathleen, urges him to write about more frivolous things, the narrator always returns to the war. Oddly, though the memories are often horrifying, and though the horrors seem to live on in the stories, the war was more than horrible. The narrator compares to the war to a ping-pong ball that you can put a spin on. 

Many memories come back to the narrator, and though some are horrifying, others are not. There are memories of Mitchell Sanders peeling lice off his body with a finger nail and mailing it to his draft board. There are memories of Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checkers, a game that was clear and without tunnels, mountains, and jungles. There were rules and the soldiers would gather around to watch them play. Once, the soldiers asked an “old pappa-san” to guide them through a mine field and after they had all survived, a chopper came to take them away, leaving the old man behind. Though the soldiers would try to relax when not fighting, the narrator compares the anxiety the soldiers felt to a sort of acid ruining their organs. This was the boredom they felt.

The narrator explains that there are “peace stories” from the war. One story the soldiers tell each other is about a man that goes AWOL, starts living with a Red Cross nurse, and eventually returns to the war because the peace was hurting him and he wanted to hurt it back. Other peace stories are just fragments, like when Norman Bowker confesses that he wishes his father would tell him it is okay to return to the war without any medals. The narrator remembers Kiowa teaching Rat Kiley how to do a rain dance, though Kiley is confused when it does not immediately begin raining. The narrator remembers how Azar, a boy, strapped an orphan puppy that Ted Lavender was nursing back to health to a claymore and then exploded it. The boys in the platoon were mostly nineteen or twenty years old, and Azar defends himself by saying, “Christ, I’m just a boy.”

The narrator reflects on the war and how even though the war happened so long ago, the memories make it feel as though it is happening now. Sometimes the memories turn into stories, and the stories connect the past to the future. They last forever, and when the memory is erased, the story remains.

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