illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

Start Free Trial

Josiah Bunting (review date 23 April 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bunting, Josiah. “Vietnam, Carried On.” Book World—Washington Post (23 April 1990): B13.

[In the following review, Bunting considers the defining and unifying characteristics of the stories in The Things They Carried.]

A war writer's compulsion to write about why, and how, he writes about war and about what constitutes good war writing is not often resisted successfully. It rises like second growth forest, from soil in which his memory has already quickened and that has nourished his imagination and sometimes its trunks and shoots bristle in the midst of taller usually stronger trees. Too often the consequence is literary criticism, or reflections on the unreliability of memory, or simple assertions about writing about combat, that should have stood alone. It is rare that writers of unusual imaginative powers have critical gifts to match. When the fruits of both are mixed, the result is to diminish each. Perhaps The Things They Carried deserves a partial exemption from such criticism: It is after all a collection of long stories and memoirs (it is impossible to tell which is which) published over the last 11 years of Tim O'Brien's writing life. What efforts have been made to stitch them together, after the fact, cannot be judged.

Most of these narratives tell stories about the lives and deaths of 19-year-old American boys in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1968. The stories are linked in one way or another, through flashbacks, casual anticipations, the reappearance of different characters, all members of an infantry platoon. Episodes in their lives as infantrymen are rendered in an authorial tone, with an evocative, quiet precision not equaled in the imaginative literature of the American war in Vietnam. It is as though a Thucydides had descended from grand politique and strategy to the calm dissection of the quotidian effects of war on several individuals—given, particularly, the things they carried with them into combat: their own exhaustion, their few pathetic bibelots, their memories, their weapons. They carried no political sensibility or outrage. “They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down … but [without] volition, without will, because it was automatic … a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.” O'Brien has it just right; and he observes a few pages later that “a true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”

Precisely so. Such stories as wars produce must aim only at telling what seems significant in what the participant remembers of what he saw, as his imagination has transmuted such things. What figures most vividly in his mind must not consciously be “moral.” The things he carried into the war are very different from what he carried away from it—in O'Brien's case, for example, a conviction that it was a lack of true courage that prevented him from leaping from a rowboat close to the Canadian side of the Rainy River in 1968, a leap that would have made a conviction about the injustice of the war a commitment not to fight in it.

There is a sense in these narratives of elemental fatalism: not unlike that of soldiers of World War I, as they appear in Siegfried Sassoon, Henri Barbusse, Wilfred Owen, Erich Maria Remarque. An American boy...

(This entire section contains 831 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in the infantry, from the Minnesota prairie, simply serves to survive; exhausted, private, helplessly clinging to his small baggages against the coming of the distant date of his expected “rotation” home to America. There is no political or moral irruption here; only personal remorse and the lived knowledge that no sense is to be made of the war by those called upon—always the youngest and least knowing—to fight it.

It is now more than 17 years since the departure of the last American soldiers from Vietnam. It is 25 since the commitment of U.S. Army and Marine units to combat. The former lapse of time is greater than that between Hiroshima and the inauguration of John Kennedy. In 1961, not many people were writing about ground combat in World War II; but our absorption in Vietnam remains intense, self-consciously intense, haunting. Novels, memoirs, collections—all pour forth in a thick stream that does not diminish: acts of exorcism, atonement, reconstruction, epiphany. It will never all be said; but it is difficult to imagine that it will ever be set down more accurately, more usefully, than in these narratives. If in form they resist classification, if their facts and their fictions are commingled beyond separate identification, if critical reflection occasionally intrudes unduly, these are small cavils to set alongside a growing body of work about our worst and longest war, by its best and more steadfast chronicler.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien

(Full name William Timothy O'Brien) American novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism on O'Brien's short-story collection The Things They Carried (1990) from 1990 through 2002.

Published in 1990, The Things They Carried is regarded as an exceptional fictional work based on the experiences of a dozen American soldiers dealing with the trauma and boredom of combat during the Vietnam War. Reviewers commend O'Brien's innovative combination of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction in the short pieces that comprise the volume. In fact, the interweaving of fact and fiction in The Things They Carried has generated much commentary, particularly about the ambiguous nature of his narratives and the metafictional quality of his storytelling techniques. In 1991 the volume was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Plot and Major Characters

The Things They Carried is comprised of twenty-two interconnected short stories, many of which were published separately in periodicals. These short pieces utilize elements of disparate forms—fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, memoir, author's notations, and literary commentary—and focus on the Vietnam War experience and its traumatic aftermath. The opening piece, “The Things They Carried,” is a list that focuses on everything carried into battle by each soldier in the book, ranging from such items as jungle boots and personal letters to feelings like grief, rage, and shame. Critics have praised it as a fitting and insightful introduction to the recurring characters in the book. Many of the pieces explore the process of storytelling and reflect on the confusion of the war experience: several episodes are derived from other sources, or are remembered long after the fact; some are stories overheard and repeated in the oral tradition. Several stories feature a character named Tim O'Brien who comments on the process of writing the stories—twenty years later. The interplay between memory and imagination makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish the truthful elements of the story. The O'Brien narrator often recalls and elaborates on the scenes in various stories; in other stories, he is not identified as the narrator until after the narrative is complete. In “The Man I Killed,” O'Brien revises the story of his mental breakdown after killing an enemy soldier—only to reveal that his revised version is also invented. Other stories are related by other narrators. “Speaking of Courage” chronicles the grief and alienation of Vietnam veteran Norman Bowker, who is unable to articulate his shame over his failure to save his friend from death in combat after he returns home to Iowa. In an addendum to the story, “Notes,” the narrator informs readers that the original version of “Speaking of Courage” was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Bowker, who killed himself three years later in Iowa. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley chronicles the strange story of Mary Anne Bell, an Ohio cheerleader who follows her high school sweetheart to Vietnam and transforms into a terrorist herself. By the end of the fantastic tale—as Mary Anne disappears into the jungle wearing a necklace of human tongues—Kiley is relating information from other sources and the story has become a legend. “How to Tell a True War Story” meditates on the relationship of truth to storytelling. In one section of the story, another soldier relates the story of a six-man patrol that is ordered into the mountains and undergoes a traumatic experience. When the soldier tries to apply a moral and revises the story, the narrator recognizes the inherent truth of the first version. For him, a true story is one that isn't based on what actually happened, but the different ways in which the traumatic experience is rewritten and retold. Critics note that traumatic experiences are endlessly filtered and recirculated in the stories. In another section of “How to Tell a True War Story,” Rat Kiley cruelly kills a baby water buffalo for no reason—which upsets a listener at one of O'Brien's book readings years later. O'Brien then retells the story, over and over, with each version providing a new perspective on Kiley's own emotional trauma from earlier combat experiences and the murder of the buffalo. Eventually he reveals that it all was a fictional exercise meant to express trauma and its consequences without merely utilizing his own personal experiences.

Major Themes

Critics assert that the central theme of The Things They Carried is the relationship of storytelling to truth. In this vein, they often discuss O'Brien's interest in transcending reality to represent the truths of his traumatic Vietnam War experience as a defining characteristic of the book. Commentators note that for O'Brien, the question of authenticity and verisimilitude when relating war experiences is ambiguous; instead, a story's authenticity is often based on its effect on the reader. As O'Brien states, a story is truthful if it “makes the stomach believe.” Reviewers assert that the stories address the effects of combat trauma and the struggle for redemption and recovery. The role of memory is an important theme in the stories in the volume. Another major thematic concern in The Things They Carried is cowardice: not only in combat, but also in the narrator's choice to participate in what he feels is an unjust war. Commentators have analyzed the representations of masculinity and femininity in the book. Exile and alienation also figure prominently in the stories, as returning American war veterans feel displaced from their old life and haunted by their wartime experiences.

Critical Reception

A resounding critical success, The Things They Carried is considered a valuable contribution to the canon of Vietnam War literature. Commentators often discuss the genre of the book; it is often classified as a composite novel instead of a group of interconnected short stories. Some reviewers regard The Things They Carried as a continuation of O'Brien's first two Vietnam narratives: the autobiographical If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and novel Going after Cacciato (1978). The tendency of the stories to reflect upon their own status, format, and function has prompted critics to refer to the volume as a work of metafiction. O'Brien's concentration on storytelling and memory has led critics to compare The Things They Carried to the work of Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad. Moreover, O'Brien's war stories have been compared to the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce and the classical stories of Homer's Iliad. Mental health professionals have praised O'Brien for his insightful depiction of combat trauma in his stories. Critics applaud his ability to memorialize his wartime experiences and view The Things They Carried as his most accomplished work of fiction.

David Streitfeld (review date 19 May 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Streitfeld, David. “Never Done.” Book World—Washington Post (19 May 1991): 15.

[In the following review, Streitfeld examines O'Brien's revisions to the paperback edition of The Things They Carried.]

In the hardcover edition of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, published last year, there is a scene where the narrator, called Tim, goes back to Vietnam with his 10-year-old daughter Kathleen. They go on a sidetrip to Quang Ngai, where Tim finds the field his friend Kiowa died in—a stretch of ground that for 20 years “had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.”

As Kathleen watches, Tim takes Kiowa's hunting hatchet over to where the field dips down into the river. “Right here, I thought. Leaning forward, I reached in with the hatchet and wedged it handle first into the soft bottom, letting it slide away, the blade's own weight taking it under.”

In the paperback edition, just released by Penguin, the scene is the same—except for one detail. This time it's a pair of moccasins that Tim buries.

Tim O'Brien, the real Tim O'Brien, explains the switch: “When I was writing the novel, the phrase ‘bury the hatchet’ didn't occur to me. But when I read it in the hardcover version, I thought ‘Ohmigod. That's kind of heavyhanded symbolism.’ It hadn't been intended that way, so I changed it to moccasins.”

There are a couple of other small changes between the editions—“four or five times,” O'Brien says, “I realized I was making a mistake.” And even this won't be the end. He'll probably do a substantial rewrite maybe a decade from now. He's already done revisions of his classic early works, If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato, slipping them quietly into print in recent paperback reissues. (The changes in The Things They Carried have been made in so low-key a fashion that the Penguin book doesn't even include a new copyright.)

Nor does the process stop after one revision. The author already has another change to make in Cacciato involving the circumference of the table at the Paris peace talks. A physicist recently wrote O'Brien a letter full of equations that said the diameter he had described was impossible, so next time around the figure will be changed.

“I don't look at my work as holy, and I don't think writers should,” O'Brien says. “I don't want to leave behind something I know that I'm less than capable of, or something that I know will put off a reader.”

Most people thought The Things They Carried was pretty fine the first time around. It was a runner-up for both the Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle awards, while the paperback carries six full pages of endorsements from reviewers totaling 37 separate entries. This is probably a record, and it is going to strike some as overkill.

Still, the book deserves the praise. O'Brien came up with an unconventional way to write about Vietnam that feels right, a hybrid form: neither short stories nor novel, autobiographical in form but not literally. After three novels directly and two tangentially concerned with the war, The Things They Carried has the air of reconciliation between the present and the past. This, plus the news that O'Brien is writing a love story next, suggests that he may have come to some conclusions.

Nope. “I don't care about answers,” he says. “I care about stories—and there are so many wonderful stories left to tell about Vietnam, both imagined and real, that I'd be crazy not to write about it. I'd be denying the best material I'll ever have. Take a guy like Conrad. Can you imagine someone saying to him, ‘Don't write about the ocean anymore, don't set your stories on the sea.’ He'd be nuts. Or it'd be like saying to Shakespeare, ‘Don't write any more plays about kings,’ or to Updike, ‘Stop writing about suburbia.’”

The writers who came out of World War II tended to write one book about the struggle: their first. There were exceptions—James Jones continued to write about Army life throughout his career—but generally Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, Gore Vidal and their compatriots went on to other things. Vietnam has had a different effect on its writers. “There was something about that period—not just the war itself, but the ambiguous moral issues that surrounded it, to which we're going to keep returning,” O'Brien believes. He figures he'll circle back to the war every other book.

His war stories, by the way, aren't designed for those who were there. “I hated most of those guys,” O'Brien says, calling them “bullies and showoffs and adventurers” and some unprintable things as well. “I didn't like them then, I don't like them now.”

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Things They Carried 1990

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (memoirs) 1973

Northern Lights (novel) 1975

Going after Cacciato (novel) 1978

The Nuclear Age (novel) 1985

In the Lake of the Woods (novel) 1994

Tomcat in Love (novel) 1998

July, July (novel) 2002

Steven Kaplan (essay date fall 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Certainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.Critique 35, no. 1 (fall 1993): 43-52.

[In the following essay, Kaplan perceives The Things They Carried to be O'Brien's imaginative attempt to reveal and understand the uncertainties about the Vietnam War.]

Before the United States became militarily involved in defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, it had to, as one historian recently put it, “invent” (Baritz 142-43) the country and the political issues at stake there. The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening storytellers. First the United States decided what constituted good and evil, right and wrong, civilized and uncivilized, freedom and oppression for Vietnam, according to American standards; then it traveled the long physical distance to Vietnam and attempted to make its own notions about these things clear to the Vietnamese people—ultimately by brute, technological force. For the U.S. military and government, the Vietnam that they had in effect invented became fact. For the soldiers that the government then sent there, however, the facts that their government had created about who was the enemy, what were the issues, and how the war was to be won were quickly overshadowed by a world of uncertainty. Ultimately, trying to stay alive long enough to return home in one piece was the only thing that made any sense to them. As David Halberstam puts it in his novel, One Very Hot Day, the only fact of which an American soldier in Vietnam could be certain was that “yes was no longer yes, no was no longer no, maybe was more certainly maybe” (127). Almost all of the literature on the war, both fictional and nonfictional, makes clear that the only certain thing during the Vietnam War was that nothing was certain. Philip Beidler has pointed out in an impressive study of the literature of that war that “most of the time in Vietnam, there were some things that seemed just too terrible and strange to be true and others that were just too terrible and true to be strange” (4).

The main question that Beidler's study raises is how, in light of the overwhelming ambiguity that characterized the Vietnam experience, could any sense or meaning be derived from what happened and, above all, how could this meaning, if it were found, be conveyed to those who had not experienced the war? The answer Beidler's book offers, as Beidler himself recently said at a conference on writing about the war, is that “words are all we have. In the hands of true artists … they may yet preserve us against the darkness” (Lomperis 87). Similarly, for the novelist Tim O'Brien, the language of fiction is the most accurate means for conveying, as Beidler so incisively puts it, “what happened (in Vietnam) … what might have happened, what could have happened, what should have happened, and maybe also what can be kept from happening or what can be made to happen” (87). If the experience of Vietnam and its accompanying sense of chaos and confusion can be shown at all, then for Tim O'Brien it will not be in the fictions created by politicians but in the stories told by writers of fiction.

One of Tim O'Brien's most important statements about the inherent problems of understanding and writing about the Vietnam experience appears in a chapter of his novel, Going After Cacciato, appropriately titled “The Things They Didn't Know.” The novel's protagonist, Paul Berlin, briefly interrupts his fantasy about chasing the deserter Cacciato, who is en route from Vietnam to Paris, to come to terms with the fact that although he is physically in Vietnam and fighting a war, his understanding of where he is and what he is doing there is light-years away. At the center of the chapter is a long catalogue of the things that Berlin and his comrades did not know about Vietnam, and the chapter closes with the statement that what “they” knew above all else were the “uncertainties never articulated in war stories” (319). In that chapter Tim O'Brien shows that recognizing and exploring the uncertainties about the war is perhaps the closest one can come to finding anything certain at all. Paul Berlin, in his fantasy about escaping the war and chasing Cacciato to Paris, is in fact attempting to confront and, as far as possible, understand the uncertainties of the Vietnam War through the prism of his imagination. Once inside his make-believe world, Berlin has the opportunity to explore all of the things that he did not know about the war: The elusive enemy suddenly becomes his partner in a long debate about the meaning of the war; he explores the mysterious tunnels of the Vietcong; one of the victims of the war becomes Berlin's tour guide as he and his fellow soldiers go after Cacciato; and, most important of all, Berlin is given a chance to test and ultimately reject his own thoughts of desertion by imagining how he would react to the desertion of another soldier.

In his most recent work of fiction,1The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien takes the act of trying to reveal and understand the uncertainties about the war one step further, by looking at it through the imagination. He completely destroys the fine line dividing fact from fiction and tries to show, even more so than in Cacciato, that fiction (or the imagined world) can often be truer, especially in the case of Vietnam, than fact. In the first chapter, an almost documentary account of the items referred to in the book's title, O'Brien introduces the reader to some of the things, both imaginary and concrete, emotional and physical, that the average foot soldier had to carry through the jungles of Vietnam. All of the “things” are depicted in a style that is almost scientific in its precision. We are told how much each subject weighs, either psychologically or physically, and, in the case of artillery, we are even told how many ounces each round weighed:

As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the rifleman carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum.

(Carried7 [The Things They Carried])

Even the most insignificant details seem worth mentioning. One main character is not just from Oklahoma City but from “Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” (5), as if mentioning the state somehow makes the location more factual, more certain. More striking than this obsession with even the minutest detail, however, is the academic tone that at times makes the narrative sound like a government report. We find such transitional phrases as “for instance” (5) and “in addition” (7), and whole paragraphs are dominated by sentences that begin with “because” (5). These strengthen our impression that the narrator is striving, above all else, to convince us of the reality, of the concrete certainty, of the things they carried.

In the midst of this factuality and certainty, however, are signals that all the information in this opening chapter will not amount to much: that the certainties are merely there to conceal uncertainties and that the words following the frequent “becauses” do not provide an explanation of anything. We are told in the opening page that the most important thing that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried were some letters from a girl he loved. The narrator, one of Cross's friends in the war and now a forty-three-year-old writer named Tim O'Brien, tells us that the girl did not love Cross, but that he constantly indulged in “hoping” and “pretending” (3) in an effort to turn her love into fact. We are also told “she was a virgin,” but this is immediately qualified by the statement that “he was almost sure” of this (3). On the next page, Cross becomes increasingly uncertain as he sits at “night and wonder(s) if Martha was a virgin” (4). Shortly after this, Cross wonders who had taken the pictures he now holds in his hands “because he knew she had boyfriends” (5), but we are never told how he “knew” this. At the end of the chapter, after one of Cross's men has died because Cross was too busy thinking of Martha, Cross sits at the bottom of his foxhole crying, not so much for the member of his platoon who has been killed “but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, and because she was … a poet and a virgin and uninvolved” (17).

This pattern of stating facts and then quickly calling them into question that is typical of Jimmy Cross's thoughts in these opening pages characterizes how the narrator portrays events throughout this book: the facts about an event are given; they then are quickly qualified or called into question; from this uncertainty emerges a new set of facts about the same subject that are again called into question—on and on, without end. O'Brien catalogues the weapons that the soldiers carried, down to their weight, thus making them seem important and their protective power real. However, several of these passages are introduced by the statement that some of these same weapons were also carried by the character Ted Lavendar; each of the four sections of the first chapter that tells us what he carried is introduced by a qualifying phrase that reveals something about which Lavendar himself was not at all certain when he was carrying his weapons: “Until he was shot …” (4, 7, 10).

Conveying the average soldier's sense of uncertainty about what actually happened in Vietnam by presenting the what-ifs and maybes as if they were facts, and then calling these facts back into question again, can be seen as a variation of the haunting phrase used so often by American soldiers to convey their own uncertainty about what happened in Vietnam: “there it is.” They used it to make the unspeakable and indescribable and the uncertain real and present for a fleeting moment. Similarly, O'Brien presents facts and stories that are only temporarily certain and real; the strange “balance” in Vietnam between “crazy and almost crazy” (20) always creeps back in and forces the mind that is remembering and retelling a story to remember and retell it one more time in a different form, adding different nuances, and then to tell it again one more time.

Storytelling in this book is something in which “the whole world is rearranged” (39) in an effort to get at the “full truth” (49) about events that themselves deny the possibility of arriving at something called the “full”, meaning certain and fixed, “truth.” By giving the reader facts and then calling those facts into question, by telling stories and then saying that those stories happened (147), and then that they did not happen (203), and then that they might have happened (204), O'Brien puts more emphasis in The Things They Carried on the question that he first posed in Going After Cacciato: how can a work of fiction become paradoxically more real than the events upon which it is based, and how can the confusing experiences of the average soldier in Vietnam be conveyed in such a way that they will acquire at least a momentary sense of certainty. In The Things They Carried, this question is raised even before the novel begins. The book opens with a reminder: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” Two pages later we are told that “this book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” We discover only a few pages after this dedication that those six men are the novel's main characters.

These prefatory comments force us simultaneously to consider the unreal (the fictions that follow) as real because the book is dedicated to the characters who appear in it, and the “incidents, names, and characters” are unreal or “imaginary.” O'Brien informs us at one point that in telling these war stories he intends to get at the “full truth” (49) about them; yet from the outset he has shown us that the full truth as he sees it is in itself something ambiguous. Are these stories and the characters in them real or imaginary, or does the “truth” hover somewhere between the two? A closer look at the book's narrative structure reveals that O'Brien is incapable of answering the questions that he initially raises, because the very act of writing fiction about the war, of telling war stories, as he practices it in The Things They Carried, is determined by the nature of the Vietnam War and ultimately by life in general where “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity” (88).

The emphasis on ambiguity behind O'Brien's narrative technique in The Things They Carried is thus similar to the pattern used by Joseph Conrad's narrator, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, so incisively characterized by J. Hillis Miller as a lifting of veils to reveal a truth that is quickly obscured again by the dropping of a new veil (158). Over and over again, O'Brien tells us that we are reading “the full and exact truth” (181), and yet, as we make our way through this book and gradually find the same stories being retold with new facts and from a new perspective, we come to realize that there is no such thing as the full and exact truth. Instead, the only thing that can be determined at the end of the story is its own indeterminacy.

O'Brien calls telling stories in this manner “Good Form” in the title of one of the chapters of The Things They Carried: This is good form because “telling stories” like this “can make things present” (204). The stories in this book are not truer than the actual things that happened in Vietnam because they contain some higher, metaphysical truth: “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstractions or analysis” (84). Rather, these stories are true because the characters and events within them are being given a new life each time they are told and retold. This approach to storytelling echoes Wolfgang Iser's theory of representation in his essay “Representation: A Performative Act”:

Whatever shape or form these various (philosophical or fictional) conceptualizations (of life) may have, their common denominator is the attempt to explain origins. In this respect they close off those very potentialities that literature holds open. Of course literature also springs from the same anthropological need, since it stages what is inaccessible, thus compensating for the impossibility of knowing what it is to be. But literature is not an explanation of origins; it is a staging of the constant deferment of explanation, which makes the origin explode into its multifariousness.

It is at this point that aesthetic semblance makes its full impact. Representation arises out of and thus entails the removal of difference, whose irremovability transforms representation into a performative act of staging something. This staging is almost infinitely variable, for in contrast to explanations, no single staging could ever remove difference and so explain origin. On the contrary, its very multiplicity facilitates an unending mirroring of what man is, because no mirrored manifestation can ever coincide with our actual being.


When we conceptualize life, we attempt to step outside ourselves and look at who we are. We constantly make new attempts to conceptualize our lives and uncover our true identities because looking at who we might be is as close as we can come to discovering who we actually are. Similarly, representing events in fiction is an attempt to understand them by detaching them from the “real world” and placing them in a world that is being staged. In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien desperately struggles to make his readers believe that what they are reading is true because he wants them to step outside their everyday reality and participate in the events that he is portraying: he wants us to believe in his stories to the point where we are virtually in the stories so that we might gain a more thorough understanding of, or feeling for, what is being portrayed in them. Representation as O'Brien practices it in this book is not a mimetic act but a “game,” as Iser also calls it in a more recent essay, “The Play of the Text,” a process of acting things out:

Now since the latter (the text) is fictional, it automatically invokes a convention-governed contract between author and reader indicating that the textual world is to be viewed not as reality but as if it were reality. And so whatever is repeated in the text is not meant to denote the world, but merely a world enacted. This may well repeat an identifiable reality, but it contains one all-important difference: what happens within it is relieved of the consequences inherent in the real world referred to. Hence in disclosing itself, fictionality signalizes that everything is only to be taken as if it were what it seems to be, to be taken—in other words—as play.


In The Things They Carried, representation includes staging what might have happened in Vietnam while simultaneously questioning the accuracy and credibility of the narrative act itself. The reader is thus made fully aware of being made a participant in a game, in a “performative act,” and thereby also is asked to become immediately involved in the incredibly frustrating act of trying to make sense of events that resist understanding. The reader is permitted to experience at first hand the uncertainty that characterized being in Vietnam. We are being forced to “believe” (79) that the only “certainty” was the “overwhelming ambiguity.”

This process is nowhere clearer than in a chapter appropriately called “How to Tell A True War Story.” O'Brien opens this chapter by telling us “THIS IS TRUE.” Then he takes us through a series of variations of the story about how Kurt Lemon stepped on a mine and was blown up into a tree. The only thing true or certain about the story, however, is that it is being constructed and then deconstructed and then reconstructed right in front of us. The reader is given six different versions of the death of Kurt Lemon, and each version is so discomforting that it is difficult to come up with a more accurate statement to describe his senseless death than “there it is.” Or as O'Brien puts it—“in the end, really there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh’” (84).

Before we learn in this chapter how Kurt Lemon was killed, we are told the “true” story that Rat Kiley apparently told to the character-narrator O'Brien about how Kiley wrote to Lemon's sister and “says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world” (76). Two months after writing the letter, Kiley has not heard from Lemon's sister, and so he writes her off as a “dumb cooze” (76). This is what happened according to Kiley, and O'Brien assures us that the story is “incredibly sad and true” (77). However, when Rat Kiley tells a story in another chapter we are warned that he

swore up and down to its truth, although in the end, I'll admit, that doesn't amount to much of a warranty. Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say.


Rat Kiley is an unreliable narrator, and his facts are always distorted, but this does not affect storytelling truth as far as O'Brien is concerned. The passage above on Rat Kiley's credibility as a storyteller concludes: “It wasn't a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt” (101). This summarizes O'Brien's often confusing narrative strategy in The Things They Carried: the facts about what actually happened, or whether anything happened at all, are not important. They cannot be important because they themselves are too uncertain, too lost in a world in which certainty had vanished somewhere between the “crazy and almost crazy.” The important thing is that any story about the war, any “true war story,” must “burn so hot” when it is told that it becomes alive for the listener-reader in the act of its telling.

In Rat Kiley's story about how he wrote to Kurt Lemon's sister, the details we are initially given are exaggerated to the point where, in keeping with O'Brien's fire metaphor, they begin to heat up. Kurt Lemon, we are told, “would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years” (75). And once Lemon went fishing with a crate of hand grenades, “the funniest thing in world history … about twenty zillion dead gook fish” (76). But the story does not get so hot that it burns, it does not become so “incredibly sad and true,” as O'Brien puts it, until we find out at the story's close that, in Rat's own words, “I write this beautiful fuckin' letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back” (77). It is these words and not the facts that come before them that make the story true for O'Brien.

At the beginning of this chapter, O'Brien asks us several times to “Listen to Rat,” to listen how he says things more than to what he says. And of all of the words that stand out in his story, it is the word “cooze,” (which is repeated four times in two pages), that makes his story come alive for O'Brien. “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (76). This is just one way that O'Brien gives for determining what constitutes a true war story. The unending list of possibilities includes reacting to a story with the ambiguous words “Oh” and “There it is.” Rat Kiley's use of “cooze” is another in the sequence of attempts to utter some truth about the Vietnam experience and, by extension, about war in general. There is no moral to be derived from this word such as war is obscene or corrupt: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct” (76). There is simply the real and true fact that the closest thing to certainty and truth in a war story is a vague utterance, a punch at the darkness, an attempt to rip momentarily through the veil that repeatedly re-covers the reality and truth of what actually happened.

It is thus probably no coincidence that in the middle of this chapter on writing a true war story, O'Brien tells us that “Even now, at this instant,” Mitchell Sanders's “yo-yo” is the main thing he can remember from the short time encompassing Lemon's death (83). This object, associated with games and play, becomes a metaphor for the playful act of narration that O'Brien practices in this book, a game that he plays by necessity. The only way to tell a true war story, according to O'Brien, is to keep telling it “one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (91), which ultimately is impossible because the real truth, the full truth, as the events themselves, are lost forever in “a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent” (88). You only “tell a true war story” “if you just keep on telling it” (91) because “absolute occurrence is irrelevant” (89). The truth, then, is clearly not something that can be distinguished or separated from the story itself, and the reality or non-reality of the story's events is not something that can be determined from a perspective outside of the story. As the critic Geoffrey Hartman says about poetry: “To keep a poem in mind is to keep it there, not to resolve it into available meanings” (274). Similarly, for O'Brien it is not the fact that a story happened that makes it true and worth remembering, anymore than the story itself can be said to contain a final truth. The important thing is that a story becomes so much a part of the present that “there is nothing to remember (while we are reading it) except the story” (40). This is why O'Brien's narrator is condemned, perhaps in a positive sense, to telling and then retelling numerous variations of the same story over and over and over again. This is also why he introduces each new version of a story with such comments as: “This one does it for me. I have told it before many times, many versions—but here is what actually happened” (85). What actually happened, the story's truth, can only become apparent for the fleeting moment in which it is being told; that truth will vanish back into the fog just as quickly as the events that occurred in Vietnam were sucked into a realm of uncertainty the moment they occurred.

O'Brien demonstrates nothing new about trying to tell war stories—that the “truths” they contain “are contradictory” (87), elusive, and thus indeterminate. Two hundred years ago, Goethe, as he tried to depict the senseless bloodshed during the allied invasion of revolutionary France, also reflected in his autobiographical essay Campaign in France on the same inevitable contradictions that arise when one speaks of what happened or might have happened in battle. Homer's Illiad is, of course, the ultimate statement on the contradictions inherent in war. However, what is new in O'Brien's approach in The Things They Carried is that he makes the axiom that in war “almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true” (87) the basis for the act of telling a war story.

The narrative strategy that O'Brien uses in this book to portray the uncertainty of what happened in Vietnam is not restricted to depicting war, and O'Brien does not limit it to the war alone. He concludes his book with a chapter titled “The Lives of the Dead” in which he moves from his experiences in Vietnam back to when he was nine years old. On the surface, the book's last chapter is about O'Brien's first date, his first love, a girl named Linda who died of a brain tumor a few months after he had taken her to see the movie, The Man Who Never Was. What this chapter is really about, however, as its title suggests, is how the dead (which also include people who may never have actually existed) can be given life in a work of fiction. In a story, O'Brien tells us, “memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness” (260). Like the man who never was in the film of that title, the people that never were except in memories and the imagination can become real or alive, if only for a moment, through the act of storytelling.

According to O'Brien, when you tell a story, really tell it, “you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself” (178). By doing this you are able to externalize “a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse” (179). However, the storyteller does not just escape from the events and people in a story by placing them on paper; as we have seen, the act of telling a given story is an on-going and never-ending process. By constantly involving and then re-involving the reader in the task of determining what “actually” happened in a given situation, in a story, and by forcing the reader to experience the impossibility of ever knowing with any certainty what actually happened, O'Brien liberates himself from the lonesome responsibility of remembering and trying to understand events. He also creates a community of individuals immersed in the act of experiencing the uncertainty or indeterminacy of all events, regardless of whether they occurred in Vietnam, in a small town in Minnesota (253-273), or somewhere in the reader's own life.

O'Brien thus saves himself, as he puts it in the last sentence of his book, from the fate of his character Norman Bowker who, in a chapter called “Speaking of Courage,” kills himself because he cannot find some lasting meaning in the horrible things he experienced in Vietnam. O'Brien saves himself by demonstrating in this book that the most important thing is to be able to recognize and accept that events have no fixed or final meaning and that the only meaning that events can have is one that emerges momentarily and then shifts and changes each time that the events come alive as they are remembered or portrayed.

The character Norman Bowker hangs himself in the locker room of the local YMCA after playing basketball with some friends (181), partially because he has a story locked up inside of himself that he feels he cannot tell because no one would want to hear it. It is the story of how he failed to save his friend, Kiowa,2 from drowning in a field of human excrement: “A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, not for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds” (169). Bowker's dilemma is remarkably similar to that of Krebs in Hemingway's story “Soldier's Home”: “At first Krebs … did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities” (Hemingway 145).

O'Brien, after his war, took on the task “of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me” (179). He explains in The Things They Carried that it is impossible to know “exactly what had happened.” He wants us to know all of the things he/they/we did not know about Vietnam and will probably never know. He wants us to feel the sense of uncertainty that his character/narrator Tim O'Brien experiences twenty years after the war when he returns to the place where his friend Kiowa sank into a “field of shit” and tries to find “something meaningful and right” (212) to say but ultimately can only say, “well … there it is” (212). Each time we, the readers of The Things They Carried, return to Vietnam through O'Brien's labyrinth of stories, we become more and more aware that this statement is the closest we probably ever will come to knowing the “real truth,” the undying uncertainty of the Vietnam War.


  1. The reviewers of this book are split on whether to call it a novel or a collection of short stories. In a recent interview, I asked Tim O'Brien what he felt was the most adequate designation. He said that The Things They Carried is neither a collection of stories nor a novel: he preferred to call it a work of fiction.

  2. In the “Notes” to this chapter, O'Brien typically turns the whole story upside down “in the interest of truth” and tells us that Norman Bowker was not responsible for Kiowa's horrible death: “That part of the story is my own” (182). This phrase could be taken to mean that this part of the story is his own creation or that he was the one responsible for Kiowa's death.

Works Cited

Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. New York: Morrow, 1985.

Beidler, Philip. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1982.

Halberstam, David. One Very Hot Day. New York: Houghton, 1967.

Hartman, Geoffrey. Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Hemingway, Ernest. Short Stories. New York: Scribner, 1953.

Iser, Wolfgang. Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.

Lomperis, Timothy, “Reading the Wind”: The Literature of the Vietnam War: An Interpretative Critique. Durham: Duke UP, 1989.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Heart of Darkness Revisited.” Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

O'Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Dell, 1978.

———. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton, 1990.

Lorrie N. Smith (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Smith, Lorrie N. “‘The Things Men Do’: The Gendered Subtext in Tim O'Brien's Esquire Stories.” Critique 36, no. 1 (fall 1994): 16-40.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the representations of masculinity and femininity in five of the stories in The Things They Carried.]

Tim O'Brien's 1990 book of interlocked stories, The Things They Carried, garnered one rave review after another, reinforcing O'Brien's already established position as one of the most important veteran writers of the Vietnam War. The Penguin paperback edition serves up six pages of superlative blurbs like “consummate artistry,” “classic,” “the best American writer of his generation,” “unique,” and “master work.” A brilliant metafictionist, O'Brien captures the moral and ontological uncertainty experienced by men at war, along with enough visceral realism to “make the stomach believe,” as his fictional narrator, Tim O'Brien, puts it. This narrator's name and the book's dedication to its own fictional characters are just two indications of how crafty and self-reflexive O'Brien can be about his representational and narrative strategies. By exposing so much of his own artifice, he seems to practice Michael Herr's much earlier recognition that after Vietnam there is “not much chance anymore for history to go on unself-consciously” (43). Yet, O'Brien—and his reviewers—seem curiously unself-conscious about this book's obsession with and ambivalence about representations of masculinity and femininity, particularly in the five stories originally published during the 1980s in Esquire. If this observation is accurate, and if, as one reviewer (Harris) claims, O'Brien's book exposes the nature of all war stories,” then we might postulate that “all war stories” are constituted by what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls, in another context, a “drama of gender difference” (6). The book diverts attention from this central play by constructing an elaborate and captivating metafictional surface, but the drama is finally exposed by the sheer exaggeration and aggressiveness of its gendered roles and gendering gestures. “The things” his male characters “carried” to war, it turns out, include plenty of patriarchal baggage. O'Brien purports to tell “true” war stories, but stops short of fully interrogating their ideological underpinnings—either in terms of the binary construction of gender that permeates representations of war in our culture, or in terms of the Vietnam War itself as a political event implicated in racist, ethnocentric assumptions. Hence, the text offers no challenge to a discourse of war in which apparently innocent American men are tragically wounded and women are objectified, excluded, and silenced. My intent in bringing this subtext to light is not to devalue O'Brien's technical skill or emotional depth, but to account for my own discomfort as a female reader and to position The Things They Carried within a larger cultural project to rewrite the Vietnam War from a masculinist and strictly American perspective.

As much about the act of writing as about war itself, O'Brien's book celebrates the reconstructive power of the imagination, which gives shape, substance, and significance to slippery emotion and memory. We might even say that imagination itself—as embodied in the act of storytelling—plays the hero in this book, countering our national propensity for amnesia and offering the hope of personal redemption. O'Brien has often spoken of the imagination as a morally weighted force shaping the narratives and myths we live by. In Timothy Lomperis's Reading the Wind, for instance, O'Brien comments, “It's a real thing and I think influences in a major way the kind of real-life decisions we made to go to the war or not to go to the war. Either way, we imagine our futures and then try to step into our own imaginations … the purpose of fiction is to explore moral quandaries” (48, 52). In a more recent interview, he claims “exercising the imagination is the main way of finding truth” (Naparsteck 10). Taking his cue from O'Brien, critic Philip Beidler asserts that form, theme, and moral imperative merge in The Things They Carried: “It is at once a summation of Tim O'Brien's re-writing of the old dialectic of facts and fictions and a literally exponential prediction of new contexts of vision and insight, of new worlds to remember, imagine, believe” (32-33).

O'Brien has a genius for making poetry out of such prolix abstractions, and some of the most arresting passages in the book reflect on the craft and epistemology of writing. At some points, the book asserts, with poststructural sophistication, that stories displace and reconstitute reality and define the self: “Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story” (40). At other points, O'Brien emphasizes the communicative power of storytelling: “The thing about a story is that you dream as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in your head” (259). By the end of the book, storytelling even carries the power of salvation and transubstantiation: “As a writer now, I want to save Linda's life … in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. In a story, miracles can happen” (265). Writing, like life, entails choice; unlike life, it also offers endless possibility. Hence, O'Brien's stories often offer multiple versions of “reality,” complicating the ambiguously entwined experience, memory, and retelling of Vietnam: “In any war story, but especially in a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way” (78). The book insistently asserts that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth” (203) and admits that some stories, are simply “beyond telling” (79), can only be apprehended by those who experienced the event. Storytelling is finally a ritual both private and shared, a yearning toward wholeness, coherence, and meaning even while admitting their elusiveness.1

But who is invited to share this ritual? Despite its valorization of storytelling, The Things They Carried repeatedly underscores the incommunicability of war. This paradox has been identified by Kali Tal, who defines writing by Vietnam veterans as a literature of trauma, with analogues to writing by survivors of the Holocaust, slavery, incest, rape, and torture. For Tal, “Trauma literature demonstrates the unbridgeable gap between writer and reader and thus defines itself by the impossibility of its task—the communication of the traumatic experience” (“Speaking” 218). Tal challenges critics to account for the “inherent contradiction within literature by Vietnam veterans” by recognizing that “the symbols generated by liminality are readable only to those familiar with the alphabet of trauma” (239). I agree in general with this claim but would qualify it with Susan Jeffords's argument that revisionist cultural and literary productions over the past decade have restored the once-stigmatized Vietnam veteran to a position of power and status. Indeed, thanks largely to Oliver Stone, Sylvester Stallone, and Ron Kovic, veteran writers have increasingly had access to a discourse that is all too readable and familiar in our culture. The “alphabet of trauma,” that is, has been encoded as a narrative of wounded American manhood that depends, for its meaning—whether tragic, ironic, or redemptive—on the positioning of women and Vietnamese as others.2

In an earlier essay, Tal found connections between the aims of feminist criticism and literature of Vietnam combat veterans who choose “to renounce their inherited white male power” (“Feminist Criticism” 199). Such texts, not surprisingly, are rare; more often, veterans' narratives fight bitterly to regain and sustain the power that the war temporarily disrupted. Hence, a consideration of how gender constructs affect the Vietnam veteran's rewriting of trauma opens a deeper gap than Tal identifies, in terms of both textual representation and the position and response of the reader. O'Brien often depicts war as inaccessible to nonveterans, creating a storytelling loop between characters within stories that excludes the uninitiated reader and privileges the authority of the soldiers' experience. But it is important to note that the moments of deepest trauma in the book occur when the masculine subject is threatened with dissolution or displacement. All readers are to some extent subjugated by O'Brien's shifty narrator: however, the female reader, in particular, is rendered marginal and mute, faced with the choice throughout the book of either staying outside the story or reading against herself from a masculine point of view. O'Brien repeatedly inscribes the outsider as female, hence reinforcing masculine bonds that lessen the survivor/outsider distinction for male readers. Male characters are granted many moments of mutual understanding, whereas women pointedly won't, don't, or can't understand war stories. In short, O'Brien writes women out of the war and the female reader out of the storytelling circle.

For all its polyphonic, postmodernist blurring of fact and fiction, The Things They Carried preserves a very traditional gender dichotomy, insistently representing abject femininity to reinforce dominant masculinity and to preserve the writing of war stories as a masculine privilege. Specifically, O'Brien uses female figures to mediate the process in homosocial bonding, a narrative strategy Sedgwick plots as a triangulation:

In the presence of a women who can't be seen as pitiable or contemptible, men are able to exchange power and to confirm each other's value even in the context of the remaining inequalities in their power. The sexually pitiable or contemptible female figure is a solvent that not only facilitates the relative democratization that grows up with capitalism and cash exchange, but goes a long way—for the men whom she leaves bonded together—toward palliating its gaps and failures.


If we transfer Sedgwick's paradigm from the realm of class struggle to the current cultural contest over the meaning, communicability, and “gaps and failures” of the Vietnam War, we can understand how O'Brien's representations of “contemptible” femininity strengthen male bonds and deflect the contemporaneous assaults of an emasculating lost war, the woman's movement, and feminist theory. We might even place the female reader at one corner of the triangle, her exclusion facilitating the bond between male writer and reader. Anxiety over the general incommunicability of trauma is thus greatly eased by the shared language of patriarchy.

Starring the now conventional trope of a democratic platoon of characters, this collection of stories suppresses any signifiers of age, race, class, or ideology to accentuate the common bond of masculinity. O'Brien closes male ranks in this book, celebrating camaraderie and preempting complicity or identification on the part of the female reader. Lavishing sensitive attention to the depth and complexity of men's emotions and rescuing their humanity in the face of a dehumanizing war, O'Brien represents women not as characters with agency and sensibility of their own, but as projections of a narrator trying to resolve the trauma of the war. Although he seems at points to engage and question conventional gender constructions, in the end he does so only to quell threats to masculinity and to re-assert patriarchal order. For all its internal resistance to narrative closure, the book's framing narrative is a hermeneutic circle: men at war act like men at war, and only men can write about it and understand it. Thus, while O'Brien fractures the surface on his stories, discontinuity is finally subsumed by a seamless narrative voiced by a strongly centered masculine subject with the power to construct both masculinity and femininity.

Critics like Beidler who ignore gender can thus read The Things They Carried as a high achievement in the cultural project he sees writers of the Vietnam generation undertaking: to “reconstitute [American cultural mythology] as a medium both of historical self-reconsideration and, in the same moment, of historical self-renewal and even self-invention” (5). Such a grand(iose) humanistic accomplishment can only be achieved if we overlook how dominant conceptions of culture, self, and history erase or subjugate the female subject. Once we admit this asymmetry and oppression, totalizing myths of “universal truth” like those Beidler reads in O'Brien and other writers of the Vietnam generation become impossible. A feminist reading of fiction by Vietnam veterans reveals quite a different cultural and discursive project: what I have elsewhere labeled “backlash” and what Susan Jeffords calls “the remasculinization of America.” Jeffords details how the proliferation of texts and films about the Vietnam War, especially during the 1980s, has contributed to “the large-scale renegotiation and regeneration of the interests, values, and projects of patriarchy now taking place in U.S. social relations.” More specifically, “the representational features of the Vietnam War are structurally written through relations of gender, relations designed primarily to reinforce the interests of masculinity and patriarchy” (xi). Because Tim O'Brien is indisputably canonized as a major “Vietnam author in his generation” and The Things They Carried is widely acclaimed, it merits close examination in the context of this larger cultural work of consolidating the masculine subject, cementing male bonds, and preempting or silencing feminist dissent.


The core of The Things They Carried consists of five long stories originally published in Esquire during the late 1980s—the period in which Susan Faludi documents an “undeclared war on American women” and Jeffords locates the rehabilitation of temporarily outcast male Vietnam veterans. (Women veterans, of course, have never been visible enough to be cast out.) Three of these stories play elaborately on gender oppositions: “The Things They Carried” (1986), which opens the book, “How to Tell a True War Story” (October 1987), and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” (July 1989). “The Lives of the Dead” (January 1989), the volume's last story, reaches toward a reconciliation in which both masculine and feminine deaths are redeemed by the storytelling imagination. Read sequentially, these stories make up an increasingly misogynist narrative of masculine homosocial behavior under fire. Before reading the three central stories to track the book's gendered subtext, however, it is worth looking briefly at patterns of feminine representation in other stories to indicate how pervasively it is used to define masculine bonds and power.

In several stories, O'Brien introduces an invented ten-year-old daughter, Kathleen (a mother and wife is mentioned once but never shown). Her dramatic role is to prompt the writer's memory and reshaping of his Vietnam experiences. Representing both a younger generation distanced from the war and all those excluded from its first-hand experience, Kathleen entreats her father to leave the past behind, forget about the war, get past his “obsession.” As someone who cannot “read” his stories, she reinforces the familiar criterion of “being there” and the more implicit criterion of masculinity as qualifications for understanding Vietnam. As a narrative device and muse, Kathleen prompts the narrator's justification for writing war stories. In “Ambush,” for instance, she questions whether her father ever killed anyone, jumping in logic from “You keep writing these war stories” to “‘so I guess you must've killed somebody.’” This is a familiar question in war literature, usually underscoring the veteran's distance from the uninitiated. Here, the question gives rise to a moral and aesthetic imperative for blurring fact and fiction. To the ten-year-old, he says “what seemed right … ‘Of course not.’” But “here” in the present-time of the story, he wants “to pretend she's a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep writing war stories” (147). Although the narrator tries to be kind to his daughter and wrestles with the morality of telling the truth versus doing the right thing, he ends up having it both ways, thus maintaining absolute power. By lying to the young Kathleen, he excludes her from her own awareness of truth; he can only grant that she was right by pretending “she's a grown-up.” Truth is established as relative and situational; the (male) writer maintains absolute authority over its manipulation and what story is “right” for the daughter.

In “Field Trip,” Kathleen actually accompanies her father on a return trip to the “shitfield” in Vietnam where twenty years earlier he lost his best friend, Kiowa, and where he enacts an ersatz Indian farewell ritual. (Any cultural gap that may have existed is here bridged by ties of camaraderie.) Kathleen is a trooper, yet the war remains “as remote to her as cavemen and dinosaurs” (208), and she finally concludes her father is simply “weird.” After wading in the mucky field, father and daughter have an Oedipal moment of complicity in which the mother is excluded and her potential power defused: “‘All the gunk on your skin, you look like … Wait'll I tell Mommy, she'll probably make you sleep in the garage.’ ‘You're right,’ I said, ‘Don't tell her’” (213). But this moment dissolves into distance again. Looking back at a farmer waving a shovel over his head, Kathleen interprets the man's actions as anger, while the narrator says “No … all that's finished” (213). (With the Vietnamese farmer, unlike Kiowa, the cultural gap is unbridged, the narrator rejecting Kathleen's reading that the man might have his own anger.) In the end, the war is closed off to Kathleen and she's merely along for the ride.

“Speaking of Courage,” a post-traumatic stress story highly reminiscent of Hemingway's “Soldier's Home,” similarly imagines a woman, Sally Gustafson, née Kramer, an old girlfriend of Norman Bowker's “whose pictures he had once carried in his wallet” and whose small-town, middle-class reality is so far from Norman's world of post-traumatic stress that she comes to signify for him the utter impossibility of communicating his experience or closing the breach between his pre- and post-war self. She has no actual agency or dialogue in the story, but lives completely in Norman's mind as a synecdoche for the whole town that “did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know” (163). Did Sally suffer through Norman's absence in Vietnam? Did she have her own traumas and losses because of the war? Such stories aren't told in this book. Norman imagines several conversations with Sally, but each time realizes “there was really nothing he could say to her.” He pictures more perfect dialogues with his father, “who had his own war and who now preferred silence,” suggesting that understanding might at least be possible with another veteran, though it is never realized. In the end, Norman feels invisible and mute. The commentary, “Notes,” following the story, claims that the “real” Norman committed suicide, but not before passing his story on to Tim, who makes it his own and thus “saves” Norman's life just as he saves “Timmy's life with an story” in the book's last line.

Several stories collapse representations of women, death, the enemy, and Asians. In the vignette, “Style,” the soldiers come upon a burned hamlet and a teen-aged girl dancing ritualistically in front of her house, in which lie the bodies of “an infant and an old woman and a woman whose age was hard to tell. … There were dead pigs, too” (154). Her movements are inexplicable to the men, and this inscrutability leads to the story's real concern: not the grieving girl, whose suffering is beyond the Americans, but American (mis)interpretations of Vietnamese culture. Azar, the book's hypermacho fool, mocks her movements, but Henry Dobbins opposes Azar and insists he “dance right.” The girl is given no motive, voice, or selfhood; she exists to dramatize an aesthetic and moral point about proper “style.” She is pure spectacle and performance, symbol of a whole culture's incomprehensible otherness. As with all the other women in the book, there is no reconciling the gap of gender and, here, culture.

The only other detailed representation of a Viet person is the dead boy in “The Man I Killed,” which circles obsessively around the final fact and fetish of war: the dead and mutilated body. Here, the unrepresentable—death, Asian, enemy—is distinctly feminized, as if to underscore its absolute otherness. The story focuses on the narrator's speechlessness and his imaginative projection of the boy's life. True to his mission, he “saves” the soldier's life by dreaming it in a story, turning the screw even further to imagine “He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people” (144). The description of the body emphasizes feminine characteristics: he appears as “a slim, dead, almost dainty young man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar, maybe. … His eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman's, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers, and on the playground they mimicked a woman's walk and made fun of his smooth skin and his love for mathematics” (139, 142). Presumably, this feminization serves to express the man's ill-suitedness for war, and it helps humanize the enemy. Ultimately, though, the narrator's task is to harden himself to guilt and horror, to “pull your shit together … talk,” in the words of Kiowa. The almost homoerotic fixation on the dead men's body suggests the narcissism Eric Leeds, referring to Klaus Theweleit's study of Freikorps troops, finds at the heart of warrior culture. In one of the blurrings of the book, the narrator recognizes himself in the dead man but also makes him absolutely other, that is, womanly. Recovery from this trauma (conceived explicitly in the story as regaining a voice) rests on asserting the living, masculine self in opposition to the dead, silent, feminine other.


Representations of woman as inscrutable, uncomprehending, and dangerous are more fully developed in the longer Esquire stories. As the book unfolds, in fact, the masculine subject is constituted in opposition to femininity that becomes increasingly other: the woman who must be rejected because she cannot understand the male experience of war in “The Things They Carried,” the woman rendered both pitiable and contemptible because she does not understand in “How to Tell a True War Story,” and the woman who understands war too well, hence threatening male hegemony and phallic power in “Sweetheart in the Song Tra Bong.” It seems more than coincidental that the stories that most deeply probe and most emphatically reassert masculinity should appear in this glossy, upscale men's magazine famous, as Faludi puts it, for its “screeds against women.” The intended audience for this magazine (subtitled “Man at His Best”) is unabashedly male, and though O'Brien's stories rarely show men at their best, they do speak to a self-conscious and perhaps threatened masculinity. (Anyone familiar with Vietnam studies will also associate Esquire with a controversial and often-quoted article by William Broyles entitled “Why Men Love War.”) As with Playboy, the female reader opening these pages ventures into alien and dangerous territory. Ultimately, reading war, like experiencing, remembering, and writing it, is constructed as a masculine rite.

The narrative structure of these stories is very similar: alternating radically disjunctive passages of past and present, fiction and commentary, war and memory. The force that presumes to reconcile these dualities and overcome the confounding incommunicability of war is the writer's imagination, articulated from a masculine point of view. In both the opening and closing stories of the volume, imagination is linked to an idealized, unattainable woman—Martha, a girlfriend at home, and Linda, a childhood sweetheart who died at nine. The first story plays one of the many variations on the imagination-reality motif and picks up where O'Brien's earlier novel, Going After Cacciato, left off, with Paul Berlin imagining himself pleading for peace at the Paris Peace Talks but admitting: “Even in imagination we must be true to our obligations, for, even in imagination, obligation cannot be outrun. Imagination, like reality, has its limits” (378). “The Things They Carried” goes further to limit the imagination, asserting that in battle, “Imagination was a killer.” What this means, on one level, is that the nerve-wracking tension in the field could lead soldiers to imagine the worst or make a fatal mistake. But the story also establishes an inexorable equation: imagination = women = distraction = danger = death. The story's dramatic resolution turns on recovering masculine power by suppressing femininity in both female and male characters. Survival itself depends on excluding women from the masculine bond. In this first story, the renunciation of femininity is a sad but necessary cost of war, admitted only after real emotional struggle. It establishes a pattern, however, for the rest of the book.

“The Things They Carried” introduces the cast of Alpha Company and establishes their identity as a cohesive group, each manfully carrying his own weight but also sharing the burden of war. The story features Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the platoon's 24-year-old C. O., who fell into the war via ROTC. He is presented as a man of integrity, honesty, and deep compassion for his men, a cautious, somewhat stiff and unseasoned commander with no inherent lust for death and destruction. The story is fundamentally an initiation narrative whose tension lies in Jimmy Cross's need to deal with guilt and harden himself to battle realities, which are here distinctly differentiated from the realm of imagination. Jimmy Cross's story alternates with lyrical passages cataloguing all the “things” men at war carry, including “all the emotional baggage of men who might die.” These passages, echoing O'Brien's earlier constraints of “obligation,” insistently repeat the idea that “the things they carried were largely determined by necessity. … Necessity dictated” (4, 5).

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's survival and his coming of age as an effective soldier depend on letting go of all that is not necessary and immediate—here equated completely with the feminine, the romantic, the imaginary. Becoming a warrior entails a pattern of desire, guilt, and renunciation in relation to a woman. The story opens by describing in detail Jimmy Cross's most precious cargo:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure.


Martha's writing—and, implicitly, her reading of his war experience—are sexualized through association: her inability to respond to his love and his longing suggest the blank page of virginity in patriarchal discourse. Though Jimmy Cross tries to realize a connection with Martha through this sacramental/sexual ritual, she is represented as aloof and untouchable, a poet with “grey, neutral” eyes inhabiting “another world, which was not quite real.” Martha's words are never presented directly, but are paraphrased by the narrator, who reminds us twice that she never mentions the war in her letters. Like other women in the book, she represents all those back home who will never understand the warrior's trauma. In addition to the letters, Jimmy Cross carries two pictures of Martha and a good-luck charm—a stone Martha sent from the Jersey Shore, which he sometimes carries in his mouth; he also “humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.” As the story progresses, Martha—rather these metonymic objects signifying Martha—becomes a distraction from the immediate work of war and caring for his men. His mind wanders, usually into the realm of sexual fantasy: “Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin” (4). Memory and desire intertwine in a fantasy that fuses courage and virility and, by extension, fighting and writing upon her blank virgin page. In one of the book's several retrospective “should haves,” Jimmy Cross remembers a date with Martha and thinks “he should've done something brave. He should've carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long. He should've risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should've done” (6). We are meant to see the move from chivalry to sado-masochistic erotica as natural and understandable, because “He was just a kid at war, in love,” after all. That Jimmy Cross's sexual “bravery” might have been earned through violation and coercion is not considered in the story. The focus is on the male's empowering fantasy.

Jimmy Cross's distraction climaxes with the sniper shooting of Ted Lavender “on his way back from peeing.” Just before this incident, the company had waited tensely for Lee Strunk to emerge from clearing out a Vietcong tunnel. The language of sexual desire and union, coming just before Lee Strunk's “rising from the dead” and Lavender's death, links Jimmy's imagination of Martha—his merging with the feminine—with annihilation of the self. As he gazes suggestively down into the dark tunnel, he leaves the war and succumbs to a fantasy of perfect union between masculine and feminine, death and desire:

And then suddenly, without willing it, he was thinking about Martha. The stresses and fractures, the quick collapse, the two of them buried alive under all that weight. Dense, crushing love. Kneeling, watching the hole, he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all the dangers, but his love was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered. He wanted his to be a virgin and not a virgin, all at once. He wanted to know her.


Such unraveling of gender duality, however, is dangerous, such paradoxes unsustainable. At the moment of Jimmy's imagined dissolution, Ted Lavender is shot, As if to punish himself for daydreaming and forgetting “about matters of security”—but more deeply for abandoning his men in the desire to know the feminine—Jimmy Cross goes to the extreme of rejecting desire for Martha altogether. He reacts to the trauma of Lavender's death in two significant ways. The first is one of the book's parallel scenes of My Lai-like retribution, here bluntly told but not shown: “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They burned everything” (16). The second is guilt, entangled with anger that his love for Martha is unrequited. He reverts to a familiar binary choice—either Martha or his men: “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” (16)—his good luck charm transformed to the weight of guilt. That night he cries “for Ted Lavender” but also for the realization, or perhaps rationalization, that “Martha did not love him and never would.” Jimmy Cross regains a “mask of composure” necessary to survive war's horror, burns Martha's letters and photographs in a purgative ritual reversing the opening blessing, and wills himself to renounce Martha and all she signifies: “He hated her. Yes, he did. He hated her. Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love” (23). With this rejection and a newly hardened, terse idiom, Jimmy Cross completes his transformation: “He was a soldier, after all. … He was realistic about it. … He would be a man about it. … No more fantasies … from this point on he would comport himself as an officer … he would dispense with love; it was not now a factor” (23-24). His survival as a soldier and a leader depends upon absolute separation from the feminine world and rejection of his own femininity: “Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the day-dreams. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity” (24).

How are we meant to read this rejection? O'Brien is not blaming Martha for male suffering, for of course, the story isn't about Martha at all, though she introduces the book's protypical figure of the woman incapable of understanding war. Rather, he uses her to define “necessary” codes of male behavior in war and to establish Jimmy's “proper” bond with his men. We are given no rationale for why Jimmy perceives his choice in such absolute terms, nor are we invited to critique Jimmy for this rigidity, though we do pity him and recognize his naivete. Jimmy Cross's rejection of the feminine is portrayed as one of the burdensome but self-evident “necessities” of war, and O'Brien grants Jimmy this recognition: “It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.” Most sad and ironic of all, Jimmy ends up suffering alone because of his status as an officer: “He would show strength, distancing himself.” Jimmy Cross's allegorical initials even encourage us to read his youthful renunciation in Christian terms.

At the very end, however, masculine bonds prevail and compensate for Jimmy's losses. O'Brien places the men of Alpha Company in a larger cultural landscape of men without women by alluding to cowboy movies and Huckleberry Finn: “He might just shrug and say, Carry on, then they would saddle up and form into a column and move out toward to villages west of Than Khe.” The narrative voice here is very carefully distinguished from the characters, and it is hard to know how to take the conditional “might” and the self-conscious diction: as parody? as straight allusion? as Jimmy Cross's self-deluding macho fantasy? One possibility is that O'Brien means to expose and critique the social construction of masculinity, suggesting that soldiers' behavior in Vietnam is conditioned by years of John Wayne movies, as indeed numerous veterans' memoirs attest is true. Likewise, the story unmasks the soldiers' macho “stage presence,” “pose,” and “hard vocabulary”: “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to”; they do what they “felt they had to do.” But these constructions are inevitably converted into behavior that seems natural and inevitable—“necessary”—within the ur-story underlying all war stories: the tragic destruction of male innocence. O'Brien's depth as a writer allows him to reveal the socialized nature of soldiering and to show compassion for the vulnerable men behind the pose. But he stops short of undoing and revising these constructions. In the end, men are how they act, just as they are their stories and culture is its myths. The story rescues the humanity of men at war and consigns femininity to the margins, thus assuring the seamless continuity and endless repetition of masculine war stories.

Because Tim O'Brien's characters live so fully for him he is impelled to follow up the story of Jimmy Cross and Martha with a vignette, “Love.” Like George Willard, the lonely but ever-receptive narrator of Winesburg, Ohio, O'Brien portrays himself as the burdened repository of other people's stories. Here Jimmy Cross comes to visit character-narrator Tim O'Brien “many years after the war” to talk about “all the things we still carried through our lives.” One thing Jimmy Cross still carries is a torch for Martha, and he shows the narrator a copy of the same photograph he had burned after Ted Lavender's death. The story embedded in the story concerns his meeting with Martha at a college reunion. Now a Lutheran missionary nurse serving in Third World countries, she responds to Jimmy with the same friendly but aloof demeanor that marked her letters during the war. She gives him another copy of the photo to gaze at and reveals “she had never married … and probably never would. She didn't know why. But as she said this, her eyes seemed to slide sideways, and it occurred to him that there were things about her he would never know” (30). Despite her continuing inscrutability and distance, Jimmy risks telling Martha that “he'd almost done something brave” back in college, and he describes his knee-stroking fantasy. Martha's ambivalent reaction widens the gulf between men and women and hints, with Hemingway-like ellipses, that she is either repressed, fearful, uninterested, or a lesbian; in any case, she is unreceptive to Jimmy's advances, which absolves him from any failings or flaws as a masculine sexual being:

Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things. At breakfast the next morning she told him she was sorry. She explained that there was nothing she could do about it, and he said he understood, and then she laughed and gave him the picture and told him not to burn this one up.


What are “the things men do?” In the context of this pair of stories, these things are both sexual and violent. Jimmy passes this story on to the narrator, joking that “Maybe she'll read it and come begging.” But he leaves more concerned about the reader's response than Martha's, with a plea that Tim depict him positively, as if he still hadn't exorcised his guilt over Lavender's death: “‘Make me out to be a good guy, okay? Brave and handsome, all that stuff. Best platoon leader ever.’ He hesitated for a second. ‘And do me a favor. Don't mention anything about—’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I won't’” (31). O'Brien teases us with an indeterminate ending; if he is true to his word, then he hasn't revealed “anything about—” Jimmy's secret, and we are left wondering. If the writer has, in fact, betrayed Jimmy in the course of the retelling, we cannot be sure what it is we were not meant to know and why Jimmy wants to suppress it. In either case, the men wordlessly understand each other, and the reader is an outsider. Like Jake Barnes hungering impotently after Lady Brett, Jimmy continues to suffer from Martha's unattainability. As in the previous story, we are allowed to glimpse the gap between the mask and the face, the wounded man behind the masculine pose. But Martha is barely more than a plot device signifying Jimmy's life of virility and innocence destroyed by the war.


If traditional manhood is tenuously constructed and tragically vitiated in these first two stories, it is ferociously reasserted in “How to Tell a True War Story.” This story replays a version of the retribution scene first enacted after Ted Lavender's death. Again, the objective is deep compassion for the anguish and loss the men feel. And once more, male powerlessness is overcome through the repulsion of femininity. Here, though, the characters cope with lost innocence through explicitly misogynist reactions. It is as if the deeper men get “carried” into war (and the deeper we get into the book), the more they define themselves in opposition to the feminine.

The most self-reflexive story in the volume and the most confrontational toward the reader, O'Brien's narrative oscillates here between a core war story (“This is true”), stories within the story (“I had to make up a few things”), and aphoristic reflections on truth and fact (“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth”; “truths are contradictory”). The central story presented from several overlapping perspectives, concerns Rat Kiley's reaction to the sudden death by booby trap of his friend, Curt Lemon. Again, the medium of misreading is a letter—that important signifier of connection to “the world” in so much war literature. In his grief, Rat “pours his heart out” in a letter to Curt's sister: “So what happens? Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back” (76). At this point, the narrator is paraphrasing Rat's language. In the metafictional section immediately following, the narrator ascribes the obscenity directly to Rat Kiley and analyzes it:

… you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He's nineteen years old—it's too much for him—so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it's so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.


Stepping outside the story to give us a lesson in mimesis, the narrator's rationale for “obscenity and evil” is that he's simply telling it like it is, realistically rendering the soldier's idiom. Yet matter-of-fact description turns to sympathy, and then to blame, as he aligns himself with Rat while cautioning the uninitiated (implicitly female) reader: “If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.” (Dirty, of course, means derogatory reference to the female body.) It turns out that Rat Kiley's propensity for aggressively sexist language is our fault. Within the story, the blame certainly lies with the sister: “The dumb cooze never writes back.” He is excused, like Jimmy Cross and many other characters, because he's “just a boy”—a recurring line throughout the book that manages to convey both irony and sympathy.

Retribution in this story gets played out against an image of suffering innocence—a “baby VC water buffalo”—which Rat Kiley slowly tortures by shooting it body part by body part until “Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous” (echoing the description of Rat's own “big sad gentle killer eyes”). The men stand by watching and then dump the baby buffalo into the village well, a symbol of devouring feminine sexuality as menacing as Jimmy Cross's tunnel. “We had witnessed something essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling that there was not yet a name for it” (86). Mitchell Sanders comments, “that's Nam … Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin's real fresh and original.” Such hyperbole makes for a good war story, but one might question whether such “evil” in a war is in fact anything new and why its discovery is always a revelation. In any event, the question of evil as a moral category is rendered moot by narrative commentary that insists in the amorality of war stories (this dialectic between Mitchell Sanders and the narrator is a continuing thread in the book): “If a story seems moral, do not believe it.” Instead, we are asked to contemplate the “aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference.” War is presented as a self-contained, inevitable, a-political, and purely “essential” masculine reality; all the imagination can do here is play endless riffs on its themes and images. For Sanders, the “moral” is that “Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothin'. Like that fatass colonel. The politicians, all the civilian types. Your girlfriend. My girlfriend. Everybody's sweet little virgin girlfriend” (83). Such distinctions preserve the absolute dichotomy of masculinity and femininity and perpetuate a mystique of war that only male comrades can comprehend.

We might forgive Rat Kiley for being young, hurt, ignorant, and an unwitting product of his culture, as we are asked to forgive Jimmy Cross for being “just a boy.” But as Lynne Hanley points out, the appeal to such sympathy, one recurrent strategy upholding masculine innocence in war literature, rests on “the idea that men go to war not really knowing that killing other people is what war is all about. And the story that keeps this idea alive and close to our hearts is the story of the soldier's tragic discovery on the battlefield that what he is a part of is killing. … This fiction of the independent agency of war … lifts the burden of guilt from the men who declare and organize war, as well as from those who actually carry the guns and drive the tanks and drop the bombs” (27, 29). Such an unraveling, however, does not seem to be O'Brien's intent. As in “The Things They Carried,” recuperation of masculinity is achieved through the third-party mediation of a woman outside the war zone—first the sister who didn't write back, then the reader who doesn't listen. The coda complicates our response to the story's obscenity and reiterates hostility against women, who are categorically denied the ability to understand war. O'Brien deliberately calls attention to gender difference in this passage, putting the female reader in the uncomfortable position of being told she has no hope of grasping the “true war story,” let alone learning “how to write” it. Her reading up to this point is thus invalidated, and she is cast out along with Kathleen, Martha, and Sally, Curt Lemon's sister and the older woman at the reading:

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It's always a woman. Usually it's an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She'll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can't understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she'll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

I won't say it but I'll think it.

I'll picture Rat Kiley's face, his grief, and I'll think, You dumb cooze.

Because she wasn't listening.


The sole function of this postscript is to solidify the male bond and ridicule and reject the feminine, which it does with stunning hostility. The woman's “kindly temperament” and “humane politics” are rendered naive and unrealistic; her sadness at the death of the baby buffalo is simplistic and sentimental; her “little tears” are diminutive, inappropriate. The narrator closes the male storytelling circle by appropriating Rat Kiley's obscene term to create his own bond with his comrade-characters and his male audience and to put distance between himself and his female reader. “A true war story,” we are informed, is a “love story,” which, according to this story, can only tell of love between men. The narrator asserts unequivocally in the last line that “a true war story” is “about sisters who never write back and people who never listen” (91).


Rat Kiley figures prominently again as the authoritative witness of the book's most disturbing story, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Premised on an elaborately far-fetched “what if,” the story unsettles and stretches our ability to suspend disbelief precisely because it is calculated to overturn conventional gender roles: suppose a soldier were to “ship his honey over to Nam … import [his] own personal poontang.” The absolute incongruity of having a woman enter the male sanctuary of war reinforces the extent to which culture constructs war as an all-male activity. The story counts on the reader's cognitive dissonance when faced with this image and trades heavily on its novelty and shock effect. As usual, O'Brien layers and fractures his narrative and mixes tones—strategies that mask the gender drama with a struggle over epistemological uncertainty and aesthetic indeterminacy. Framed by the narrator but close to Rat's perspective, the story follows Rat's effort to get it right, to “bracket the full range of meaning” for his incredulous friends. But Rat's story, part of which he heard second-hand and part of which he experienced, comes with the narrator's disclaimer that Rat has a reputation for “exaggeration and overstatement” and may be biased because he “loved her.” By the end, the story has the feel of a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale in the oral culture of soldiers—the kind of story usually punctuated at the end with the enigmatic “there it is.” Within the self-reflexive frame of the story, the actions Rat recounts for the narrator may or may not have happened; as always in this book, we are cantioned against looking for mimetic or factual truth and led toward accepting the emotional truth constructed by the imagination. To the interlocutors within the text, and to the narrator who is almost always complicit with his own characters, this has the ring of a “true war story” because it solidifies the masculine hegemony of war and casts out the monstrous woman who dares to appropriate masculine codes of behavior.

“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is further complicated by its literary self-consciousness, for it can be read as a gendered and perhaps parodic version of Heart of Darkness and its derivative retelling, Apocalypse Now—those explorations of the imperialist male psyche gone off the deep end. Here, inscrutable evil and cultural otherness are collapsed into the figure of a woman. The story is less concerned with what motivates the Kurtz figure, however, than with defending men's homosocial bonds against all threat of feminine invasion. As in other Esquire stories, the figure of a woman is the other against which masculine identity and innocence are sympathetically defined. Here, though, the woman is distinctly not, as Rat points out, like “all those girls back home, how clean and innocent they all are, how they'll never understand any of this, not in a billion years” (123). O'Brien's ingenious twist is to create a woman who understands war because “she was there. She was up to her eyeballs in it.” Of course, being there and understanding war are only conceived in masculine terms—fighting—rather than any of the other roles women actually did play in Vietnam, for the masculine point of view prevails here. The story appears to be deconstructing gender difference by imagining a woman warrior, suggesting that even women can be corrupted by war. In fact, though, it portrays the woman as more masculine than the men, hence monstrous and unnatural. She can finally be tamed only within a masculine narrative. Characteristically, Rat gives the story a moral: “You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it's never the same. A question of degree” (123). The “degree” to which people are transformed by war, however, turns on the difference of gender in this story. Gender difference temporarily blurs but ultimately gets resolved into the old oppositions, and women are warned against disrupting patriarchal order and assuming power assigned to men.

Rat's story takes place at an obscure outpost where he once served as medic, a liminal place where the men are free to bend military rules, where basketball, beer, and easy camaraderie help pass the time between incoming emergencies. Beyond the medical station is a Green Beret base inhabited by six “Greenies,” who are “not social animals.” This positioning is significant, for it begins to define “normal” and transgressive behavior in the story. The Greenies are associated with nature; Rat claims they were “animals … but far from social.” Exuding an almost supernatural aura of power and authority, the special forces disappear and then “magically reappear, moving like shadows through the moonlight, filing in silently from the dense rain forest off to the west.” The medics keep their distance and “no one asked questions.” The base's NCO, Eddie Diamond, sets the plot in motion with a “joke”: “What they should do, Eddie said, was pool some bucks and bring in a few mama-sans from Saigon, spice things up.” Mark Fossie, a young medic, is taken with the idea, saying that all it would take is “a pair of solid brass balls.” The phallic reference is reiterated when Eddie Diamond “told him he'd best strap down his dick.” Six weeks later, the men are astonished when Mark's childhood sweetheart, Mary Anne Bell, shows up. After a heavy silence, someone says, simply, “That fucker.”

In the beginning, Mary Anne is represented as a parody of the all-American girl and “sweetheart” pin-up, both innocent and sexual. Seventeen and “just barely out of high school,” she shows up in “white culottes and this sexy pink sweater.” Rat dwells on the details of her appearance: “long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like strawberry ice cream.” She and Mark dote on each other, sharing their American dream of a perfect house, a perfect family, a perfect future. They set up house “in one of the bunkers along the perimeter,” on the border between civilization and the Greenies' wilderness. No mere sex symbol, however, Mary Anne has “a bubbly personality” and “a quick mind,” and she quickly develops an interest in the art of jungle warfare. Her interest is seen as naive at first, for she seems comically unaware of danger. Eddie Diamond comments, “D-cup guts, trainer-bra brains” but then warns ominously, “this girl will most definitely learn.” Unlike all the other women in the book, Mary Anne asks questions and listens carefully. Her interest, however, has nothing to do with strategy or politics. Clearly, she is stimulated by entry to a place both exotic and masculine, beyond the constrictive boundaries of conventional society: “The war intrigued her. The land, too, and the mystery.” In his description, which reveals a protective sort of love for Mary Anne, Rat simultaneously erases and calls attention to gender difference: “Like you and me. A girl, that's the only difference, and I'll tell you something: it didn't amount to jack. I mean, when we first got here—all of us—we were real young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty damn quick. And so did Mary Anne” (108). Like Conrad's dark continent, “Nam” is represented as an external force that changes innocent Westerners forever.

As Mary Anne “learns” about Vietnam, the narrator's descriptions change from conventionally feminine to more masculine terms: she displays “tight, intelligent focus,” “confidence in her voice, a new authority in the way she carried herself.” Mark is first proud and amazed at her competence, then uncomfortable and angry. “Her body seemed foreign somehow—too stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be. The bubbliness was gone. The nervous giggling, too” (110). As in other stories, the male's confusion is explained by the fact that he's “just a boy—eighteen years old” (111). Mary Anne starts helping out in the operating room, learning how to fire an M-16, and eventually disappearing at night. At first Mark thinks she's sleeping with someone else, but eventually discovers the incredible fact that “Mary Anne's out on fuckin' ambush” with the Greenies. When she first returns from such a mission, Mark “had trouble recognizing her. She wore a bush hat and filthy green fatigues; she carried the standard M-16 automatic assault rifle; her face was black with charcoal” (113), and from this point on the narrative emphasizes how much she changes and how disruptive these changes are to masculine identity and community. Mark temporarily reestablishes patriarchal order by announcing their engagement, but when he starts making arrangements to send Mary Anne home, she disappears for three weeks into “that no-man's land between Cleveland Heights and deep jungle.” When she returns, it is as one of the shadows that “float across the surface of the earth, like spirits, vaporous and unreal,” disappearing into the Special Forces hootch. No longer a “social animal,” she is “lost” forever to Mark and his control, passing over to the other side where hypermasculinity merges with the mysterious jungle.

Mark becomes emasculated in inverse proportion to Mary Anne's increasing autonomy, as if her transformation deprives him of his own traditional eighteen-year-old initiation into manhood. He makes a final stand one day outside the Special Forces area, telling Rat he'll “bring her out.” By nightfall, “Fossie's face was slick with sweat. He looked sick. His eyes were bloodshot; his skin had a whitish, almost colorless cast.” At midnight, Rat and Eddie Diamond find “the kid” transfixed by a weird music “like the noise of nature” accompanied by “a woman's voice … half singing, half chanting … the lyrics seemed to be in a foreign tongue” (118). The three men enter the hooch and find Mary Anne surrounded by accoutrements of dark pagan worship: candles, tribal music with “a weird deep-wilderness sound,” and a “stench … thick and numbing, like an animal's den, a mix of blood and scorched hair and excrement and the sweet-sour odor of moldering flesh—the stink of the kill.” In one corner impaled on a post is “the decayed head of a large black leopard.” Everywhere there are “stacks of bones—all kinds” and propped against a wall stands a poster: “ASSEMBLE YOUR OWN GOOK!! FREE SAMPLE KIT!!” This scene invites comparison with Coppola's almost camp representation of Kurtz's jungle compound, and one is not sure whether to laugh at the special effects or take them as serious depictions of transgression. In any event, when the men find Mary Anne, it is clear that her change is complete. Not only is she no longer feminine, but she is no longer human, as if a woman “perfectly at peace with herself” is no “person” at all, or no one the men can recognize: “It took a few seconds, Rat said, to appreciate the full change. In part it was her eyes: utterly flat and indifferent. There was no emotion in her stare, no sense of the person behind it. But the grotesque part, he said, was her jewelry. At the girl's throat was a necklace of human tongues. Elongated and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather, the tongues were threaded along a length of copper wire, one overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill syllable” (120).

The necklace of tongues conveys multiple meanings. It is linked with other references to Mary Anne's entry to another language outside patriarchy: “a foreign tongue,” “a woman's voice rising up in a language beyond translation.” It is clearly part of the animal, natural world, beyond social order. Like Medusa's snakes, the necklace emphasizes an enforcing, stony silence. Mary Anne literally wears her own “gook” parts on her body, an image reminiscent of the more common string of ears collected as souvenirs by soldiers in many Vietnam war stories but more horrific, because they are decoratively flaunted. Tongues carry a multiplicitous sexual charge, suggesting both male and female genitalia, hetero- and homoerotic sexually. Her power is a particularly feminized form of monstrousness, a form of “jewelry” both alluring and threatening to castrate Mark's “solid brass balls.” Once the men realize Mary Anne has transgressed the bounds of patriarchal propriety and order, “there was nothing to be done.” They leave her in her lair, but not before she is granted one soliloquy that in fact explains nothing to the men except her absolute inscrutability and animalism, the voracious death-loving maw she has become. To the reader—particularly the female reader—the passage inverts the book's repeated pattern of blaming women for not understanding the war; here, the woman knows more than the men, and knowing is essentialized in terms of the female body:

‘You just don't know’ she said. ‘You hide in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don't know what it's all about. Sometimes I want to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country—the dirt, the death—I just want to eat it and have it there inside me. That's how I feel. It's like … this appetite. I get scared sometimes—lots of times—but it's not bad. You know? I feel close to myself. When I'm out there at night, I feel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and my fingernails, everything, it's like I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark—I'm on fire almost—I'm burning away into nothing—but it doesn't matter because I know exactly who I am. You can't feel like that anywhere else. (121)

Indeed, Mary Anne has entered the only place where female language, autonomy, sexuality, and power make sense—beyond culture into an untranslatable heart of darkness and horror. If a reading of the story stopped here, it might appear to be a feminist assertion of semiotic power disrupting patriarchal symbolic order, a deconstruction of the myths of the American sweetheart and the American Dream suggesting that we are all complicit in the fall from innocence into the “Garden of Evil” that is Vietnam. O'Brien sounds theoretically sophisticated in such a passage, as if he's read plenty of French feminism. Rat himself sounds like a protofeminist in his commentary, once again appearing to erase gender difference while in fact emphasizing it: “She was a girl, that's all. I mean, if it was a guy, everybody'd say Hey, no big deal, he got caught up in the Nam shit, he got seduced by the Greenies. See what I mean? You got these blinders on about women. How gentle and peaceful they are. All that crap about how if we had a pussy for president there wouldn't be no more wars. Pure garbage. You got to get rid of that sexist attitude” (117). Aside from Rat's use of sexist language to critique sexism, it is important to note two things. First, Mary Anne's subjectivity, although given brief voice in the preceding passage, is never fully imagined. She is given no motive for her change and exists to register the men's reactions to her—both in the original story and in its retelling by both Rat and the narrator. Ultimately, what we understand about her is that the men do not understand her. Second, she ends up outside the social order altogether, “glowing in the dark” but also “burning away into nothing,” her power unassimilated and ineffective: “And then one morning Mary Anne walked off into the mountains and did not come back.” Unlike Coppola's Kurtz and Oliver Stone's Barnes in Platoon, ritualistically sacrificed because of their transgressions, she disappears into a disembodied spook story: “If you believed the Greenies, Rat said, Mary Anne was still somewhere out there in the dark … She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous, She was ready for the kill” (125). O'Brien cannot imagine an ending for such a story; Mary Anne is never elevated to the level of tragic heroine, but remains a sort of macabre, B-movie “joke,” good for a nervous laugh among the men. Ultimately, her change changes nothing.

In the end, social order is restored and male homosocial bonds are re-established, exchanged—according to Sedgwick's paradigm—through the medium of Mary Anne's story. Even the segregated medics and the Greenies come together, because the final installment of Mary Anne's story is passed from one of the Greenies and Eddie Diamond to Rat Kiley to the Tim O'Brien narrator. Through storytelling, the men close ranks and banish the woman beyond the periphery of civilization. Having appropriated masculine power within a female body, she is seen as “dangerous” to the social order and becomes “part of the land.” The men are allowed to maintain their image of the war-making female as an aberration from the norm, but Mary Anne is denied the freedom or power to tell her own story. Unlike the ending of Apocalypse Now, where Kurtz's embrace of “the horror” brings about either total chaos or cathartic purgation (depending on which version you see), Mary Anne's savagery and monstrousness function to solidify male bonds and validate the humanity of the more “normal” soldiers. She carries to the furthest extreme the book's pattern of excluding women from the storytelling circle.


In the story that closes the book, “The Lives of the Dead,” O'Brien makes a turn toward wholeness, closure, and regeneration. Here, for once, the feminine occupies a position in the same precious realm of the imagination as the masculine, although alternating sections again keep the war stories, the childhood stories, and the present-day metafictional commentary separate. The imagination, which was so dangerously distracting in “The Things They Carried,” is now a force that keeps the dead alive and integrates the self by mixing memory and desire, “bringing body and soul back together,” unifying through the shaping force of language and narrative form, “a little kid, twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow” (265). The narrator alternates in this story two primal experiences of death: his view of a Vietcong corpse on his fourth day in Vietnam, and his experience of love and loss at age nine. The story resurrects Linda, his fourth grade sweetheart, who died of a brain tumor. In retrospect, he imagines their first love as “pure knowing,” imbued with the knowledge that “beyond language … we were sharing something huge and permanent” (259). At this point in the book, the concept of merging wholly with another through “pure knowing” has accumulated the weight of fear (Jimmy Cross and Martha) and danger (Mary Anne and the war), both of which are also associated with transgressing normal gender codes and dissolving the socially constructed self. Here, the impulse seems to be to idealize youthful passion, distinguishing it from more frightening forms of grown-up “knowing.” The narrator remembers that, in fact, his urge to tell stories has always been connected with resuscitating the dead. Grieving after Linda's death, he dreams of Linda coming back to comfort him: “Timmy, stop crying. It doesn't matter.” In the months following, he begins to make up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive and call her into his dreams. He writes the stories down and in their vividness they become real. He gives Linda a voice (which of course is only his own dream voice, the feminine within himself) and imagines her expressing herself with a literary metaphor, once more reinforcing the connection between gender and writing/storytelling, with the female figured as absence: “‘Well, right now,’ she said, ‘I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like … I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading.” The strategy stuck with him, for “In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead.” The most important way, the book makes clear, is to both read and write the dead by telling stories woven “in the spell of memory and imagination.”

“The Lives of the Dead” reverses the book's opening story, “The Things They Carried,” for here the imagination, linked with the memory of a girl, is not a dangerous force but is redemptive and regenerative. The story also moves beyond the antagonistic polarity of gender that marks the other Esquire stories. Linda is forever innocent and forever young, an idealized Laura or Beatrice or Annabel Lee who comes when bidden as muse for the narrator's cathartic stories. Although it sounds ungenerous to critique such a moving and lovely story, one must wonder whether the book's only positive and unthreatening representation of femininity is possible because she is forever pre-pubescent, safely encased in memory, dream, death, and narrative. Unlike Martha or Mary Anne or Curt Lemon's sister, she never grows up to be a castrating “cooze” or savage monster. She never touches the war, thus never intrudes upon his homosocial bonds; rather, the narrator uses her, as male writers have always used female muses, to find his voice and arrive at his own understanding of his traumas. In the context of all the other war stories in the book, Linda still functions as part of a triangle; she is the mediator that facilitates the narrator's reconciliation with his own past in Vietnam and his recovery of a whole self. It is tempting to read that self as universally human, but the force of the whole preceding book cautions us that it is a masculine self wounded in war and recovered in war stories. Woman can only play dead or absent muse to the central masculine subject.

The Things They Carried contributes significantly to the canon of Vietnam War fiction. It is a remarkable treatment of the epistemology of writing and the psychology of soldiering. It dismantles many stereotypes that have dominated Hollywood treatments of the Vietnam War and distorted our understanding: the basket-case veteran (the book's narrator is reasonably well-adjusted), the macho war lover (characters such as Azar are presented as extreme aberrations), the callous officer (Jimmy Cross is fallible and sympathetic), the soldier as victim of government machinations, the peace movement, or apathetic civilians. The book probes the vulnerability of soldiers betrayed by cultural myths and registers how deeply war in our culture is a gendered activity. But O'Brien inscribes no critique of his characters' misogyny or the artificial binary opposition of masculinity and femininity, no redefinition of power, no fissure in the patriarchal discourse of war. However ambiguous and horrible Vietnam may be, and however many new combinations of memory, fact, and imagination O'Brien composes, war is still presented as an inevitable, natural phenomenon deeply meaningful to the male psyche and hostile to femininity. More pernicious, these stories seem to warn women readers away from any empathetic grasp of “the things men do.” Feminist playwright Karen Malpede shares Tim O'Brien's conception of the power of stories and the imagination, but she goes further to critique the very structures of thought and social organization that support war: “I mean quite literally that we need new rites, new myths, new tales of our beginnings, new stories that speak of new options open to us. The task before us is a task of the imagination, for whatever we are able to imagine we will also be able to become” (Gioseffi 132). Lynne Hanley echoes this idea, with a warning: “As a product of the imagination, literature has the potential to disrupt and transform the belligerent passions that permeate our culture. But literature also has its feet in the mud, and all too often our books, or our responses to them, encourage us instead to think bayonets” (35). Tim O'Brien's imaginative flights are heady, but his exclusion of women as readers and as characters finally reveals a failure of the imagination and muddy, clay feet.


  1. Like Toni Morrison's Beloved, The Things They Carried is fueled by the problem of how to tell stories about unspeakable trauma and how to make peace with the ghosts of the dead. This comparison sheds light on how texts and narrative strategies are gendered. Morrison's narrative of “re-memory” circles around the central story in a complex interplay of voices and sub-stories; its impulse is generous, inclusive, and collective, aimed at regeneration for a whole community as well as Sethe and her traumatized family. For a fuller treatment of this idea in Morrison, see Linda Krumholz. O'Brien's stories, as I hope to show, deal with trauma and the threat to the masculine subject by excluding women, both as readers and as characters. Though storytelling often reinforces camaraderie and redeems the solitary narrator, it does not include a whole community traumatized by the Vietnam War, nor does it attempt, as Morrison's story does, to recover a collective repressed history.

  2. For elaborations on the ways Vietnam War literature has worked to rehabilitate male veterans and masculinity, see Susan Jeffords, Jacqueline Lawson, and Lorrie Smith. Lynne Hanley explores female alternatives to “belligerent” narratives.

Works Cited

Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Broyles, William. “Why Men Love War.” Esquire (Nov 84): 55-65.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women. New York: Crown, 1991.

Gioseffi, Daniela, Ed. Women on War: Essential Voices for the Nuclear Age. New York: Touchstone, 1988.

Hanley, Lynne. Writing War: Fiction, Gender, and Memory. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1991.

Harris, Robert R. “Too Embarrassed Not to Kill.” Review of The Things They Carried. New York Times Book Review 11 Mar 1990.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Krumholz, Linda. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison's Beloved.” African American Review 26:3 (Fall, 92): 395-408.

Lawson, Jacqueline. “‘She's a Pretty Woman … for a Gook’: The Misogyny of the Vietnam War.” In Philip K. Jason, ed. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to the Literature of the Vietnam War. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.

Lomperis, Timothy. “Reading the Wind”: The Literature of the Vietnam War. Durham: Duke UP, 1987.

Naperstock, Martin. “An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” Contemporary Literature 32:1 (Spring 91): 1-11.

O'Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Dell, 1978.

———. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Smith, Lorrie. “Back Against the Wall: Anti-Feminist Backlash in Vietnam War Literature.” Vietnam Generation 1:3-4 (Summer-Fall, 1989): 115-126. Special issue on “Gender and the War: Men, Women, and Vietnam.

Tal, Kali. “Feminist Criticism and the Literature of the Vietnam Combat Veteran.” Vietnam Generation 1:3-4 (Summer-Fall, 1989): 190-202.

———. “Speaking the Language of Pain: Vietnam War Literature in the Context of a Literature of Trauma.” In Philip K. Jason, ed. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991.

Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies Trans. Stephen Conway in collaboration with Erica Carter and Chris Turner. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Catherine Calloway (essay date summer 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Calloway, Catherine. “‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.Critique 36, no. 4 (summer 1995): 249-57.

[In the following essay, Calloway provides a stylistic analysis of The Things They Carried, regarding the volume as a work of contemporary metafiction.]

Tim O'Brien's most recent book, The Things They Carried, begins with a litany of items that the soldiers “hump” in the Vietnam War—assorted weapons, dog tags, flak jackets, ear plugs, cigarettes, insect repellent, letters, can openers, C-rations, jungle boots, maps, medical supplies, and explosives as well as memories, reputations, and personal histories. In addition, the reader soon learns, the soldiers also carry stories: stories that connect “the past to the future” (40), stories that can “make the dead talk” (261), stories that “never seem … to end” (83), stories that are “beyond telling” (79), and stories “that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane” (101). Although perhaps few of the stories in The Things They Carried are as brief as the well-known Vietnam War tale related by Michael Herr in Dispatches—“‘Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened,’”(6)—many are in their own way as enigmatic. The tales included in O'Brien's twenty-two chapters range from several lines to many pages and demonstrate well the impossibility of knowing the reality of the war in absolute terms. Sometimes stories are abandoned, only to be continued pages or chapters later. At other times, the narrator begins to tell a story, only to have another character finish the tale. Still other stories are told as if true accounts, only for their validity to be immediately questioned or denied. O'Brien draws the reader into the text, calling the reader's attention to the process of invention and challenging him to determine which, if any, of the stories are true. As a result, the stories become epistemological tools, multidimensional windows through which the war, the world, and the ways of telling a war story can be viewed from many different angles and visions.

The epistemological ambivalence of the stories in The Things They Carried is reinforced by the book's ambiguity of style and structure. What exactly is The Things They Carried in terms of technique? Many reviewers refer to the work as a series of short stories, but it is much more than that. The Things They Carried is a combat novel, yet it is not a combat novel. It is also a blend of traditional and untraditional forms—a collection, Gene Lyons says, of “short stories, essays, anecdotes, narrative fragments, jokes, fables, biographical and autobiographical sketches, and philosophical asides” (52). It has been called both “a unified narrative with chapters that stand perfectly on their own” (Coffey 60) and a series of “22 discontinuous sections” (Bawer A13).

Also ambiguous is the issue of how much of the book is autobiography. The relationship between fiction and reality arises early in the text when the reader learns the first of many parallels that emerge as the book progresses: that the protagonist and narrator, like the real author of The Things They Carried, is named Tim O'Brien. Both the real and the fictional Tim O'Brien are in their forties and are natives of Minnesota, writers who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Macalester College, served as grunts in Vietnam after having been drafted at age twenty-one, attended graduate school at Harvard University, and wrote books entitled If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. Other events of the protagonist's life are apparently invention. Unlike the real Tim O'Brien, the protagonist has a nine-year-old daughter named Kathleen and makes a return journey to Vietnam years after the war is over.1 However, even the other supposedly fictional characters of the book sound real because of an epigraph preceding the stories that states, “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa,” leading the reader to wonder if the men of Alpha Company are real or imaginary.

Clearly O'Brien resists a simplistic classification of his latest work. In both the preface to the book and in an interview with Elizabeth Mehren, he terms The Things They Carried “‘fiction … a novel’” (Mehren E1), but in an interview with Martin Naparsteck, he refers to the work as a “sort of half novel, half group of stories. It's part nonfiction, too,” he insists (7). And, as Naparsteck points out, the work “resists easy categorization: it is part novel, part collection of stories, part essays, part journalism; it is, more significantly, all at the same time” (1).

As O'Brien's extensive focus on storytelling indicates, The Things They Carried is also a work of contemporary metafiction, what Robert Scholes first termed fabulation or “ethically controlled fantasy” (3). According to Patricia Waugh,

Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.


Like O'Brien's earlier novel, the critically acclaimed Going After Cacciato,2The Things They Carried considers the process of writing; it is, in fact, as much about the process of writing as it is the text of a literary work. By examining imagination and memory, two main components that O'Brien feels are important to a writer of fiction (Schroeder 143), and by providing so many layers of technique in one work, O'Brien delves into the origins of fictional creation. In focusing so extensively on what a war story is or is not, O'Brien writes a war story as he examines the process of writing one. To echo what Philip Beidler has stated about Going After Cacciato, “the form” of The Things They Carried thus becomes “its content” (172); the medium becomes the message.

“I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now,” O'Brien's protagonist states periodically throughout the book, directly referring to his role as author and to the status of his work as artifice. “Much of it [the war] is hard to remember,” he comments. “I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening” (36). The “rehappening” takes the form of a number of types of stories: some happy, some sad, some peaceful, some bloody, some wacky. We learn of Ted Lavender, who is “zapped while zipping” (17) after urinating, of the paranoid friendship of Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk, of the revenge plot against Bobby Jorgenson, an unskilled medic who almost accidentally kills the narrator, of the moral confusion of the protagonist who fishes on the Rainy River and dreams of desertion to Canada, and Mary Ann Bell, Mark Fossie's blue-eyed, blonde, seventeen-year-old girlfriend, who is chillingly attracted to life in a combat zone.

Some stories only indirectly reflect the process of writing; other selections include obvious metafictional devices. In certain sections of the book, entire chapters are devoted to discussing form and technique. A good example is “Notes,” which elaborates on “Speaking of Courage,” the story that precedes it. The serious reader of the real Tim O'Brien's fiction recognizes “Speaking of Courage” as having first been published in the Summer 1976 issue of Massachusetts Review.3 This earlier version of the story plays off chapter 14 of Going After Cacciato, “Upon Almost Winning the Silver Star,” in which the protagonist, Paul Berlin, is thinking about how he might have won the Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam had he had the courage to rescue Frenchie Tucker, a character shot while searching a tunnel. However, in The Things They Carried's version of “Speaking of Courage,” the protagonist is not Paul Berlin, but Norman Bowker, who wishes he had had the courage to save Kiowa, a soldier who dies in a field of excrement during a mortar attack.4 Such shifts in character and events tempt the reader into textual participation, leading him to question the ambiguous nature of reality. Who really did not win the Silver Star for bravery? Paul Berlin, Norman Bowker, or Tim O'Brien? Who actually needed saving? Frenchie Tucker or Kiowa? Which version of the story, if either, is accurate? The inclusion of a metafictional chapter presenting the background behind the tale provides no definite answers or resolutions. We learn that Norman Bowker, who eventually commits suicide, asks the narrator to compose the story and that the author has revised the tale for inclusion in The Things They Carried because a postwar story is more appropriate for the later book than for Going After Cacciato. However, O'Brien's admission that much of the story is still invention compels the reader to wonder about the truth. The narrator assures us that the truth is that “Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night … or lose the Silver Star for valor” (182). Can even this version be believed? Was there really a Norman Bowker, or is he, too, only fictional?

Even more significant, the reader is led to question the reality of many, if not all, of the stories in the book. The narrator insists that the story of Curt Lemon's death, for instance, is “all exactly true” (77), then states eight pages later that he has told Curt's story previously—“many times, many versions” (85)—before narrating yet another version. As a result, any and all accounts of the incident are questionable. Similarly, the reader is led to doubt the validity of many of the tales told by other characters in the book. The narrator remarks that Rat Kiley's stories, such as the one about Mary Ann Bell in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” are particularly ambiguous:

For Rat Kiley … facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you'd find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.


Still other characters admit the fictionality of their stories. Mitchell Sanders, in the ironically titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” confesses to the protagonist that although his tale is the truth, parts of it are pure invention. “‘Last night, man,’” Sanders states, “‘I had to make up a few things … The glee club. There wasn't any glee club … No opera,’” either (83-84). “‘But,’” he adds, “‘it's still true’” (84).

O'Brien shares the criteria with which the writer or teller and the reader or listener must be concerned by giving an extended definition of what a war story is or is not. The chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” focuses most extensively on the features that might be found in a “true” war tale. “A true war story is never moral,” the narrator states. “It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done” (76). Furthermore, a true war story has an “absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (76), is embarrassing, may not be believable, seems to go on forever, does “not generalize” or “indulge in abstraction or analysis” (84), does not necessarily make “a point” (88), and sometimes cannot even be told. True war stories, the reader soon realizes, are like the nature of the Vietnam War itself; “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity” (88). “The final and definitive truth” (83) cannot be derived, and any “truths are contradictory” (87).

By defining a war story so broadly, O'Brien writes more stories, interspersing the definitions with examples from the war to illustrate them. What is particularly significant about the examples is that they are given in segments, a technique that actively engages the readers in the process of textual creation. Characters who are mentioned as having died early in the work are brought back to life through flashbacks in other parts of the text so that we can see who these characters are, what they are like, and how they die. For instance, in the story, “Spin,” the narrator first refers to the death of Curt Lemon, a soldier blown apart by a booby trap, but the reader does not learn the details of the tragedy until four stories later in “How to Tell a True War Story.” Even then, the reader must piece together the details of Curt's death throughout that particular tale. The first reference to Lemon appears on the third page of the story when O'Brien matter-of-factly states, “The dead guy's name was Curt Lemon” (77). Lemon's death is briefly mentioned a few paragraphs later, but additional details surrounding the incident are not given at once but are revealed gradually throughout the story, in between digressive stories narrated by two other soldiers, Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders. Each fragment about Curt's accident illustrates the situation more graphically. Near the beginning of the tale, O'Brien describes the death somewhat poetically. Curt is “a handsome kid, really. Sharp grey eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (78). Lemon is not mentioned again for seven pages, at which time O'Brien illustrates the effect of Lemon's death upon the other soldiers by detailing how Rat Kiley, avenging Curt's death, mutilates and kills a baby water buffalo. When later in the story Lemon's accident is narrated for the third time, the reader is finally told what was briefly alluded to in the earlier tale “Spin”: how the soldiers had to peel Curt Lemon's body parts from a tree.

The story of Curt Lemon does not end with “How to Tell a True War Story” but is narrated further in two other stories, “The Dentist” and “The Lives of the Dead.” In “The Lives of the Dead,” for example, Curt is resurrected through a story of his trick-or-treating in Vietnamese hootches on Halloween for whatever goodies he can get: “candles and joss sticks and a pair of black pajamas and statuettes of the smiling Buddha” (268). To hear Rat Kiley tell it, the narrator comments, “you'd never know that Curt Lemon was dead. He was still out there in the dark, naked and painted up, trick-or-treating, sliding from hootch to hootch in that crazy white ghost mask” (268). To further complicate matters, in “The Lives of the Dead,” O'Brien alludes to a soldier other than Curt, Stink Harris, from a previous literary work, Going After Cacciato, written over a decade before The Things They Carried. Thus, the epistemological uncertainty in the stories is mirrored by the fact that O'Brien presents events that take place in a fragmented form rather than in a straightforward, linear fashion. The reader has to piece together information, such as the circumstances surrounding the characters' deaths, in the same manner that the characters must piece together the reality of the war, or, for that matter, Curt Lemon's body.

The issue of truth is particularly a main crux of the events surrounding “The Man I Killed,” a story that O'Brien places near the center of the book. Gradually interspersed throughout the stories that make up The Things They Carried are references to a Vietnamese soldier, “A slim, dead, dainty young man of about twenty” (40) with “a star-shaped hole” (141) in his face, who is first mentioned in the story “Spin” and whose death still haunts the narrator long after the end of the war. Nine chapters after “Spin,” in “The Man I Killed,” the protagonist graphically describes the dead Vietnamese youth as well as creates a personal history for him; he envisions the young man to have been a reluctant soldier who hated violence and “loved mathematics” (142), a university-educated man who “had been a soldier for only a single day” (144) and who, like the narrator, perhaps went to war only to avoid “disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village” (142).5 “Ambush,” the story immediately following “The Man I Killed,” provides yet another kaleidoscopic fictional frame of the incident, describing in detail the events that lead up to the narrator's killing of the young soldier and ending with a version of the event that suggests that the young man does not die at all. The reader is forced to connect the threads of the story in between several chapters that span over a hundred pages; not until a later chapter, “Good Form,” where the protagonist narrates three more stories of the event, does the reader fully question the truth of the incident. In the first version in “Good Form,” the narrator reverses the details of the earlier stories and denies that he was the thrower of the grenade that killed the man. “Twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe,” he states. “I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough” (203). However, he immediately admits that “Even that story is made up” (203) and tells instead what he terms “the happening-truth”:

I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.


In still a third version, “the happening-truth” is replaced with “the story-truth.” According to the protagonist, the Vietnamese soldier

was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.


But the reader wonders, did the narrator kill the young man? When the narrator's nine-year-old daughter demands, “‘Daddy, tell the truth … did you ever kill anybody,’” the narrator reveals that he “can say, honestly, ‘Of course not,’” or he “can say, honestly, ‘Yes’” (204).

According to Inger Christensen, one of the most important elements of metafiction is “the novelist's message” (10). At least one reviewer has reduced O'Brien's message in The Things They Carried to the moral “‘Death sucks’” (Melmoth H6); the book, however, reveals an even greater thematic concern. “Stories can save us,” asserts the protagonist in “The Lives of the Dead,” the concluding story of the text (255), where fiction is used as a means of resurrecting the deceased. In this multiple narrative, O'Brien juxtaposes tales of death in Vietnam with an account of the death of Linda, a nine-year-old girl who had a brain tumor. As the protagonist tells Linda's story, he also comments on the nature and power of fiction. Stories, he writes, are “a kind of dreaming, [where] the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world” (255). The narrator of “The Lives of the Dead” thus seeks to keep his own friends alive through the art of storytelling. “As a writer now,” he asserts,

I want to save Linda's life. Not her body—her life … in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. … In a story, miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up. She can reach out, touch my wrist, and say, “Timmy, stop crying.”


Past, present, and future merge into one story as through fiction O'Brien zips “across the surface of … [his] own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins … as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story” (273). His story mirrors his own creative image of history, “a blade tracing loops on ice” (265), as his metafictive narrative circles on three levels: the war of a little boy's soul as he tries to understand the death of a friend, the Vietnam War of a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, and the war of “guilt and sorrow” (265) faced by “a middle-aged writer” (265) who must deal with the past.

In focusing so extensively on the power of fiction and on what a war story is or is not in The Things They Carried, O'Brien writes a multidimensional war story even as he examines the process of writing one. His tales become stories within stories or multilayered texts within texts within texts. The book's genius is a seeming inevitability of form that perfectly embodies its theme—the miracle of vision—the eternally protean and volatile capacity of the imagination, which may invent that which it has the will and vision to conceive.6 “In the end,” the narrator states,

a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.


How, then, can a true war story be told? Perhaps the best way, O'Brien says, is to “just keep on telling it” (91).


  1. Biographical information on the real Tim O'Brien is taken from published facts of his life. See, for instance, Michael Coffey, “Tim O'Brien” Publishers Weekly, 237, 16 Feb. 1990, 60-61, and Everett C. Wilkie, Jr., “Tim O'Brien,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, eds. Karen L. Rood, Jean W. Ross, and Richard Ziegfeld. Detroit: Gale, 1981, 286-290.

  2. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1978. Going After Cacciato received the National Book Award in 1979.

  3. Vol. 17, pp. 243-253. The earlier version of the story has also been published in Prize Stories 1978: The O'Henry Awards. Ed. and intro. William Abrahams. Garden City: Doubleday, 1978. 159-168. A later version of “Speaking of Courage” appeared in Granta, 29 (Winter 1989): 135-154, along with “Notes.”

  4. O'Brien frequently makes changes between versions of his stories that are published in literary magazines and chapters of his books. The version of “Spin” that was published in the Spring 1990 issue of The Quarterly (3-13), for example, combines several of the individual stories from The Things They Carried into one longer tale. In addition, O'Brien makes changes between the hardback and paperback versions of his books. In both the “Field Trip” chapter of the hardback edition of The Things They Carried and the short story version of “Field Trip” (McCalls 17, August 1990: 78-79), the narrator returns Kiowa's hatchet to the site of Kiowa's death, but in the paperback edition of The Things They Carried (New York: Penguin, 1990), the narrator carries a pair of Kiowa's moccasins. For references to changes in O'Brien's earlier works, see my “Pluralities of Vision: Going After Cacciato and Tim O'Brien's Short Fiction,” America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. Eds. Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990. 213-224.

  5. O'Brien develops the figure of the young Vietnamese youth who opposes the war more fully in Going After Cacciato, where Li Van Hgoc, a Vietnamese major, has been imprisoned in a tunnel complex for ten years for fleeing from the war and refusing to fight. The major, in a sense, mirrors Paul Berlin and the Third Squad. Theoretically, the soldiers have one main factor in common with Li Van Hgoc; they are all deserters from the war.

  6. This theme is also a main theme of Going After Cacciato, which examines issues such as how war affects the imagination and how the imagination affects war, how reality cannot be escaped, even in the imagination, how the imagination is used to invent rather than to discover, how the imagination must be used as a responsible tool, and how the imagination can be a force for remaking reality.

Works Cited

Bawer, Bruce. “Confession or Fiction? Stories from Vietnam.” Wall Street Journal 215, 23 Mar 1990: A13.

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1982.

Christensen, Inger. The Meaning of Metafiction. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1981.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Lyons, Gene. “No More Bugles, No More Drums.” Entertainment Weekly 23 Feb. 1990: 50-52.

Mehren, Elizabeth. “Short War Stories.” Los Angeles Times 11 Mar. 1990: E1, E12.

Melmoth, John, “Muck and Bullets.” The Sunday Times (London) 20 May 1990: H6.

Naparsteck, Martin. “An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” Contemporary Literature 32 (Spring 1991): 1-11.

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton, 1990.

Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983.

Schroeder, Eric James. “Two Interviews: Talks With Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone.” Modern Fiction Studies 30 (Spring 1984): 135-64.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Tina Chen (essay date spring 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Chen, Tina. “‘Unraveling the Deeper Meaning’: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's The Thing They Carried.Contemporary Literature 39, no. 1 (spring 1998): 77-97.

[In the following essay, Chen asserts that “exile as a fluid and inescapable experience resulting from immersion in the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War infects all aspects of the stories” in The Things They Carried.]

Tim O'Brien is obsessed with telling a true war story. Truth, O'Brien's fiction about the Vietnam experience suggests, lies not in realistic depictions or definitive accounts. As O'Brien argues, “[a]bsolute occurrence is irrelevant” because “a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth” (Things [The Things They Carried] 89). Committed to examining the relationship between the concrete and the imagined, O'Brien dismantles binaristic notions of “happening-truth” and “story-truth”: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth” (89). In order to assess whether he has written fiction that is “truer than the truth,” O'Brien singles out the type of reaction his stories should provoke: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (84). This emphasis on the body's visceral response to fiction aptly encapsulates O'Brien's investigation of the literal and metaphoric relationships between stories and bodies, particularly as such affiliations are forged by a psychology of exile and displacement. For O'Brien, the returning veteran's paradoxical desires—a yearning to reverse the unwilling transformations conjured by combat experience; the inexplicable sense of exile that troubles any possibility of an easy return or rest—are best expressed by how a true war story “never seems to end” (83) but can only be told and retold, different each time yet no less faithful to the truths it must convey.

O'Brien's compulsion to revisit his war experience through fiction is not unique. The moral ambiguity and unresolved conflicts characterizing U.S. involvement in Vietnam have made that war a compelling presence in the American literary and cultural imagination.1 Vietnam did more than redefine the mythos of war. According to John Hellmann, it provoked a crisis in the very narrative of nation:

Americans entered Vietnam with certain expectations that a story, a distinctly American story, would unfold. When the story of America in Vietnam turned into something unexpected, the true nature of the larger story of America itself became the subject of intense cultural dispute. On the deepest level, the legacy of Vietnam is the disruption of our story, of our explanation of the past and vision of the future.


If the Vietnam War has been figured as a “disruption” of America's self-narration as nation, its rupturing of “our story” has none of the glamour or play that characterizes postmodernism. Rather, it has been cast as psychic trauma, a metaphysical fracture in the body politic that refuses to heal completely.

For O'Brien, the lingering hurts of the war are intimately linked to his stories, which, by virtue of their allegiance to the contradictory truths of war, resist closure. The Things They Carried, a collection of related short stories that appears grounded in O'Brien's own “real” combat experience even as it insists upon war as an endless fiction, ponders the complexities of such connections.3 Written as a series of quasi-memoiristic episodes, the book questions the nature of truth and the possibility of ever having an unchallenged “sense of the definite” (88). Directing readers beyond the stories to the narrative gaps within and between them, O'Brien renders the indescribable experiences of “Vietnam” as moments one may gesture to but never fully represent. After Vietnam, it becomes impossible to “tell where you are, or why you're there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.” O'Brien's war stories, which are ultimately “never about war,” reflect the difficult choices forced upon those who have confronted the contradictions of combat: “There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery” (88).

The disorder of a world without rules underlies O'Brien's problematizing of the boundaries between personal memory and official history. O'Brien's vexed preoccupation with the disjunctures that make history unreliable and memory the condition for narrative is engendered by the impossibility of ever achieving an unproblematic return home—whether that return is to family, community, one's prewar subjectivity, or nation. As such, the stories in The Things They Carried reflect the rootless existence of an exile. Marked by a complex understanding of Vietnam and its indelible consequences, the stories demonstrate a preoccupation with the nature of displacement and alienation. While much critical attention has been directed to the idea of the Vietnam veteran who feels exiled from America, O'Brien's work demands a reconceptualization of exile: O'Brien is alienated from his nation, his friends, himself, and, however counterintuitively, Vietnam.4 Although O'Brien's fictive project centers on the impossibility of ascertaining any one “truth” from the experience of war, Things is guided nonetheless by an impulse to tell the truth, “though the truth is ugly” (87). And the ugliness of the truth that Tim O'Brien tells, an ugliness paradoxically sublime in its “largeness” and “godliness,” deals much more with perpetual unmooring than it does with any kind of resolution. Exile as a fluid and inescapable experience resulting from immersion in the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War inflects all aspects of the stories in Things.

Exile in The Things They Carried is rendered as a multiply located mode of experience; it is a condition both singular and plural in its manifestations. What begins as a fear of exile from a centrally located home, a site firmly identified as the plains of Minnesota, proliferates into multiply situated points of exile upon returning from the war. As a careful reading of Things reveals, O'Brien's war stories are not about recovering from trauma or resolving the conflicts contributing to or created by the war in any permanent way; they are about accepting indeterminacy and learning to live not through Vietnam but with it. In a 1991 interview with Steven Kaplan, O'Brien admits: “My concerns as a human being and my concerns as an artist have at some point interesected in Vietnam—not just in the physical place, but in the spiritual and moral terrain of Vietnam. … There was an intersection of values, of what was and what was to come, that I'll always go back to,” even though the stories “are almost all invented, even the Vietnam stuff” (101, 95). This conscious, deeply intentioned reconstruction of Vietnam invokes Salman Rushdie's concept of “homeland” as one which, for the exiled writer, is always already fictive in nature: “if we do look back, we must … do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation … almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands” (10). Rushdie's eloquent articulation of an imaginary homeland recognizes the intimate relationship between an exilic longing and storytelling. O'Brien perceives such a connection occurring when “remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening” (36). His contested “confession” to killing someone during the war in “Good Form” testifies to the curious relationship between the stories and the idea of return, where each sustains and makes possible the other:5

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.


For O'Brien, the epistemology of displacement, mediated by the limitations and possibilities of his stories, registers on multiple levels: geographical, temporal, narrative, social, even moral. Although O'Brien's concept of displacement is predicated upon the impossibility of any permanent return, his work nonetheless insists upon multiple returns, however fleeting or unstable, to the imaginative landscape of Vietnam. These returns produce the stories, which in turn demand the acknowledgment of Vietnam as the central topos and creative core of the fiction. Vietnam exists as both place of estrangement and ironic homeland, a fictive geography acting synchronically as point of return and alienation. Alienation becomes a state of desire producing the stories. Return is figured as momentarily possible, a juncture of time, space, and desire that never offers a definitive resting place.


In his prize-winning Going After Cacciato, O'Brien posits a traditional conception of exile as separation from native community. Near the end of Cacciato, the protagonist, Paul Berlin, dreams himself at the Paris peace talks and identifies the fear of exile as his original motivation for participating in the war: “I am afraid of exile. I fear what might be thought of me by those I love. I fear the loss of their respect. I fear the loss of my own reputation. Reputation, as read in the eyes of my father and mother, the people in my hometown, my friends. I fear being an outcast” (322). Exile, then, is figured as alienation from members of one's community, both family and friends. This concern reappears in “On the Rainy River” when, this time speaking as a narrator named “Tim” who considers evading the draft by fleeing to Canada, O'Brien writes: “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me” (48).6 As with Paul Berlin, O'Brien's narrative persona in The Things They Carried suffers from an overwhelming and compelling fear of exile, which is verbalized as a break with the familiar. For both characters, exile is simple in its execution, chilling in its consequences. While this particular paradigm of exile exercises a powerful pull in both works, the fear of exile in its most basic terms that acts as an ending point for Cacciato serves as a point of beginnings in Things. This specific model of exile, far from governing the consciousness of displacement developed in the later book, instead fractures into more complicated formulations of the experiences of both “home” and alienation. O'Brien's intensely self-conscious meditation on the formative conditions of exile and alienation theorizes displacement as a polyvalent and multiply situated experience.

Although I have used “exile” to denote the state of alienation characterizing O'Brien's narrative voice in The Things They Carried, the consciousness and experience reflected in the text differ from traditional definitions of exile in significant ways. In “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said names exile as “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (357). The “native place” of Said's paradigm is somewhat inadequate in representing the point of imaginative grounding that positions a writer like O'Brien, since the invocation of Vietnam—even more than America—as “true home” produces meanings that transcend the signifying capacities of Said's terminology. Mary McCarthy defines exiles as “the banished victims deracinated and tortured by the long wait to go home” (qtd. in Gurr 18). Again, the “wait to go home” figures peculiarly within the context of displacement surrounding the veteran. Already finding the self occupying what is ostensibly “home,” the “long wait” becomes less a hope than a state of resignation. However, the eloquence elicited by the exilic experience and by the longing to orient the self toward a place other than where one finds oneself marks O'Brien as a writer who is displaced, if not exiled in the traditional sense. In Things, displacement explodes in a doubled movement: the combined impulses of dislocation and reinsertion create the storytelling process. Place as a locus of identity is figured both geographically and metaphorically; Vietnam as imagined and imaginary homeland produces a synchronic process of alienation and return.

As with exile, central to the notion of displacement is the idea of home. Home for the exile is the place of origin, or belonging. Said delineates it as “a community of language, culture, and customs” (359). In a more expansive definition, Michael Seidel describes it as “locus, custom, memory, familiarity, ease, security, sanctuary” (10). In contrast to the connotations of comfort and familiarity that characterize home for the exile, O'Brien as a displaced writer has no “ease,” no “sanctuary,” no “native place” to which to return. Rather, home becomes a shifting and ambiguous location, simultaneously situated in Minnesota and in Vietnam, constantly mediated and housed in the language of his stories. Despite multiple sites for home, what distinguishes Vietnam from other potential points of orientation for O'Brien's exilic consciousness is the ability of its fictive geography to generate new and sustaining acts of creativity. The imagined spaces of Vietnam act as a metaphor for home, representing less a point of origin than a territory of self-generation and re-creation. Although O'Brien uses the stories in The Things They Carried to examine the various homes and acts of alienation that shape a consciousness of displacement, it is Vietnam—invoked through bodies and the fictions of narrative as metonymic substitutions for geography—that emerges as the imagined homeland of the book.

Metonymy, a rhetorical figure designating a relationship of contiguity by substituting a part for a whole, works simultaneously in The Things They Carried to mask and expose the construction of Vietnam as imaginary homeland, the trope that governs the consciousness of the work. In The Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha asserts that metonymy “must not be read as a form of simple substitution or equivalence”; rather, “[i]ts circulation of part and whole, identity and difference, must be understood as a double movement” (54-55). In this way, metonymy, even while substituting one term for another, also insistently engages and provokes the recognition of a lack, the replacing term only partially signifying the replaced term. The space of signification left unfilled by the supplantation then acts to destabilize equivalence and subrogation. In Things, Vietnam is figured metonymically by the bodies in the text as well as the stories themselves. Both bodies and stories act as substitute terms for Vietnam; the meanings circulating among the three figures continually cross and recross categories of signification, so that it becomes impossible to discuss one term without referring and relating to the other two. Thus the densely reticulated relationship between O'Brien's consciousness of displacement and its orientation toward Vietnam reveals itself as an organic and integral part of the book.

Of critical importance to O'Brien's examination of displacement in The Things They Carried is the potential of home to act as a site producing multiple ways of structuring consciousness. The necessity of redesignating home as a generative location collides with figurations of the metonymic relationship between body and place in the title story, which traces Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's crush on Martha, “a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey” (3). Mesmerized by fantasies of Martha while partially cognizant of his self-willed delusions about her requiting his love, Lieutenant Cross cultivates within himself an exilic consciousness that continually returns to the idea and image of home as it is embodied in Martha. Martha represents more than the idea of home; she actually figures as a metonym for home and all its attendant images. When Lieutenant Cross receives a good-luck charm from her, it is a pebble:

Smooth to the touch, it was a milky white color with flecks of orange and violet, oval-shaped, like a miniature egg. In the accompanying letter, Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide, where things came together but also separated. It was this separate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick up the pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him.


Just as the pebble acts as a metonym for the Jersey shoreline (and, by extension, America), Martha's explanation of how she carries the pebble with her and finally sends it to Lieutenant Cross as a “token of her truest feelings” works to figure the pebble as a metonym for her. Cross actualizes this figural relationship when he “carrie[s] the pebble in his mouth” and imagines that it is her tongue (9). Constructing his fictions on a nightly basis, he “spend[s] the last hour of light pretending [… and] imagin[ing] romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire” (3). Despite the comforting and romantic nature of his fantasies, Cross's exilic daydreams return him to a center and a home that is depicted as static and lacking in generative potential. Cross's imaginative returns home, to Martha and the Jersey shoreline, to America, always result in the same stories. His romantic fantasies are pitifully inadequate in the face of the ambiguous and dangerous realities of combat duty in Vietnam. Moments before Ted Lavender, a doped-up, sleepy-eyed member of Alpha Company, is shot while “on his way back from peeing,” Lieutenant Cross is “not there” because

[h]e was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore. They were pressed together, and the pebble in his mouth was her tongue. He was smiling. Vaguely, he was aware of how quiet the day was, the sullen paddies, yet he could not bring himself to worry about matters of security.


The subsequent death of Ted Lavender jolts him into awareness, forcing the realization that the romantic fantasies produced by an exilic consciousness longing to return home to America are unable to meet the exigencies of combat experience in Vietnam. This perception leads Lieutenant Cross to burn his pictures of Martha, steeling himself with the thought that “[t]his was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or mid-term exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity” (23-24).

Although Worthington, Minnesota is represented by the narrator as “everything that mattered to me” in “On the Rainy River,” it, too, lacks a certain ability to engender the new ways of reading and writing the world crucial to the consciousness of O'Brien's fiction. His hometown—“a conservative little spot on the prairie”—exemplifies a “blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence” that results in “a kind of schizophrenia” (48). When a draft notice forces the narrator to make a choice between fighting a war he believes is wrong or facing the public censure a refusal to fight would provoke, he finds no alternative perspectives in the town to help him in his decision. For all of the “polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club,” war and the decision to fight are matters of utmost simplicity: “it was a war to stop the Communists, plain and simple, which was how they liked things, and you were a treasonous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons” (48-49). The clearly demarcated categories of right and wrong paint over difficult moral choices with a “simple-minded patriotism” and “prideful ignorance” (48). Ironically, his fears of being exiled from his community force the narrator into fighting the war because he “was embarrassed not to,” an act which, in turn, alters his notion of exile to the point where he understands that the constant alienation of displacement cannot be eradicated by any journey—whether of escape or return—but instead proves to be his very destination.7


To deconstruct the ways in which O'Brien articulates the processual and insistently experimental reality of displacement requires a close examination of how he uses both the human body and the art of storytelling as metonyms for Vietnam. In stories about war, bodies—whether whole or in pieces, alive or dead—figure prominently. The Vietnam War spawned a host of disfigurations, deformations of both body and spirit. Men who shipped over to help “stop the Communists, plain and simple,” became avid collectors of Vietcong body parts after experiencing psychological transformations that were anything but simple.8 The focus on the materiality of the body emerges as an organic expression of the war. In The Things They Carried, the rhetorical relationship between bodies and Vietnam works metaphorically as well as metonymically. In “Night Life,” a story about night patrol and Rat Kiley's decision to shoot himself in the foot in order to escape the war, Vietnam is personified as a corporeal entity:

All around you, everywhere, the whole dark countryside came alive. You'd hear a strange hum in your ears. … Like the night had its own voice—that hum in your ears—and in the hours after midnight you'd swear you were walking through some kind of soft black protoplasm, Vietnam, the blood and the flesh.


Depicted as a living organism, “the blood and the flesh” of Vietnam suggests instant connections to the other corporeal entities inhabiting the spaces of the text. However, while Vietnam is marked by its incredible vitality, many of the bodies in Things are not alive—at least not at first. As O'Brien makes clear, they are animated by stories, and by desire.

O'Brien makes an important distinction between life and the body: “Inside the body, or beyond the body, there is something absolute and unchanging” (265). Just as the vitality of Vietnam inspires the stories O'Brien has to tell, it is the death of the human body that generates his fiction: “in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world” (255). It is precisely because of the desire to “ke[ep] the dead alive” that the stories are created (267). As such, bodies and the imaginary landscape of Vietnam work in concert to impel the stories and direct the consciousness of displacement.

The story that closes the collection, “The Lives of the Dead,” begins with a recitation of the bodies littering the text. The list is both a catalog and a litany of the dead:

I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They're all dead.


By naming the dead, O'Brien's narrative persona acknowledges the inanimate bodies that animate—and, in turn, are animated by—his text(s). Even more important than the actual naming of bodies is the materiality of the body itself, its ability to transform itself into an occasion. By delineating with special care the textures and details of the human body, O'Brien forces the reader to an awareness of how physical particularities assume a metaphysical importance. When Curt Lemon steps on a rigged 105 round and dies while playing a game of chicken with smoke grenades, we are told, with details at once grisly and compelling, about Curt Lemon's individual body parts and how they are blown into a tree. Ordered to “peel him off,” the narrator remembers “the white bone of an arm … pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must've been the intestines” (89). The dismembered body evokes O'Brien's own narrative project, which goes about the job of remembering Curt Lemon as it remembers him for that brief moment before the booby-trapped round explodes.

Detailing the bodies in the text(s) allows O'Brien a concrete way of approaching the ambiguous situations of which he writes. The close attention to the death and transformation of the body lays bare the paradox that characterizes any recounting of the war, emphasizing the very real horror of death even while elevating it into an aesthetic moment. The messiness of bodies, especially in death and metamorphosis, promotes a profound irony: the gruesomeness of the Vietnam experience beckons with an almost overwhelming attraction.

Just as the mutilation and dismemberment of enemy bodies during wartime signifies more than a simple taking apart of bodies, instead denoting a powerful fear and desire to deny the enemy a sense of shared humanity, so O'Brien's focus on the details of the bodies in his text moves beyond the actual bodies to talk about something else. Vietnam, the quiescently generative presence propelling the stories of The Things They Carried, emanates from the carefully attended bodies of the text. As Martha becomes, for Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the embodiment of America as home and haven, the bodies that preoccupy the later stories work metonymically to figure the reticulated relationship between O'Brien's consciousness as a displaced writer and his embrace of Vietnam as an imaginary homeland. One of the most powerful stories in the collection, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” is a patently improbable tale which, utilizing O'Brien's narratorial skepticism to frame and reframe the embedded narrative, is told primarily by Rat Kiley, the medic of Alpha Company. Kiley “had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts” (101). The story that we are asked to believe is simple: as a result of a mad night of brainstorming and late-night drinking, Mark Fossie, a medic assigned to a detachment near Chu Lai, arranges to smuggle his high-school sweetheart into the country. Even more compelling than the metafictive nature of the story is O'Brien's depiction of Mary Anne Bell's physical transformation, which turns her from a “seventeen-year-old doll, … perky and fresh-faced, like a cheerleader visiting the opposing team's locker room” (107) into a part of the jungle where “[a]ll camouflaged up, her face smooth and vacant, she seemed to flow like water through the dark, like oil, without sound or center” (124).

When Mary Anne, dressed in “[w]hite culottes and this sexy pink sweater” (102), first steps off the helicopter and into the medical compound at Chu Lai, she is a tempting if somewhat out-of-place representative of “those girls back home [and] how clean and innocent they all are, how they'll never understand any of this, not in a billion years” (123). For the men in the medical detachment, Mary Anne embodies all the best aspects of home; they regard her very much as Lieutenant Jimmy Cross regarded Martha. Her relationship with Mark emblematizes the simple allurements of the American Dream: “From the sixth grade on they had known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together, and no doubt die in each other's arms and be buried in the same walnut casket” (105-6). However, this vision of life—centered on the image of a profoundly American idea of home—disintegrates in the face of the more compelling dreams embedded in Vietnam. The “mystery” of the land tantalizes Mary Anne. She quickly adapts to the rigors of the war, forgoing touristic excursions through the “ville” in favor of learning “how to clip an artery and pump up a plastic splint and shoot in morphine,” as well as how to operate an M-16 (109). These new accomplishments are accompanied by “a sudden new composure,” and Mark, somewhat “proud” and “amazed,” begins to perceive her as “a different person” (109). This difference is registered gradually, however. The surety of the gingerbread house is replaced by “a new imprecision” as her litotic revisions of what they had imagined as their future foreshadow her transformation:

Not necessarily three kids, she'd say. Not necessarily a house on Lake Erie. “Naturally we'll still get married,” she'd tell him, “but it doesn't have to be right away. Maybe travel first. Maybe live together. Just test it out, you know?”


Physical changes parallel Mary Anne's shift away from America and her embrace of Vietnam. She falls “into the habits of the bush,” and Mark thinks uncomfortably that “[h]er body seemed foreign somehow—too stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be” (110). When she begins disappearing with the “Greenies” and taking part in night ambushes, she melts into “a small, soft shadow” (115). Rat Kiley notes, “[w]hen she came in through the wire that night, I was right there, I saw those eyes of hers, I saw how she wasn't even the same person no more” (116-17). The substantive difference impressed upon her body speaks to how meaning inheres in the corporeal, which figures metonymically both itself and the jarring awareness of another figural relationship. Mary Anne becomes other than Mary Anne, turning instead into some new, unidentifiable entity who simultaneously registers displacement and substitution through her physical transubstantiation into the imaginative landscape of Vietnam.

Mary Anne's metamorphosis stems directly from her relationship with the land; her fascination with “the mountains, the mean little villages, the trails and trees and rivers and deep misted-over valleys” (121) permeates her system until she not only figures Vietnam but actually becomes Vietnam:

Sometimes I want to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country—the dirt, the death—I just want to eat it and have it there inside me. That's how I feel. It's like … this appetite. … When I'm out there at night, I feel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and my fingernails, everything, it's like I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark—I'm on fire almost—I'm burning away into nothing—but it doesn't matter because I know exactly who I am.


Mary Anne's desire to incorporate Vietnam, through ingestion, into herself is ironically contingent upon her own willingness to be consumed, “burning away into nothing.” Her internalization of the land and the subordination of the geography to her appetite records, on a narrative level, the actual metonymic relationship O'Brien constructs between the figure of the body and the figuration of Vietnam as homeland, the place from which the stories emerge. At the end of the story, the identification of Mary Anne with Vietnam and all its possibilities is complete. The conjoined voices of Rat Kiley and the narrative persona of Tim O'Brien explicate the phenomenon chorically:

For Mary Anne Bell, it seemed, Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug: that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you're risking something … you become intimate with danger; you're in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it's another hemisphere, and you want to string it out and go wherever the trip takes you and be host to all the possibilities inside yourself.


It becomes impossible to distinguish between Mary Anne and Vietnam. As woman and land merge, their fusion complicates easy categorical distinctions. Both are alive with possibilities and imbued with the capacity to signify beyond themselves. Mary Anne becomes more than a simple high schooler from Cleveland Heights, Vietnam infinitely more than a small country at the margins of American consciousness.

The female body, originally invested with the responsibility of signifying the comfort and ease associated with romanticized and nostalgic constructions of domesticity and home, instead becomes a way of talking about the disorienting power of Vietnam. The darker elements of the war bleed across boundaries between home and exile, transfusing themselves into a new construct of home-as-displacement, the only construct capable of generating the stories. The last image of Mary Anne captures this new formation perfectly. She slips away from the compound to roam the country, and all that is left are the stories:

when the Greenies were out on ambush, the whole rain forest seemed to stare in at them—a watched feeling—and a couple of times they almost saw her sliding through the shadows. Not quite, but almost. She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.


In the fusion of the land and the woman, Vietnam is figured as the home to which the displaced consciousness of the text returns. The spiritual and emotional terrain of Vietnam begets the storytelling. Figured by Mary Anne, the storytelling possibilities lurking in the shadows are made manifest. The attention to her bodily representation of Vietnam returns the exilic consciousness of the text to its truest center.

“Speaking of Courage,” another story exploring the correlation between Vietnam and the body, also depicts the conjunction of place and body, but in a much more literal way. Part of a trilogy of stories about the death of Kiowa, who dies after getting shot in a “shit field” when the Song Tra Bong River floods its banks during a heavy rain, “Speaking of Courage” describes Kiowa being sucked into the field during a VC attack: “Kiowa was almost completely under. There was a knee. There was an arm and a gold wristwatch and part of a boot. … There were bubbles where Kiowa's head should've been” (168). The story builds off of the metonymic substitutions of bodies for Vietnam in “The Things They Carried” and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” literalizing the connection. Kiowa not only dies in Vietnam; he is incorporated into the texture of the land: “Kiowa was gone. He was under the mud and water, folded in with the war” (185). Kiowa's death actually makes him part of the shit field, “folded in” with not just the war but the land itself. Kiowa's literal incorporation into the land proves significant for a later discussion of the narrator's own feelings of alienation and separation from Vietnam.

In “The Ghost Soldiers,” O'Brien's narrative persona, after being wounded twice in combat, is transferred to Headquarters Company—S-4, the battalion supply section. The world of S-4 is completely different from that of Alpha Company: “Compared with the boonies it was cushy duty. We had regular hours. There was an EM club with beer and movies, sometimes even live floor shows” (219). It is a relatively “safe” way to spend time in Vietnam, but when his former comrades in Alpha Company come in for stand-down, O'Brien realizes that he is no longer a member of their fraternity. The solidarity forged between the members of the company by combat experience, the experience enabling the disparate members of a unit to become a “tribe” and “share the same blood” (220), now works to exclude him, exile him:

In a way, I envied … all of them. … They were still my buddies, at least on one level, but once you leave the boonies, the whole comrade business gets turned around. You become a civilian. You forfeit membership in the family, the blood fraternity, and no matter how hard you try, you can't pretend to be part of it.


Here, the narrator's sense of alienation and exile stems from his separation from his platoon. The platoon, figured as a “blood fraternity,” is a body from which the narrator is metaphorically amputated. Such an amputation, already painful in light of his earlier injuries, is rendered even more excruciating by the fact that his former comrades do not view Bobby Jorgenson, the inexperienced medic partially responsible for causing his condition, as he does. Mitchell Sanders informs the narrator that while “[t]he kid messed up bad, for sure[,] … [p]eople change. Situations change. I hate to say this, man, but you're out of touch. Jorgenson—he's with us now” (224-25).

Significantly, the narrator's displaced status registers not simply on a figurative level. His distinction from the rest of the company is marked bodily as well: “Their deep bush tans, the sores and blisters, the stories, the in-it-togetherness. I felt close to them, yes, but I also felt a new sense of separation. My fatigues were starched; I had a neat haircut and the clean, sterile smell of the rear” (221). Given this “new sense of separation,” the narrator finds himself pushed ever farther outside the configurations of belonging. Thus the remembering of the dead like Kiowa, who are figured as part of Vietnam itself, establishes an identificatory chain of relation, and it becomes clear that O'Brien's displaced consciousness is oriented toward Vietnam and the brotherhood that it begins to represent. No longer comfortable as a “civilian,” he endures the constant sense of loss and alienation characterizing the psychology of the exile. When considered also in the context already established for home—that it act as the orienting place from which stories emerge—the displacement O'Brien experiences stems from his inability to access the ways in which Vietnam acts as both home and land, site of desired return and creative potential. O'Brien's envy and desire are directed toward the stories which only a reorientation to Vietnam can effect. The desire evinced by the feelings of loss which separation entails directs itself insistently back toward an imagined home represented by Vietnam, the point of origin for the displaced consciousness that determines the trajectory of The Things They Carried.


More than a collection of stories, The Things They Carried is a book about the need to tell stories, the ways to tell stories, and the reasons for telling stories. When considered within the framework of exile and displacement, stories invest alienation with a purpose and a direction, even if the knowledge that there can never be a final resting place or point of return renders the experience of displacement a teleological end in itself.9 The stories serve a double function; they not only redeem the experience of displacement but also, like the bodies discussed earlier, figure as metonymic substitutions for the idea of Vietnam as home. As with so many of the ideas in this work, the connections between the terms are densely reticulated, bound together by a series of sequential substitutions so that it becomes impossible to talk about one figure without invoking the ghostly images of others. O'Brien names the stories as “the real obsession” in “Spin” (38), but in “How to Tell a True War Story,” the stories, like the bodies, become metonyms for Vietnam. When Mitchell Sanders tries to talk about the eerie experience a six-man patrol undergoes during a listening-post operation, he imbues Vietnam with a polyvocality which then generates his own story. According to Sanders, the men on patrol hear

All these different voices. Not human voices, though. Because it's the mountains. Follow me? The rock—it's talking. And the fog, too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses. Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion. The whole country. Vietnam. The place talks. It talks. Understand? Nam—it truly talks.


Sanders, who almost compulsively identifies the moral of every situation, finds himself at a loss to come up with a single, definitive moral for his own story. It becomes a matter of just “listen[ing] to your enemy” (83)—or acknowledging the texture of “[t]hat quiet—[and] just listen[ing]” again (84). The focus on the ways in which Vietnam articulates itself transcends the distinctions made between the animate and the inanimate, the stories and the storyteller. The irrevocable blurring of boundaries calls to attention the very nature of relation. In the shifts and substitutions between bodies, stories, Vietnam, and home that function throughout the text, what part of each figure remains untouched by the others? Embedded within Sanders's assertion about the ability of Vietnam to speak rests the figure of the body. The invocation of the body immediately conjures up an attendant vision: the potential of Vietnam to produce acts of storytelling that will orient O'Brien's displacement and enable him, finally, to tell a true war story.

The Things They Carried is a book that turns on a single realization: as part of imagining a return to Vietnam as home to engender a new way of reading and writing the world, distinctions disappear and the impossibility of separating experiences and stories, reality and the imaginary, into orderly categories transcends the desire for neatness and clarity. O'Brien's post-Vietnam world is a confusing, ambiguous place. No hard and fast rules exist; truth is always provisional, waiting to adapt itself to the next story, the next reality. The Things They Carried testifies to displacement as a complicated condition; the polyvalent and equivocal nature of its vision and its orientation transforms everything in its scope. As such, the careful detailing of metonymic and metaphoric relationships between the bodies, the stories, home, and Vietnam uncovers Tim O'Brien's own moral, which asserts:

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”


The figural relationships in the text make it unimaginable to talk about anything in isolation. The metonymic act of substitution does more than replace one term with another; in the semiotic space between the two signs, meaning explodes beyond the signifying capacities of either figure, revealing the futility of talking about one figure without constantly referring to the other. And it is precisely that movement between tropes—a movement reinforced by the structure of the text as a collection of stories which talk to each other—that produces a more complicated vision of the world. In O'Brien's war stories, the figurations of home/body/Vietnam/stories coalesce to produce an awareness of how no single idea can be unraveled from the cloth woven by the connections between each of them. It is a profound realization, leaving us to say, with wonder and a little awe, “Oh.”


  1. In the words of Andrew Martin, “the Vietnam War has maintained a stranglehold on the American imagination” (5). This “stranglehold” manifests itself in both pop cultural and political discourses. The outpouring of books, movies, and television shows, not to mention President Bush's assertion that the Persian Gulf war would “not be another Vietnam,” attests to the accuracy of Martin's statement. For an account of Vietnam's influence on American skepticism toward military solutions for third world problems, see Klare. For an interpretive critique of the literature and criticism of the Vietnam War, see Lomperis. For discussions of the representation of Vietnam in popular visual culture, see Martin; Adair; and Dittmar and Michaud.

  2. While Hellmann's conception of a national narrative powerfully identifies the continued impact of the war on American political and cultural discourses, it is important to note that the very idea of a single narrative of nation is necessarily a reductive one. For a nuanced study of the disparate and sometimes competing “national” discourses America took into the war, see Milton Bates's The Wars We Took to Vietnam. Bates's examination of the war as a collection of America's multiple domestic conflicts—about territorial expansion, race, class, gender, and generational difference—challenges the applicability of single paradigms to complex situations. This recognition of the multiplicity of war is also articulated by Le Ly Hayslip in her memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: “Most of you did not know, or fully understand, the different wars my people were fighting when you got here. For you, it was a simple thing: democracy against communism. For us, that was not our fight at all. … For most of us it was a fight of independence—like the American Revolution. Many of us also fought for religious ideals, the way the Buddhists fought the Catholics. Behind the religious war came the battle between city people and country people—the rich against the poor—a war fought by those who wanted to change Vietnam and those who wanted to leave it as it had been for a thousand years. Beneath all that, too, we had vendettas: between native Vietnamese and immigrants (mostly Chinese and Khmer) who had fought for centuries over the land. Many of these wars go on today” (xv).

  3. In mounting a challenge to the conventions of narrative, O'Brien's project of problematizing truth is embodied by the narrator of The Things They Carried. While the narrator is named “Tim,” and it is tempting to read him as synonymous with the real Tim O'Brien, there are distinctions between the narrator and the author that prevent any easy assignment of authorial intention or identity.

  4. Both Philip D. Beidler in Re-writing America and Philip H. Melling in Vietnam in American Literature refer to the idea of the veteran as an expatriate or exile in the country of his birth. For a collection of articles exploring this paradigm, see Figley and Leventman.

  5. All short stories referred to in the text are names of specific stories in The Things They Carried.

  6. See Bates 248-52 for a more detailed discussion of the ways in which “Tim” and Tim O'Brien do and do not correspond to each other.

  7. This idea of the journey being the destination is reinforced by O'Brien's insistence on the provisionality of truth. In a footnote to his 1994 work In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien couches his refusal to give a conclusive ending to the novel as one informed by the idea of an uncertain journey with no end: “My heart tells me to stop right here, to offer some quiet benediction and call it the end. But truth won't allow it. Because there is no end, happy or otherwise. Nothing is fixed, nothing is solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of conclusion. … Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe” (304).

  8. The idea of mutilation and dismemberment as a way of denying humanity to the enemy is explored in Mark Baker's collection of oral histories, particularly in the chapters “Victors” and “Victims” (167-236).

  9. As Theresa Hak Kyung Cha articulates it in Dictee, “Our destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of search. Fixed in its perpetual exile” (81).

Works Cited

Adair, Gilbert. Vietnam on Film: From “The Green Berets” to “Apocalypse Now.” New York: Proteus, 1981.

Baker, Mark. Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There. 1981. New York: Berkeley, 1983.

Bates, Milton J. The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1982.

———. Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. New York: Tanam, 1982.

Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1990.

Figley, Charles R., and Seymour Leventman, eds. Strangers at Home: Vietnam Veterans Since the War. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Gurr, Andrew. Writers in Exile: The Identity of Home in Modern Literature. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester, 1981.

Hayslip, Le Ly. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace. 1989. New York: Plume-Penguin, 1990.

Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Klare, Michael T. Beyond the “Vietnam Syndrome”: U.S. Interventionism in the 1980s. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Policy Studies, 1981.

Lomperis, Timothy J. “Reading the Wind”: The Literature of the Vietnam War. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1987.

Martin, Andrew. Receptions of War: Vietnam in American Culture. Oklahoma Project for Discourse and Theory 10. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1993.

Melling, Philip H. Vietnam in American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

O'Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1978.

———. In the Lake of the Woods. Boston: Houghton; New York: Seymour Lawrence, 1994.

———. “An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” With Steven Kaplan. Missouri Review 14.3 (1991): 93-108.

———. The Things They Carried. 1990. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands.” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1991. 9-21.

David R. Jarraway (essay date fall 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “‘Excremental Assault’ in Tim O'Brien: Trauma and Recover in Vietnam War Literature.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 695-711.

[In the following essay, Jarraway analyzes three examples of O'Brien's depiction of trauma and recovery in The Things They Carried and explores the metaphor of excremental waste in relation to O'Brien's war experiences.]

“‘You know something?’” [Azar] said. His voice was wistful. “‘Out here, at night, I almost feel like a kid again. The Vietnam experience. I mean, wow, I love this shit.’”

—Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

“The excremental is all too intimately and inseparably bound up with the sexual; the position of the genitals—inter urinas et faeces—remains the decisive and unchangeable factor.”

—Sigmund Freud, Complete Letters

“[Kathy Wade] remembered opening her robe to the humid night air. There was a huge and desperate wanting in her heart, wanting without object, pure wanting.”

—Tim O'Brien, In the Lake of the Woods

“If at the end of a war story,” Tim O'Brien writes in his second Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried (1990), “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” (Things [The Things They Carried] 76). O'Brien, of course, has not been the first to remark upon the larger waste that is war. With reference to the Vietnam debacle in particular, Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977) sets the tone for the wastage of that “psychotic vaudeville,” as he calls it, almost from the beginning:

[A] Marine came up to Lengle and me and asked if we'd like to look at some pictures he'd taken. … There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures … the severed-head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open … a picture of a Marine holding an ear or maybe two ears or, as in the case of a guy I knew near Pleiku, a whole necklace made of ears, “love beads” as its owner called them; and the one we were looking at now, the dead Viet Cong girl with her pajamas stripped off and her legs raised stiffly in the air.

(Herr 198-99)

In the face of such overwhelming madness, therefore, Tim O'Brien eradicates all possibility for responsive uplift in The Things They Carried by reducing even the metaphorical import of waste. As the measure of atrocious acts and imbecile events, waste's claim on all concerned, accordingly, is seen to be absolutely literal.

At this zero-degree level of rectitude, then, war becomes the equivalent of human waste—“a goddamn shit field” (Things 164)—in which an entire platoon must immerse itself in order to register most completely the nauseous vacuity and repulsive futility of their lives at war: “[A]fter a few days, the Song Tra Bong overflowed its banks and the land turned into a deep, thick muck for a half mile on either side. … Like quicksand, almost, except the stink was incredible. … You'd just sink in. You'd feel it ooze up over your body and sort of suck you down. … I mean, it never stopped, not ever” (161). “Finally somebody figured it out. What this was, it was. … The village toilet. No indoor plumbing, right? So they used the field” (164). “Rain and slop and shrapnel, it all mixed together, and the field seemed to boil … with the waste and the war” (191). “For twenty years,” O'Brien's novel's narrator later remarks in hindsight, “this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror” (210). That the full impact, however, of the “excremental assault” of my title should come to be realized so belatedly—In Retrospect, as Robert McNamara most recently puts forward the case—is, ironically, Vietnam's most extravagantly wasteful legacy.1 But as one of O'Brien's least savory platoon members is given to remark, “‘Eating shit—it's your classic irony’” (187).

Irony is the trope of trash or waste. And while it's not central to my purpose to trash or waste some of the more well-known literary theories endeavoring to come to terms with, if not indeed aiming to recover from, that extraordinarily riddling concatenation of events that is “Vietnam,” I nonetheless want to cultivate a healthy sense of irony in an effort to disclose what discursive representations of war—theoretical as well as artistic—may actually be endeavoring to cover over or cover up—to re-cover, as it were.2 The fiction of Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried in particular, with its own healthy sense of irony, can gesture toward the shortcomings of theory. But, as I shall argue later, in keeping with that penetrating sense of irony even some of the best insights of this work may, too, have gone to waste, driving us on to O'Brien's next and most recent novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994).

Kalí Tal, in her important essay “Speaking the Language of Pain,” has been in the vanguard of a number of important writers to locate Vietnam literature in the context of the discourse of trauma.3 In so doing, Tal underscores the chief failing of most literary theorists attempting to deal holistically with the war, namely, “their inevitable and total reduction of the war to metaphor” (Tal 223), whether this be the war's likeness to the myth-making of classic American literature (Philip Beidler), to the psychic landscape in literature closer to the present (John Hellman), or to the construction of the American self-image in the literature of the future (Thomas Myers).4 As with all experiences of trauma (Holocaust literature, rape literature, incest literature, etc.), according to Tal, “Reality so violates personal mythologies” that only the example of “the literal immersion of concentration camp victims in shit … of being forced to wear, eat, or swim in excrement”—only such “excremental assault” (a phrase she borrows from Terrance Des Pres's The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps [1976])—can approximate the individual's totally abject sense of psychic and social “violation” (Tal 234). Yet the transformation of national or cultural myths is dependent organically upon the revision of personal myths (Tal 243). Hence, any kind of real social or cultural amelioration envisioned in mythically discursive terms is most likely to occur as a consequence of trauma, whose excremental horror “strike[s] at the very core of the victim's conception of self in the world, forcing the most radical restructuring of personal myth … to include the previously unthinkable” (234).5

What Tal, however, is insistent upon throughout her essay is the almost impossible task to which the trauma author becomes heir. “For if the goal is to convey the traumatic experience,” as the explains, “no secondhand rendering of it is adequate. The horrific events which have reshaped the author's construction of reality can only be described [and] not re-created” (Tal 231). Thus, the trauma author appears forever to be laboring in a “liminal state,” a kind of “unbridgeable gap between writer and reader” (218) that is bounded, on the one side, by “the urge to bear witness, to carry the tale of horror back to the halls of normalcy” (229), and on the other, by “the truth of the experience” that “in even the most powerful writing … language cannot reach or explicate” (222). Working at cross-purposes in this way, the trauma author is rather like O'Brien's Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in The Things They Carried, never quite succeeding in having his men “get their shit together, … keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in good working order” (Things 24).6

The closest experience, therefore, that we as readers of Vietnam literature are ever likely to have that might approximate something of its trauma will undoubtedly lie, along with its authors, in that “liminal state” between what we may already know too well, and what we sense is hardly there for us to imagine. The two senses of “re-covery” in my title noted previously thus speak to both sides of trauma's liminal divide. Georges Bataille, who perhaps knows more about excremental assault than most, in his Visions of Excess gives us the initial sense of a calculated recovery, usually in closed forms of discourse whose economy, in the end, “is limited to reproduction and to the conservation of human life” (116). In more open forms of discourse, however, whose economy of “unproductive expenditure” is likely to include the traumas of “war” and “perverse sexual activity” (118), we have the quite other sense of a more radical form of recovery since expenditure, as revealed in its “excremental symbolism,” is mainly “directed toward loss” rather than “the principle of conservation” and the “stability of fortunes” (122).

Recovery from trauma, then, in this more radical form can only proceed, as Tal suggests, by way of a restructuring of personal experience in a wholly expendable way. In contrast, the more conservative notion of recovery, by falling back upon the already known and familiar, will negate the reality of trauma by failing to include in personal experience what has been formerly left unthought. And yet the temptation to collapse the former sense of recovery into the latter, in effect, to cover up the trauma that is Vietnam, would appear to be overwhelming, as that horror is strikingly rendered in The Things They Carried:

For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can't tell where you are, or why you're there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity. In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.


Nonetheless, O'Brien, like Bataille, will hew to that loss of the definite, and elsewhere insist on the war's “uncertainty” (Things 44), its “mystery” (209), and what he candidly admits is sometimes “just beyond calling” (79).7 For if there is to be any kind of recovery from the trauma that promises no more Vietnams, only the kind of openness and responsiveness to experience that can make what is “absolutely true” quite expendable will do. In place of a character like Rat Kiley whose obsession with “policing up the parts” and “plugging up holes” (249-50) ultimately leads to his turning his own gun on himself as the sure fire method of withstanding change, O'Brien perhaps suggests something more redemptive in the example of an unknown soldier waist-deep back in the shit field: “Bent forward at the waist, groping with both hands, he seemed to be chasing some creature just beyond reach, something elusive, a fish or a frog” (192). Bataille, in a passage that elucidates O'Brien's description of the shit field, writes: “[T]he moment when the ordered and reserved … lose themselves for ends that cannot be subordinated to anything one can account for” is precisely that moment when “life starts” (Bataille 128).

Life starts for both the authors and readers of Vietnam literature in those moments when the most authentic form of recovery in the trauma text represents a groping after the unaccountable, the unthinkable, and the unsayable. In the space remaining, I will dwell on three such exemplary moments in O'Brien's work—moments in which the excremental assault of war proves to be almost insupportable. In each case, nothing less than a wholly new conceptualization of subjectivity is called for—a “traumatic moment of epiphany,” as it were (Žižek 34) And the recovery's success will largely depend upon the degree to which, translating Tal in the terms of both Bataille and O'Brien, the radical restructuring of personal myth will be carried forward in the direction of “things” that cannot be subordinated to anything one can discursively account for.

My first example of a promised recovery occurs, predictably enough, exactly at that moment, in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” chapter of O'Brien's Things, when the character involved disappears at its end: “She [Mary Anne Bell] had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. … She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill” (125). Mary Anne is the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of Mark Fossie whom he secretly flies from Cleveland to Vietnam to keep him company between battle maneuvers. Scandalously out of place in the battlefield, Mary Anne nonetheless is for a time tolerated by platoon members to the extent that she confirms their sexist myths of the active and aggressive male and the passive and docile female in cultures both home and abroad: “The way she looked, Mary Anne made you think about those girls back home, how clean and innocent they all are, how they'll never understand any of this, not in a billion years” (123).

But very quickly, Mary Anne becomes immersed in the excremental assault of war first hand—“She was up to her eyeballs in it,” Rat Kiley acerbically remarks (Things 123)—and as a result, gradually begins to alter her sense of self by forming new attachments to the Green Berets, undertaking to assist medically in the fields of combat, and eventually embroiling herself directly in ambush operations, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. The “new confidence in her voice, [and] new authority in the ways she carried herself” (109), in the end, instructively reveals that the trauma of wartime liminality—“that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure” (123)8—can sometimes prove to have beneficial consequences, provided, as Rat Kiley ironically observes, that “you know you're risking something”:

[Y]ou become intimate with danger; you're in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it's another hemisphere, and you want to string it out and go wherever the trip takes you and be host to all the possibilities inside yourself. Not bad, she'd said. Vietnam made her glow in the dark. She wanted more, she wanted to penetrate deeper into the mystery of herself, and after a time the wanting became needing, which turned then to craving. … She was lost inside herself.


In losing her self, echoing Bataille, to a host of possibilities not restricted in any sense to the essentializing exclusiveness of culturally approbated gender roles, trauma thus moves Mary Anne into that healthful space that “cannot be condensed into a ‘proper locus,’” to borrow the phrasing of Elspeth Probyn, and where the self finds its recovery “as a theoretical manoeuvring, not as a unifying principle” (106). And if Mary Anne Bell disappears at the end of her chapter, it's only because, like Kathy Wade in O'Brien's next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, she enters into that permanent state of missing persons where “Mystery finally claims us all” (In the Lake 304).

My second unspeakably traumatic moment that promises recovery through subjective enlargement occurs in “The Ghost Soldiers” chapter of The Things They Carried, when the narrator is wounded from behind, and narrowly escapes death from the incompetent ministradioms of an inexperienced medic terrified by battle:

So when I got shot the second time, in the butt, along the Song Tra Bong, it took the son of a bitch ten minutes to work up the nerve to crawl over to me. By then I was gone with the pain. Later I found out I'd almost died of shock. To make it worse, [the medic] bungled the patch job, and a couple of weeks later my ass started to rot away. … It was borderline gangrene. I spent a month flat on my stomach; I couldn't walk or sit; I couldn't sleep. … After the rot cleared up, once I could think straight, I devoted a lot of time to figuring ways to get back at him.

(Things 218)

In this passage, what is perhaps more insupportable for the narrator than his weeks of agonizing pain recuperating in a foreign hospital is his enforced removal from a community of men whose fierce loyalty and compassion for each other the shock of war is able to authenticate in any number of passionately charged ways—homosocial possibilities somewhat ironically belied by the narrator's vengeful intention merely to “think straight.” When the worst thing that Vietnam can do for you is “turn you sentimental,” and “make you want to hook up with girls like Mary Hopkin” (235), when the “sense of pure and total loss” in wartime comes down to finding you “didn't fit [in] anymore” (225) with “guys” who “loved one another” (221), abandoning you to “dark closets, madmen, [and] murderers” (231), when even “the clean, sterile smell of [your] rear” can suggest an insupportable “sense of separation” (221) from other men in comparison to “the awful stink of [yourself]” (227)—all of this homoerotic “double talk,” in Wayne Koestenbaum's phrase opens up an unspeakable hole in the trauma text into which Freud may have been reluctant to insert his finger (Koestenbaum 30),9 but which the narrator of The Things They Carried shows no hesitation about penetrating:

I remembered lying there for a long while, listening to the river, the gunfire and voices, how I kept calling out for a medic but how nobody came and how I finally came and how I finally reached back and touched the hole. The blood was warm like dishwater. I could feel my pants filling up with it. All this blood, I thought—I'll be hollow. Then the brittle sensation hit me. I passed out. …

(Things 238)

The extraordinary tension in this passage between abject physical pain and a kind of orgasmic pleasure—“how nobody came” and “how I finally came”—gives considerable weight to O'Brien's previous remark about the only certainty being the overwhelming ambiguity of war. But the ambiguity is there, I think, at least to enlist the possibility of legitimating notions of queer subjectivity in contexts previously unspeakable, so that for one traumatic moment, as O'Brien puts it, “the whole comrade business gets turned around” (Things 221).10

Koestenbaum observes that “[a]nal secrets filled many of Freud's letters to [Wilhelm] Fliess” (36), not the least among which in that homoerotic correspondence is Freud's excitement over “all the things that resolve themselves into—excrement for me (a new Midas!)” (Freud qtd. in Koestenbaum 36). Daniel Boyarin, more recently, has made explicit even further Freud's “associaton between the anus, anal penetration, shit, and birth-giving,” singling out Freud's “excrement babies” as “the necessary condition of sexual satisfaction from a man” (127). What we learn of the excremental privileging of anal sexuality in an early phase of psychoanalytic discourse can perhaps suggest a good deal about O'Brien's own preoccupation with the imagery of waste from the standpoint of trauma's gross re-visioning of personal and national ideologies that the recent controversy over gays in the military, for example, has only slightly begun to gesture toward.

And central to the radical recovery of anality, within a psychoanalytic revisionism at any rate, is the need to give some credence, as Boyarin writes, to the “homoerotic desire … for ‘femaleness,’ for passivity, to be the object of another man's desire, even to bear the child of another man” (129). So that when the whole comrade business gets turned around, as O'Brien puts it, it might be possible at last to “stare into the big black hole at the center of your own sorry soul” (Things 231), much like Mary Anne previously, and discover not the usual “candy-asses” (21) looking to escape the war, or the “damned sissy … taken off for Canada” (48), or even the “pussy for president” who might put an end to war (117), but a man who can transcend the homophobia compounded by misogyny in mainstream culture by the very fact of his femininity:

Frail-looking, delicately boned, the young man had never wanted to be a soldier and in his heart had feared that he would perform badly in battle. … He had no stomach for violence. He loved mathematics. His eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman's, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers, and on the playground they would mimic a woman's walk and make fun of his smooth skin and his love for mathematics. He could not make himself fight them.


Eventually, this young man will go off to war, and become the single Vietnamese victim of the narrator himself. And his senseless death will prompt the narrator, twenty years later, to return with his young daughter to Vietnam, to immerse himself in what was once the shit field of the Song Tra Bong, and bury the hatchet of a fallen Native American comrade named Kiowa, as an act of reparation and penance for the murder of a man who just possibly might have been the object of the narrator's own desire, if not enduring love.

Still, that rather pat resolution to a quite extraordinary sequence of homosexual tensions throughout The Things They Carried might suggest that the work of trauma, most active in its intractable liminality may itself have been too easily buried in the waste of war, if the irony of Rat Kiley's “plugging up holes” (not to mention the narrator's own anal wound) is at all significant. But perhaps it's O'Brien's own fixation on his victim's eyes—“one eye was shut and the other was a star-shaped hole” (Things 140)—where we catch sight of trauma's unfinished business. “I imagined the eye at the summit of the skull,” Bataille writes, “like a horrible erupting volcano … associated with the rear end and its excretions” (74). The excremental assault fomented by Bataille's pineal eye/solar anus in Visions of Excess, so like the “star-shaped hole” of the narrator's victim, will thus have to be resumed in O'Brien's next novel, where John Wade's loss to “the tangle” of self-hood will find an appropriate extension in Wade's desire “to crawl into a hole” (In the Lake 296), and disappear like his wife before him. “[T]he eye can only be opened when another eye is closed,” is Lee Edelman's extrapolation from a parallel vision of anal desire in Freud (“Piss Elegant” 153; see also 173), which seems to fit the relation between O'Brien's two novels almost precisely.11

My final example of trauma, therefore, argues for a kind of ironic recovery somewhere between the success of Mary Anne Bell earlier, and the failure of O'Brien's narrator later.12 It occurs in the “Speaking of Courage” chapter of Things when Norman Bowker, surprised by sudden mortar fire one dark night, discovers that his friend Kiowa has been swallowed up completely by the waste of the swampy battlefield and for a split second, experiences a failure of nerve: “[H]ow he had taken hold of Kiowa's boot and pulled hard, but how the smell was simply too much, and how he'd backed off and in that way had lost the Silver Star” (Things 172):

[A]nd then suddenly he felt himself going too. He could taste it. The shit was in his nose and eyes … and the stink was everywhere—it was inside his lungs—and he could no longer tolerate it. Not here, he thought. Not like this … and then he lay still and tasted the shit in his mouth and closed his eyes and listened to the rain and explosions and bubbling sounds. … A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds.


From that day forward, and for several years thereafter back in Des Moines, Norman Bowker relives that moment of weakness in his father's Chevy by driving it endlessly around a nearby lake, his carefully timed seven-mile orbits performing a kind of expiation for letting down his buddy, for falling woefully short of the expectations of his father and townsfolk, but mostly for failing the promise within himself.

Bowker's car circling the lake thus becomes a powerful metaphor not only for revolving the excremental trauma of war in its suggestive displacement onto the equally punishing domestic contexts of family and community back home—“a nucleus” around which O'Brien, in his following “Notes” chapter, would suggest his entire novel turns (Things 180). But Bowker's endless circling also brings round once again both the self-preserving and the self-denying forms of recovery at the very catastrophic center of the literature of witness. “In combat,” as Judith Herman observes, “witnessing the death of a buddy places the soldier at particularly high risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder” (54).13 Three years after Norman Bowker's chapter ends, so the narrator informs us, Bowker commits suicide, an act he seems already to anticipate—“suddenly he felt himself going too”—by relaxing his tolerance for an unfamiliar and fearful circumstance, at the very moment when all of his tenacity and resourcefulness to deal with the shock of the new are needed. Ironically, in saving his own life, he ultimately loses it. Yet those endless repetitions centered on that lake back in Iowa suggest that Bowker is in on the game at quite a different level: a perverse kind of Lacanian “enjoyment” betokened by “the circular movement which finds satisfaction in failing again and again to attain the object” (Zitek 48; emphasis added). On that level, the expenditure of effort is not directed toward any self-serving end, but (as in a quite similar Lake of the Woods in O'Brien's next work, “where all is repetition”) rather than fall back, one moves forward to a much larger although as yet imperfectly known vision of selfhood, motored, like Kathy Wade, only by “a huge and desperate wanting in her heart, wanting without object pure wanting” (In the Lake 257).

In the end, I'm tempted to argue that the liminality of Bowker's knowing just enough to understand practically nothing about himself makes him the ideal witness to trauma.14 And for the ideal readers of Vietnam literature, he continues to remain, like John Wade in In the Lake of the Woods, a little “beyond knowing”: “We are fascinated, all of us, by the implacable otherness of others. And we wish to penetrate by hypothesis, by day-dream, by scientific investigation those leaden walls that encase the human spirit, that define it and guard it and hold it forever inaccessible” (103). “I prowl and smoke cigarettes. I review my notes. The truth is at once simple and baffling: John Wade was a pro. He did his magic, then walked away. Everything else is conjecture. No answers, yet mystery itself carries me on” (269). This concluding reference to a driving mystery—“a mystery that is simply the world of the beyond” (Caruth, Unclaimed 145 n. 15)—perhaps yields the ultimate irony of Tim O'Brien's work, given his stated intention, in a recent New York Times interview, “to stop writing fiction for the foreseeable future” (“Doing” 33). This mystery may not be a bad thing if our attention is diverted back to so much else that awaits us in the discourse of trauma, where the mysteries of recovery more properly lie. “The Vietnam experience,” as one character from Things cryptically attests, “I mean, wow, I love this shit” (237).


  1. Indeed, the “belated” recognition of the significance of the whole “Vietnam” experience forms a chief aspect of its conceptualization in the context of psychic trauma as I attempt to locate it here. As Cathy Caruth observes in Unclaimed Experience, “Traumatic experience beyond the psychological dimension of suffering it involves, suggests a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it; that immediacy, paradoxically, may take the form of belatedness” (92).

  2. Thus, as Tina Chen recently observed, “O'Brien's stories are not about recovering from trauma or resolving the conflicts contributing to or created by the war in any permanent way; they are about accepting indeterminacy and learning to live not through Vietnam but with it” (80).

  3. Of the three broad experiences of trauma dealt with in her important Trauma and Recovery, namely hysteria, shell shock, and sexual abuse (Herman 9), Judith Herman deals with the particular instance of “Vietnam” throughout her study under the second heading, and refers to O'Brien's Things as a leading instance (see 38, 52, 137). For similar treatments of the Vietnam experience in this psychomedical context, see also Kulka et al., Lifton, and Figley and Levantman.

  4. Kalí Tal references her comments specifically to Philip Beidler's American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (1982), John Hellman's American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (1986), and Thomas Myers's Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam (1988), among other important theoretical works that tend to totalize the experience of the Vietnam War (Tal 218-23).

  5. In Lacanian terms, the most radical restructuring of subjective “myth,” as Slavoj Žižek points out, “triggering a traumatic crackup of our psychic balance,” will come from the direction of the Real as “the previously unthinkable,” hence “alien to the symbolic order” (11)—the “life substance [ironically] that proves a shock for the symbolic universe” (22). “What ultimately interrupts the continuous flow of words, what hinders the smooth running of the symbolic circuit, is the traumatic presence of the Real: when the words stay out, we have to look not for imaginary resistances but for the object that came too close” (23)—“an objectival remainder—excrement” (43). Caruth also alludes to the Lacanian address in Žižek to theorize trauma as “an ‘escape’ from the real into ideology” (Unclaimed 142 n. 9). Žižek also insightfully remarks that suicide is often at the center of subjectivity's encounter with the Real, an important aspect of O'Brien's Things that I shall return to later. But on the duplicitous (rather than salubrious) sense of “recovery” just scanned, Žižek notes that we often notice in acts of suicide “a desperate attempt to recover the traumatic encounter of the Real … by means of integrating it into a symbolic universe of guilt, locating it within an ideological field, and thus conferring meaning upon it” (42). This last idea will gradually become clearer as we proceed.

  6. On language's inablility to “explicate” the trauma of war just noted, Caruth, in her important collection of essays on the subject, remarks generally upon “the way [traumatic experience] escapes full consciousness as it occurs,” that it “cannot, as Georges Bataille says, become a matter of ‘intelligence,’” and that “it seems to evoke the difficult truth of a history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of its occurrence” (“Recapturing” 153).

  7. I have discussed these aspects of the Vietnam conflict at some length previously in “‘Standing by His Word’: The Politics of Allen Ginsberg's Vietnam ‘Vortex.’” For a further expansion of the Vietnam experience in the context of trauma as a “crisis of truth” and “a crisis of evidence,” see Felman 17 and passim.

  8. O'Brien's phrase here comes remarkably close to Žižek's unpacking of Lacan's trauma-discourse: “even if the psychic apparatus is entirely left to itself, it will not attain the balance for which the ‘pleasure principle’ strives, but will continue to circulate around a traumatic intruder in its interior. … [T]he Lacanian name for this ‘pleasure in pain’ is of course enjoyment (jouissance) … the circular movement [of] which finds satisfaction in failing again and again to attain the object” (48). For the liminal “in-betweenness” of the traumatic experience, Caruth looks before Lacan to Freud, where the “temporal definition of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle seems to be an extension of his early understanding of trauma as being locatable not in one moment alone but in the relation between two moments … [in] the description of the traumatic experience in terms of its temporal unlocatability” (Unclaimed 133 n. 8).

  9. Freud's English translator, James Strachey, wrote in a footnote: “At this point (so Freud told the present editor, with his finger on an open copy of the book) there is a hiatus in the text [of Josef Breuer and Freud's collaboration, Studies on Hysteria, wherein the hysterical childbirth of Anna O. had been deliberately omitted by Breuer]” (qtd. in Koestenbaum 29). Comments Koestenbaum: “Anna's unmentionable pseudomotherhood is the hole in Breuer's text; her pregnancy is as unspeakable as the hole in Breuer where Freud inserts his ‘finger,’ filling up a space that the elder [Breuer] modestly (and flagrantly) leaves open. Leaving holes in his text is Breuer's style of seduction: these blanks encourage Freud's participation” (29-30). Caruth follows Henry Krystal in underscoring trauma as a kind of psychic discourse in which “a void, a hole is found” (“Traumatic” 6).

  10. O'Brien's wordplay on “whole” in this passage yields a further means of comprehending the traumatic Real in the context of subjective enlargement, setting us as it does before “[a]n identification with what psychoanalysis calls the ‘anal object,’ a remainder, an amorphous leftover of some harmonious Whole [for which] Lacan quotes Luther's sermons: ‘You are the excrement which fell on the earth through the Devil's anus’” (Žižek 178). Comments Žižek, “[W]hat we have here is the opposition between a harmonious work of art [“straight” readings of O'Brien's novel, perhaps?] and the queer remainder which sticks out” (179).

  11. Edelman secures several extraordinary intertextual linkages between Freud and Alfred Hitchcock on the eye as an image of anal desire in the manner of Bataille, and one instance in particular, occurring at the end of Hitchcock's Psycho, sets up an uncanny resonance with O'Brien's text on this issue: “But [the film] cannot (a)void the end to which its narrative logic compels it: a vision of the swamp as toilet, as the cavernous place of shit, disclosing the back end of Marion's car, like the eye that emerged from the drain, and with it the winking caption that names this site of waste as ‘the end’” (“Piss Elegant” 165). Hence, the problematic of “plugging up holes” in the unfinished business of O'Brien's decidedly anal-oriented text noted previously forms an instructive intersection with Edelman's own conclusion: “Thus Freud, like Hitchcock or like Norman Bates, dreamed of exchanging an eye for an eye, of voiding the telltale stain of the anus staring back from every hole. … [Yet,] ‘it is not easy for anyone to serve two masters’ …—insofar, that is, as [normalization] seeks to shut that eye by plugging the anal hole, must only stage anew the vision of anal desire and guarantee the blind logic of its inevitable return” (“Piss Elegant” 173).

  12. If irony is the trashy trope of trauma, noted earlier, then in the context of the fuller recovery of selfhood in O'Brien's fiction, Paul de Man is enormously instructive on its rhetorical deployments when he asserts, “Irony comes into being when self-consciousness loses its control over itself. For me, at least, the way I think of it now, irony is not a figure of self-consciousness. It's a break, an interruption, a disruption. It is a moment of loss of control, and not just for the author but for the reader as well” (qtd. in Edelman, Homographesis 225).

  13. Herman further elaborates:

    Hendin and Haas found in their study of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder [“Suicide and Guilt Manifestation of PTSD in Vietnam Combat Veterans”] that a significant minority had made suicide attempts (19 percent) or were constantly preoccupied with suicide (15 percent). Most of the men who were persistently suicidal had had heavy combat exposure. They suffered from unresolved guilt about their wartime experiences and from severe, unremitting anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic symptoms. Three of the men died by suicide during the course of the study.


    What is more, “Caught in a political conflict that should have been resolved before their lives were placed at risk, returning soldiers often felt traumatized a second time when they encountered public criticism and rejection of the war they had fought and lost” (71).

  14. Claude Lanzmann, in his essay-contribution to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, cites Lacan precisely to the same effect: “[O]ne of the things which we should be watching out for most, is not to understand too much, not to understand more than what there is in the discourse of the subject. … I will even say that it is on the basis of a certain refusal of understanding that we open the door onto psychoanalytic understanding” (qtd. in Lanzmann 204).

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Theory and History of Literature 14. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.

Boyarin, Daniel. “Freud's Baby, Fliess's Maybe: Homophobia, Anti-Semitism, and the Invention of Oedipus.” Pink Freud. Ed. Diana Fuss. Spec. issue of GLQ:A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2.1-2 (1995): 115-47.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

———. Introduction. “Recapturing the Past.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory 151-57.

———. Introduction. “Traumatic Experience.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory 3-12.

———, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Chen, Tina. “‘Unraveling the Deeper Meaning’: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1998): 77-98.

Edelman, Lee. “Piss Elegant: Freud, Hitchcock, and the Micturating Penis” Pink Freud. Ed. Diana Fuss. Spec. issue of GLQ:A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2.1-2 (1995): 149-77.

———. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Felman, Shoshana. “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching” Trauma: Explorations in Memory 13-60.

Figley, C., and Levantman, S., eds. Strangers at Home:Vietnam Veterans Since the War. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Ed. and trans. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic, 1997.

Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Avon, 1978.

Jarraway, David R. “‘Standing by His Word’: The Politics of Allen Ginsberg's Vietnam ‘Vortex.’” Journal of American Culture 16.3 (1993): 81-88.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. New York, Routledge, 1989.

Kulka, R. A., et al. Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1990.

Lanzmann, Claude. “The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory 200-20.

Lifton, R. J. Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners. New York: Simon, 1973.

Myers, Thomas. Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

O'Brien, Tim. Interview. “Doing the Popular Thing.” The New York Times Book Review 9 Oct. 1994: 33.

———. In the Lake of the Woods. Boston: Houghton, 1994.

———. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton, 1990.

Probyn, Elspeth. Sexing the Self: Gendered Positions in Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Tal, Kalí. “Speaking the Language of Pain: Vietnam War Literature in the Context of a Literature of Trauma.” Fourteen Landing Zones:Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Ed. Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991. 217-50.

Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Christopher D. Campbell (essay date fall-winter 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Campbell, Christopher D. “Conversation across a Century: The War Stories of Ambrose Bierce and Tim O'Brien.” WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 10, no. 2 (fall-winter 1998): 267-88.

[In the following essay, Campbell finds similarities between the The Things They Carried and the war stories of Ambrose Bierce.]

There is a certain brotherhood of warriors, a commonality of experience, that transcends time and the differences between individual wars. The decision of whether to go to war or to avoid it, the task of conducting oneself appropriately in situations that have no parallels in peace, the frustrations that result from beholding waste and stupidity and death at close range, and the difficult transition to civilian life (provided one survives) are some of the principal elements that distinguish this fraternity.1 Frequently, members of this brotherhood will recount their experiences in memoirs or histories, but these accounts tend to be specific, personal, and dated—rooted in and limited by their attempt to recount factual truths. Rarely, however, a former soldier becomes a genuine writer—someone capable of translating his mundane reality into a transcendent fiction—someone who understands Tim O'Brien's dictum that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth” (O'Brien 203). Two such men, separated in time by the passage of a century, but linked by their experiences and the art those experiences produced, are Ambrose Bierce and Tim O'Brien.

Their wars and their armies could hardly have been more different. The American Civil War, though it has been called the first modern war (largely for the scale of its destruction and bloodshed), was also the last of another age in its battlefield tactics and organization. The same man who would be dubbed “The King of Spades” for his employment of trench warfare in the defense of Richmond would also order the last Napoleonic charge at Gettysburg. The massed movement of troops in formation on an open field of battle bore little resemblance to the campaign of ambush, containment, and pacification that would be waged in tropical jungles, tunnels, and villages a century later. The largely volunteer army, in which men who had grown up in the same state if not the same town fought side by side on native ground against former countrymen and sometimes still blood kin, was markedly different from the melting pot of largely reluctant draftees that found itself engaged half-way around the world against an enemy as “other” to them as any on earth. Yet, in the literature of these two men, similarities of theme and treatment exist that bridge those differences and more yet to be conceived, and that attest to the universality of the soldier's experience. Likewise, differences of tone and meaning in the tales of each tell us more about contrasts between the philosophies of their authors than the dissimilarities of their wars or times.

The first decision that faces many a fit young man in a time of war is whether or not he will fight. In Bierce's day, that question was sometimes made all the more difficult by the necessity, in choosing to fight, of also choosing a side. Indeed, an unwillingness to fight against one's blood kin or former friends was doubtless a factor in many decisions to avoid military service. The decision to fight, however, was apparently an easy one for Bierce. On 19 April 1861, “Bierce became the second man in Elkhart County [Indiana] to enlist in the Union army” (Morris 19). Indeed, in the most recent contribution to Bierce biography, Roy Morris Jr. covers Bierce's young life before the beginning of the war in a swift nineteen pages, but one gets the sense that had the rest of his family enlisted on the side of the South, Bierce might have been the first in his county to join the Union cause. Thus, Bierce's own life holds no parallel to the soul-searching of O'Brien's “On the Rainy River,” where the semi-fictional2 first-person protagonist of The Things They Carried must come to grips with his draft notice.

But for many of Bierce's peers, the decision was not so easy. As Morris points out, William Dean Howells, Henry James Jr., Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and Samuel Clemens all found ways to serve that did not involve putting themselves in harm's way. Or else they avoided the conflict entirely, heading west to the territories or east to Europe, leaving “less gifted, less learned, but physically braver Ambrose Bierce” as “the only one to make anything approaching great art out of the looming national calamity” (23).

Empathy is the strength of the writer, however, and though Bierce did not seem to face any trying decisions about whether to fight or on which side, he could appreciate the dilemma of those who did, as he demonstrated in his story, “A Horseman in the Sky.” At the core of this story, Bierce no doubt had Robert E. Lee's momentous decision in mind. A man with absolutely no enthusiasm for secession, Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but when his home state seceded, he could not escape what he felt was a higher obligation to Virginia. The protagonist of Bierce's story, a Virginian named Carter Druse, made the opposite decision, announcing one morning at breakfast, “Father, a Union regiment has arrived at Grafton. I am going to join it” (79).3 In the scene which follows, one can almost imagine the dialogue with self, the internal war of words that Lee must have waged as he paced the floor all night before his resignation from the Army of the United States. “The father lifted his leonine head, looked at the son a moment in silence, and replied: ‘Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you’” (79). Those citizens of the South whose consciences directed them to take arms against their home states faced a lose-lose decision. A choice to fight on either side left them traitors to either their consciences or their homelands. Likely, many whose sentiments lay with Union or with Abolition ended up fighting on the Southern side, because, as O'Brien puts it in “On the Rainy River,” they were cowards. Facing his own demons, O'Brien's narrator explains,

It was a kind of schizophrenia. A moral split. I couldn't make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. … I feared ridicule and censure. My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted, and it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Café on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O'Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada.


Substitute “traitor” and “the North” for “sissy” and “Canada” and you have the dilemma of the Southerner whose heart and conscience are with the Union cause. Follow O'Brien's story to its conclusion, and you find a modern parallel for the Confederate soldier who fights not for The Cause, but to save face. With the Canadian shore in sight, O'Brien's narrator faces a bitter truth:

Right then … I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave. … It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was. … I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.


In general, Bierce gives more attention to the opposite side of this dilemma. Rather than exploring the issue of moral cowardice and its role in filling the ranks of the army, Bierce chooses to focus on the price of moral bravery. For O'Brien's narrator the imagined costs of such a choice are overwhelming. He caves. He fights for a cause he does not believe in. At least two of Bierce's stories take as their themes the very real paradoxical costs of moral bravery that can only arise in a civil war.

One such story is the already mentioned “A Horseman in the Sky.” Bierce continues,

So Carter Druse, bowing reverently to his father, who returned the salute with a stately courtesy that masked a breaking heart, left the home of his childhood to go soldiering. By conscience and courage, by deeds of devotion and daring, he soon commended himself to his fellows and his officers; and it was to these qualities and to some knowledge of the country that he owed his selection for his present perilous duty at the extreme outpost.


There is no hint of cowardice here, no irony in Bierce's description of Druse's “brave, compassionate heart” (81). Neither human frailty nor malice form the themes of this story. Rather, the courage to do one's duty and the tremendous cost of that courage in such a war as this drive Bierce's themes. When forced by military necessity to take the life of a Confederate scout who has detected a Union march, the success of which depends on surprise, Druse does so. He pauses, it is true, but finally, “The duty of a soldier was plain: the man must be shot dead. … In his memory, as if they were a divine mandate, rang the words of his father at their parting: ‘Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.’ … He fired” (81-82). The Confederate scout is, of course, the elder Druse. Duty is Carter Druse's curse and his salvation. Duty demanded he fight in opposition to his homeland and his family, but it is duty which enables him to live with the consequences. He finds resolution and solace in his father's mandate. “He was calm now. … Duty had conquered; the spirit said to the body: ‘Peace, be still’” (82). The reader may be outraged, but at whom can the outrage be directed? If there is Biercean irony in this story, it is in the final remark of the shocked sergeant as he walks away from the patricide, “Good God!” (85).

An equally illuminating study is “The Affair at Coulter's Notch,” a story which takes the dilemma of having chosen the side of conscience still a step further. An artillery officer with the Union Army, Captain Coulter is ordered to silence a Confederate battery positioned near a plantation house. The reader familiar with Bierce's style can see the story's ending coming from the moment a young adjutant remarks to Coulter's colonel that, “there is something wrong in all this. Do you happen to know that Captain Coulter is from the South?” (147). The general who has ordered Coulter to engage the Confederate guns has been insulted by Coulter's “red-hot Secessionist” wife at some earlier date when the division was encamped near Coulter's home. The plantation house is, of course, Coulter's, and the story ends with a fiendishly powder-grimed, bloody, and tear-streaked Coulter cradling his dead wife and child and revealing this truth to the colonel.

The most important theme of “The Affair at Coulter's Notch,” however, is not the dilemma of the Southerner fighting against the South. Rather, the central issue of this story is the perfidy of the general who orders Coulter to the task, knowing the house to be Coulter's, expecting Coulter's family to be there, and hoping to dispatch Coulter, wife, and child in a single demonic engagement to assuage his own damaged pride. At one point, the militarily sound option of silencing the Confederate guns with more effective if less destructive fire from Federal infantry snipers is refused. The colonel's answer that “the general's orders for the infantry not to fire are still in force” (147) makes clear the nature of the engagement as a private vendetta. This sacrifice of human life on the altar of selfish pride is perhaps the bitterest theme of Bierce's war stories. It is one he repeats, even more explicitly in “One Kind of Officer.”

Bierce's title invites judgment and demands discrimination. What kind of officer is this? It is the same kind as the general whose wounded pride finds balm in the destruction of the Coulter family. In fact, it is, in some ways, a reversal of that story, and one with a more poetically just outcome. In “One Kind of Officer,” it is the subordinate artillerist, Captain Ransome, whose pride is wounded by General Cameron and who seeks revenge by following orders to the letter—orders which result in the senseless slaughter of hundreds of men on his own side. The discriminating factor in determining what kind of officer this is, is not whether or not he blindly follows orders. Both Captain Ransome and his subordinate, Lieutenant Price, follow their orders to the letter, and neither does so blindly. Yet one is justified by the outcome and the other is clearly not. Rather, the discriminator here, if there is one, is whether the officers follow their conscience. Informed that he is firing on his own men, Ransome does not cease. At the height of his madness, the captain himself dispatches a Union color bearer with a pistol shot. That Lieutenant Price's “I know nothing” results in the eventual and just execution of Ransome, however, does not make the lieutenant a better officer; it merely demonstrates that his vengeance is better aimed. One mustn't forget that the lieutenant also knew of the mistake and informed the captain of it, and received precisely the same insult that the captain had suffered from the general, “It is not permitted to you to know anything. It is sufficient that you obey my orders” (202). Clearly the lieutenant, in informing the captain of his battery's mistaken “friendly fire” (an oxymoron even more profound than “civil war”) expected the captain to give the order to cease fire. When the captain did not, that responsibility devolved upon the lieutenant. Though the firing did end almost immediately thereafter, Bierce's simple comment, “The lieutenant went to his post,” gives no indication that he was any more likely to countermand an insulting and immoral order and stop the slaughter than was the captain. Thus, his complicity in this crime is only slightly less than the captain's, and if he escapes a firing squad in the end, it is more a comment on the unequal fortunes of war than on his quality as an officer. In these men who follow orders in direct contradiction to the simplest standards of decency, Bierce's tale foreshadows the pleas of the Nazi SS tried in the aftermath of World War II.

Though few reach Captain Ransome's level of heinousness, the role of officers is a frequent theme in Bierce's war fiction. Like many in the Union Army, Bierce blamed the protraction of the war and the profusion of the bloodshed largely on poor leadership. In “An Affair of Outposts” he minces no words in attributing to Grant's “manifest incompetence” (174) the slaughter and near Union disaster that was Shiloh. If Bierce were given the task of writing the Officer's Field Manual, one might gather from his fiction that his first rule would be simply: “Do no harm.” The harm that poor officership can and does cause is all too evident in both Bierce's stories and his memoirs. On May 27, 1864, Bierce was present when Generals Wood and Howard sent

a weak brigade of fifteen hundred men, with masses of idle troops behind in the character of audience, [marching] a quarter-mile uphill through almost impassable tangles of underwood, along and across precipitous ravines, [to] attack breastworks constructed at leisure and manned with two divisions of troops as good as themselves.


Bierce labels the act a “criminal blunder” and titles his account of it “The Crime at Pickett's Mill.”

If Bierce's proscriptive rule would be “do no harm,” his prescriptive corollary would condense Robert E. Lee's sublime ruminations on the subject4 to simply: “Do your duty.” Furthermore, Bierce has great disdain for those who expect praise for doing no more than what is necessary and expected, and equal disdain for those willing to heap it on them. The following excerpt from Bierce's commentary in the Sunday, July 31, 1898, San Francisco Examiner may be his most thorough expression of this philosophy outside his fiction:

I venture to submit that the enthusiastic young gentlemen who send us military news from the several war-centers are a trifle too repetitive in their praise of “coolness.” In every engagement on sea or land they are profoundly affected by the tranquil self-possession of our officers in the “hail of shot and shell” or “storm of bullets.” It would be interesting to know how these admiring scribes think that an officer might naturally be expected to act. Do they look for him to gnash his teeth, tear his hair, roll his eyes and stamp like a beeherder that has mistaken his vocation? Would it be more in accordance with the laws of nature and the fitness of things for him to pass the few precious moments of actual fighting in dodging bullets and yelling unintelligible warnings to the men whose work he has undertaken to direct and supervise? Possibly the correspondents have not learned that the first and most elementary duty of an officer in action is to keep his head on straight and his heart out of his mouth. For doing so he is entitled to the same praise that is the due of any man who does rather well the work the [sic] he has in hand and to no more. Let us have a rest from the apotheosis of “coolness.”

(Skepticism 88-89)

Still, though coolness may be what is expected, even Bierce knew too well that men's courage frequently falls short of their own expectations. In “One Officer, One Man,” Captain Graffenried, an officer heretofore condemned to safe but inglorious duty at higher headquarters, finally has a chance at combat. “He was in a state of mental exaltation and scarcely could endure the enemy's tardiness in advancing to the attack. To him this was opportunity. … Victory or defeat … in one or in the other he should prove himself a soldier and a hero” (208). In the end, he thrusts his own sword through his heart, unable to bear the suspense of waiting for an attack that never comes.

O'Brien, too, takes up the theme of how men handle the awesome fear of combat, extending his theory of how they ended up there to begin with in the chapter from which the larger work takes its name. Among the things men carried in Vietnam, O'Brien lists,

the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place. … They were too frightened to be cowards.


This issue of pride masquerading as courage is one of the points of Bierce's “Killed at Resaca.” Lieutenant Herman Brayle is eventually shot and killed, largely because he will never take cover under fire, and as Bierce observes dryly, “He who ignores the law of probabilities challenges an adversary that is seldom beaten” (136). When the narrator of the story, who has come into possession of Brayle's personal effects, finds in them a letter and reads it a year after the war, he finds the reason for Brayle's foolhardy displays of “bravery.” The letter, from Brayle's beloved, Miss Marian Mendenhall, reads:

Mr. Winters, whom I shall always hate for it, has been telling that at some battle in Virginia, where he got his hurt, you were seen crouching behind a tree. I think he wants to injure you in my regard, which he knows the story would do if I believed it. I could bear to hear of my soldier lover's death, but not of his cowardice.


Brayle has carried his reputation and Miss Mendenhall's letter (later returned to her stained with his blood) to his death. As a whole, however, Bierce's tale is more a misogynistic indictment of those who would incite such vanity of courage rather than an empathetic portrayal of those who display it. The letter carried by Brayle expresses sentiments nearly the opposite of those in letters carried by O'Brien's Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, in which “Martha had never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself” (23).

Lieutenant Cross forms O'Brien's principal treatment of the weight of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of line officers. In general, O'Brien is gentler on the human race as a whole than is “Bitter Bierce,” and his portrayal of officers is no exception. We have seen Bierce's attitude toward the treachery of officers who spend the lives of their men for their own private gain or vendettas, and we have seen how clearly Bierce put the blame for most of the Union defeats on failures of leadership. O'Brien's presentation of Cross is far more sympathetic than almost anything in Bierce. When Cross makes costly mistakes, they haunt him terribly, but he learns from them. Similarly, there are no examples in The Things They Carried of anyone to match Bierce's Captain Ransome, or the general at Coulter's Notch. These Biercean characters are willful perpetrators—calculating and unremorseful. It may be evidence of another hundred years of progress toward the egalitarian American ideal that O'Brien's officers seem equally victimized by the war as do their men. Speaking of officers in Vietnam, O'Brien has said, “The enlisted men—the common grunts—preferred an officer who put the emphasis of man over mission” (McNerney 6). Accordingly, O'Brien's Cross is another example of how his preference to offer the positive model contrasts with Bierce's satirist's preference for portraying the opposite.

After any war short of total annihilation, a society faces the task of reintegration of the survivors. It is only in the last twenty years, in the aftermath of Vietnam, that the difficulty of this task has begun to receive widespread acknowledgment. Terms such as “post-traumatic stress syndrome” have made their way from the psychiatrist's office into the general vocabulary. O'Brien addresses this theme specifically in “Speaking of Courage” and in “Notes.” In the former, Norman Bowker spends an entire day driving around a lake near his hometown. “The war was over and there was no place in particular to go” (157). Bowker is burdened with memories of the war, with stories, with tortured feelings of personal failure, and has no one to share them with. Like Bierce, who according to Morris, held “an often-stated belief that part of himself had died in the war” (51), Bowker complains to the narrator of “Notes,” “It's almost like I got killed over in Nam … Hard to describe” (178). In “Notes,” we learn that Bowker eventually hanged himself. We also learn from “Notes” something of, if not the motivation, at least the value of writing about one's war experiences:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don't. Yet … it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened … and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.


Although both men spent time as journalists after their respective wars, O'Brien began to publish stories of Vietnam before the war was even fully over and left journalism to write full time following the publication of his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973). Bierce, on the other hand, spent over a quarter of a century as a journalist and was perhaps the best known satirist of his day by the time he published his first collection of stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, in 1892. This marked difference in the two men's careers may account, at least in part, for some of the differences in their fictions.

There is certainly, however, one remarkable parallel in both their lives and their fiction, and that is their visits to their old battlefields after their wars have passed, and the fictional accounts which preceded each. Bierce's “A Resumed Identity” and O'Brien's “Field Trip” bear remarkable similarities in both theme and action, but the differences in their meaning and outcome are perhaps as good a contrast of these men's philosophies as can be found. Both penned these pieces in anticipation of their actual visits to the ground. Bierce's visit would not come until the year before his mysterious disappearance, when, en route from Washington to Mexico, he made a tour of his old battlefields (Morris 251), including that of the Battle of Stones River, the setting for the short story. O'Brien's similar return to the fields of Vietnam would not occur until 1994 (McNerney 2), four years after the publication of “Field Trip” in The Things They Carried.

In a 1994 interview, O'Brien remarks that, “in a large way, the feeling of going back to Vietnam was exactly the way I'd imagined it. That's the power of human imagination. That's why I think we love stories so much. They are future predictors” (4). One must wonder if perhaps it is Bierce's story O'Brien has in mind, for it predicts a significant aspect of O'Brien's experience. Bierce opens his tale with an old man watching an army of ghostly soldiers move silently through the landscape before him. O'Brien does not use ghosts to create his storytruth in “Field Trip,” but they were very much a part of his happening-truth when it finally came. Barely a month after his return to the States, O'Brien said of his visit:

There's nothing left on my firebase in terms of barbed wire or buildings, not a scrap. But the outline of the hills on which the firebase was placed is the outline as it was a long time ago, minus all the buildings. In a spooky way, it looks as if ghosts are inhabiting the place now. … The ghosts are still there. It's as if you close your eyes, you can see the paddies and villages and firebases and so on; you can almost hear the soldiers laughing and drinking. It makes you believe in a spirit world.


In O'Brien's story itself, the parallels with Bierce's, if coincidental, are uncanny. Each story takes place long after the battles have passed. In each, the land and its people have once again returned to agriculture. In Bierce, once the ghost soldiers have passed away and the day begins to dawn, the protagonist surveys the scene before him:

On every side lay cultivated fields showing no sign of war and war's ravages. From the chimneys of the farmhouses thin ascensions of blue smoke signaled preparations for a day's peaceful toil. … A Negro … prefixing a team of mules to the plow, was flatting and sharping contentedly at his task.


Compare this to the description O'Brien's protagonist gives when, revisiting Vietnam, he arrives at the site of what is the central traumatic event of The Things They Carried, the death of Kiowa:

No ghosts—just a flat grassy field. The place was at peace. There were yellow butterflies. There was a breeze and a wide blue sky. Along the river two old farmers stood in ankle-deep water, repairing the same narrow dike where we had laid out Kiowa's body after pulling him from the muck. … One of the farmers looked up and shaded his eyes, staring across the field at us, then after a time he wiped his forehead and went back to work.


When Bierce's protagonist thinks himself deaf because he cannot hear the passing troops, he “said so, and heard his own voice, although it had an unfamiliar quality that almost alarmed him” (240). Having spoken in the midst of the field, the fictional O'Brien remarks, “My voice surprised me. It had a rough, chalky sound, full of things I did not know were there” (212).

The parallels seem too extensive to be coincidental, and one could hardly want them to be. The already healing and optimistic conclusion of O'Brien's tale becomes even more so with Bierce's darker finish as a foil. The old Civil War veteran, for he is both old and amnesiac, eventually finds his way to Hazen's monument on the Stones River battlefield. There, faced finally with the reality of a lost lifetime, the old man beholds his reflection in a pool of clear water, and horrified, falls face downward into it and dies. Bierce's old man is the Civil War equivalent of Norman Bowker. But such is not the fate of O'Brien's narrator. Nearly everything is reversed. The fictional O'Brien of the story comes not to find a monument, but to leave one, Kiowa's moccasins, in the field. The pool is not clear; it is sewage. O'Brien does not fall face first in it and die; instead, he sits in it and slaps hands with the water like a child in a bathtub, and feels, “something go shut in my heart, while something else swung open.” Finally, he arises to go on with life, telling his daughter at last, “All that's finished” (213).

By this point, it should be clear that whatever the similarities of war that both Bierce and O'Brien beheld, the tinting of the spectacles through which they viewed them was vastly different. It is not without reason that Bierce was nicknamed “Bitter Bierce.” The difference in their perceptions is evident throughout their works.

In O'Brien's, there is no less waste of life and potential, but it results from the sheer dumb luck of war. When Kiowa slips under the mud in “Speaking of Courage” and “In the Field,” Lieutenant Cross eventually rationalizes that “it was one of those freak things, and the war was full of freaks, and nothing could ever change it anyway” (198). In contrast, Bierce's stories, more often than not, revolve around clearly human agency in the perpetration of disaster. Even when there is human agency in O'Brien, as in Cross's choice to set up on the shit field into which Kiowa sinks, the agency is that of stupidity, mistake, or oversight. The key is that it lacks volition. In Bierce the agency is more often human malevolence.

Part of this difference is accounted for by each author's philosophy of fiction. Clearly, Bierce has a moral in mind, something to teach, a judgment to make. For O'Brien, didacticism has no place in a war story. “I pretty much believe,” he says in the interview with McNerney, “that war stories don't carry morals. You should keep them as close to the bone as possible without embroidery, without much but the facts” (8-9). This different approach to the purpose of fiction helps to account, as much as the passage of a century, for the marked difference in tone between the works of these two authors. The difference between Bierce's fiction and O'Brien's is the difference between a lesson and the test. O'Brien goes on to say,

All stories have at their heart an essential moral function, which isn't only to put yourself into someone's shoes, but to go beyond that and put yourself into someone else's moral framework. How would you behave in that world? What is the moral thing to do and not to do? …

Fiction in general, and war stories in particular, serve a moral function, but not to give you lessons, not to tell you how to act. Rather, they present you with philosophical problems, then ask you to try to adjudicate them in some way or another.


This attitude accounts for one of the most significant differences in these stories. O'Brien's evoke sympathy. They evoke understanding. One may be overwhelmed with awe at the circumstances O'Brien's characters endured, and though the reader may occasionally feel an urge to pass judgment, it is seldom because O'Brien has invited it. Bierce, on the other hand, is in the business of judgment. The earlier author's greatest successes came not in the field of fiction, but as a journalistic satirist, as one whose daily task was to point out fault, stupidity, corruption, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and all the infinite mundane vices that have plagued the human race from time immemorial. Sympathy was hardly ever Bierce's goal, except when sympathy for the victim of some offense would serve to intensify the condemnation of its perpetrator. Thus, the purpose of Captain Armisted's death in “An Affair of Outposts,” his life having been sacrificed in order to save the Governor's, is not meant to evoke sadness at his death so much as to add something like the sin of murder to the Governor's already significant burden of adultery and deceit. Like Carter Druse, who sacrifices his own father, and Captain Coulter, who sacrifices his home, wife, and child, Captain Armisted, who by this point in the story is aware that it is the Governor who has seduced Armisted's wife, sacrifices himself to a sense of duty.

A key to the focus of Bierce's fictions is where credibility lies, and that focus, again, is not on noble sacrifice, but on selfish frailty. It is with some difficulty that the reader accepts the actions of these noble protagonists. Few would be willing or able to make these same decisions, or take these same actions. Few in Carter Druse's position would sacrifice their father. Most in Captain Coulter's position would train their guns on those of the Confederates not so near the house. And most, if not all, with Armisted's knowledge of the Governor's very personal betrayal, would delight in sacrificing him to the grim reaper of war, given half an opportunity to do so. Perhaps this tendency of Bierce's to cause his characters to act in ways contrary to all intuition and most human nature explains his fondness for, even dependence on, the surprise ending. In many cases, his stories would work no other way. The reader would simply reject the actions of his characters as unbelievable at too early a stage in the story for Bierce to make his point. By withholding an essential portion of the truth, Bierce lulls his readers into accepting the story's action before they have reason to question its plausibility.

This failure to evoke lasting empathy in the mind of the reader may explain why of all Bierce's Civil War short stories only “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has garnered significant acclaim. Although this story employs the typical Biercean surprise ending, that ending, in this case, does not destroy the credibility of the action. Rather, the reader's identification with the protagonist is actually increased by the revelation of the truth. Whereas Peyton Farquhar's miraculous and heroic escape might stretch credibility for a short while, the final realization that it has all taken place in his mind leaves the reader with a heightened sense of reality and identification. This is in sharp contrast with the typical Biercean ending, which may occasionally achieve surprise (though only if the reader is new to Bierce), but at the cost of shattering identification, credibility, and catharsis.

Quite the opposite is typical of O'Brien. While treating many of the same themes, O'Brien does so in a manner realistic and simple, without depending on trick endings and without being didactic. The result is an identification with his characters that is lasting. This vicarious immersion in a character is explicitly one of O'Brien's goals as a writer. O'Brien finds great satisfaction in the letters he receives from readers, especially women, who say, “Thank you for writing this book because now I feel something in terms of identification, and in terms of participation that I didn't feel before. My husband can't talk about it, but now I sort of understand why he doesn't, why he can't” (McNerney 24). “The whole creative joy,” says O'Brien, “is to touch the hearts of people whose hearts otherwise wouldn't be touched” (25).

In the end, it is their contrasting approaches to fiction, more than the passage of a century, which distinguishes Ambrose Bierce and Tim O'Brien. The goal of the satirist—and it was this role that Bierce was never able to fully escape—is to reform the heart, gaining access through the mind. The goal of a writer like O'Brien is to inform the mind, gaining access through the heart. To borrow a phrase from war, the latter campaign is waged on better ground.


  1. Though we continue to move toward erasing the gender distinction of our warriors, we are not there yet, and for the purposes of this essay, the choice of such gendered terms is conscious. As O'Brien himself notes, “One fact we live with … is that women don't serve in combat in western societies, much” (McNerney 18).

  2. The copyright page of The Things They Carried contains the following disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” I use the term “semifictional” here because part of the genius of The Things They Carried is the impossibility of knowing with certainty where those “few details” leave off and “story-truth” picks up.

  3. All page references to Bierce's stories are from McCann's 1956 collection.

  4. Memorization of Lee's quote is required of every entering class at the United States' military academies: “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

Works Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. Ambrose Bierce's Civil War. Ed. William McCann. Washington: Regnery, 1956.

———. Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1989-1901. Ed. Lawrence I. Berkove. Ann Arbor: Delmas, 1980.

McNerney, Brian C. “Responsibly Inventing History: An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” War, Literature & the Arts 6:2 (1994): 1-26.

Morris, Roy, Jr. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Crown, 1995.

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 1990. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Farrell O'Gorman (essay date fall-winter 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: O'Gorman, Farrell. “The Things They Carried as Composite Novel.” WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 10, no. 2 (fall-winter 1998): 289-309.

[In the following essay, O'Gorman examines The Things They Carried as a composite novel.]

I feel I'm experimenting all the time. But the difference is this: I am experimenting not for the joy of experimenting, but rather to explore meaning and themes and dramatic discovery … I don't enjoy tinkering for the joy of tinkering, and I don't like reading books merely for their artifice. I want to see things and explore moral issues when I read, not get hit over the head by the tools of the trade.

(Anything Can Happen 269)

Novels have a kind of continuity of plot or of narrative which this book does not have. But it would be unfair for me to say that it's a collection of stories; clearly all of the stories are related and the characters reappear and themes recur, and some of the stories refer back to others, and some refer forwards. I've thought of it as a work of fiction that is neither one nor the other.

(Missouri Review 96)

It would be more fun, it would be more instructive, it would be more artistic, more beautiful, to include as much as possible the whole of humanity in these stories.

(Missouri Review 98)

When Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone appeared in 1973, critics lauded the memoir and promptly prepared a place for the new author—three years out of Vietnam—in the ranks of the contemporary war writers who were trying to record what was happening in the bloody quagmire in which America, uncharacteristically, found itself mired. Such a characterization seemed borne out in his next two novels; both Northern Lights and Going After Cacciato were clearly representative of a new literature of the Vietnam experience. But in each of these works there is also ample evidence of his concern with issues broader than a specific war in Southeast Asia: indeed, even early readers recognized that If I Die in a Combat Zone was no mere raw emotional record of war experiences but rather “a spare, poetically allusive, and classically toned personal memoir” (Myers 141).

Such an observation suggests the true scope of O'Brien's interests: in his work there is an abiding concern with the question of battlefield courage, linking him with not only with the best of a tradition of American war writers—Cooper, Crane, Hemingway—but also with the ancients; a more general concern with moral choice and the human capacity for evil which links him to such writers as Conrad (perhaps his most oft-cited influence); and, finally, an explicit interest in storytelling itself, in narrative forms and the power of the imagination, which might connect him to a number of experimental writers, both modern and postmodern. Critics have gradually acknowledged this complexity, and O'Brien has accordingly gained increasing recognition as a writer concerned not only with that war Americans like to think of as so peculiar but also as one whose “fundamental themes … grant his work larger, even universal significance” (Myers 141).

O'Brien's own comments strongly support such readings of his work. In interviews he has cited as influences not only fellow Midwestern soldier-novelist Hemingway, but also Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Joyce. Even more ambitiously, he has acknowledged that “the good writer must write beyond his moment, but he does have to be rooted in a lived-in world—like Conrad, Shakespeare and Homer” (qtd. in Myers 142). While his own “concerns as a human being and concerns as an artist have at some point intersected in Vietnam” (Missouri Review 101), those concerns are perennially human ones—with courage, moral choice, storytelling, “mysteriousness,” and the experience of “awakening into a new world, something new and true, where someone is jolted out of a kind of complacency and forced to confront a new set of circumstances or a new self” (Missouri Review 99). O'Brien, then, rather traditionally sees the writer as communicating age-old themes that are newly manifested in his particular imaginative world; ultimately he sees his own subject matter as bounded not by the events of one war but rather by the full range of human experience itself.

The veracity of such a claim seems more apparent given O'Brien's broadened scope in his later novels, which are more generally about the American experience. The Nuclear Age (1986) is a parody about a nation obsessed with total war and apocalypse; In the Lake of the Woods (1994) concerns a husband and wife and the inevitable secrets of married life. But, ironically, it is perhaps in his 1990 publication of The Things They Carried—his first full-length return to the terrain of Vietnam in the twelve years since Going After Cacciato—that he most fully commits himself to exploring the universal concerns he speaks of so frequently in interviews. In fact, in The Things They Carried he is more consciously than ever before coming back to Vietnam with the intention of making it a story about the whole of human experience.

Thomas Myers has claimed with regard to The Things They Carried that “in a radically different way from his earlier combat zone narratives, the work depicts Vietnam as both ‘this war’ and ‘any war’”(153). O'Brien would welcome such an observation, for he has maintained that, despite the general American perception of the war as an anomaly, Vietnam was not really an exception. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, he denies that his war was “especially chaotic and formless.” He claims that the work of earlier writers—he mentions Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke—has enabled him to acknowledge this fact most fully: “Every war seems formless to the men fighting it … We like to think our own war is special: especially horrible, especially insane, especially formless. But we need a more historical and compassionate perspective. We shouldn't minimize the suffering and sense of bewilderment of other people in other wars” (Anything Can Happen 267). Such a statement encapsulates O'Brien's own commitment to at once capture the unique fury of his own conflict and to communicate it to posterity as something eternally, horribly human.

What is surprising is that he does so most powerfully by moving beyond the battlefield. Readers of The Things They Carried are immediately struck its variety of settings—which include not only the killing grounds of Vietnam, but also the small towns and cities of America—and the variety of characters to be found in these settings. Speaking specifically about his unusual choice to place a Midwestern American female in Vietnam in his story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” O'Brien claimed “it would be more fun, it would be more instructive, it would be more artistic, more beautiful, to include as much as possible the whole of humanity in these stories” (Missouri Review 98).

This claim is central to understanding the structure of the work as a whole. For more compelling than any discursive statement about the universal nature of war, or any conventionally presented variety of setting and character, is O'Brien's unconventional choice of form in The Things They Carried. Consisting of short stories published separately over nearly a decade, but reworked, reordered, and bound together with various additions, the work defies traditional generic distinctions. O'Brien himself has described it as something of an anomaly:

Novels have a kind of continuity of plot or of narrative which this book does not have. But it would be unfair for me to say that it's a collection of stories; clearly all of the stories are related and the characters reappear and themes recur, and some of the stories refer back to others, and some refer forwards. I've thought of it as a work of fiction that is neither one nor the other.

(Missouri Review 96)

Why this particular form, then? O'Brien has always been distinguished from more pedestrian “war writers” by his technical and stylistic skill, his ongoing interest in metafiction and in the surreal. Yet he was annoyed at having Going After Cacciato characterized so strongly as a purely experimental work:

I feel I'm experimenting all the time. But the difference is this: I am experimenting not for the joy of experimenting, but rather to explore meaning and themes and dramatic discovery. … I don't enjoy tinkering for the joy of tinkering, and I don't like reading books merely for their artifice. I want to see things and explore moral issues when I read, not get hit over the head by the tools of the trade.

(Anything Can Happen 269)

Given this explicit attitude, one might infer that O'Brien has chosen or “developed” this form—consciously or not—because it best serves his purpose here. O'Brien's narrator persona notes in “The Ghost Soldiers” that in Vietnam “we were fighting forces that did not obey the laws of twentieth-century science” (229); and it seems that in describing those forces, as well as the universal forces of the human psyche, he felt compelled to move from the established linear form of the novel to something more complex and potentially richer. The Things They Carried is, accordingly, best characterized as neither novel nor collection of short stories, but as what Maggie Dunn and Ann Morris have recently defined as a composite novel. Their definition in The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle in Transition describes this form as the genre of connectedness: “the aesthetic of the composite novel” is such that “its parts are named, identifiable, memorable; their interrelationship creates the coherent whole text” (5-6). O'Brien, it seems clear, is using the composite novel form not for artifice's sake but rather to “explore meaning and themes and dramatic discovery”; and he is writing not just a Vietnam story, not even just a war story (adapting Faulkner, he claims that “war stories aren't about war—they are about the human heart at war” [qtd. in Myers 142])—but rather a story and stories about the whole of humanity, and he has chosen the composite novel as the most appropriate form to do so.

He accomplishes this goal by using the strengths of the composite novel in its ability to link seemingly disparate stories by using some common, recurring focus(es). Here he develops to the full various latent possibilities of relationship in the composite novel: by using setting as a referential field that includes not only Vietnam but also middle America, linking the two together as a psychically united region; by using character in a similar sense, focusing on both a collective protagonist and an emerging narrator protagonist; by making storytelling, the process of fiction making itself, a recurring focus; and finally—in a strategy all his own—by using the composite novel's heightened possibilities for allusion to make his work part of a broader literary and human endeavor (and for all its alleged novelty, even this seemingly “new” composite novel form is ultimately linked with a tradition, a tradition which O'Brien is tapping into and thereby connecting his work with that larger “historical perspective” of which he spoke).

In O'Brien's return to Vietnam in The Things They Carried, then, he shifts to a new form in order to accomplish his broad goal most fully: the composite novel allows him to play with multiple settings, characters, the theme of storytelling, and even allusiveness, in a way that most fully incorporates “the whole of humanity” into his story. Here, using Morris and Dunn's concept as a framework and occasional guide, I want to briefly touch on all of these aspects of the work.

O'Brien has said explicitly that “my concerns as a human being and my concerns as an artist have at some point intersected in Vietnam—not just in the physical place, but in the spiritual and moral terrain of Vietnam” (Missouri Review 101). His vision of the war clearly seems to fall within Morris and Dunn's conception of the composite novel that employs setting as a referential field, thereby portraying place as not only “a specific geographical space” reflecting “a common ethos or culture,” but also as “less concretely dependent upon physical space and more abstractly dependent upon a historical moment or period” (36).

With regard to the first characteristic, O'Brien's Vietnam is fully a locus and an ethos. Indeed, it is so much of an ethos that at times it seems almost a ghost-place, a region of the psyche rather than of Southeast Asia. This characteristic is clear not only in explicit statements about the land being “haunted” (in “The Ghost Soldiers,” 229) and even “talking … the fog too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses” (in “How to Tell a True War Story,” 81), but also in O'Brien's implicit sense of the cultural depth of the country; his sensitivity to the mysterious otherness of Vietnam, and the tragedy of America's failure to recognize it, is revealed in such short vignettes as “Church,” in the personal history that makes “The Man I Killed” so poignant, and in the fitting metaphor of the centuries-deep cultural quagmire the US so blithely wades into in “In the Field.”

But O'Brien uses the structure of the composite novel to emphasize more clearly the second characteristic, that which portrays place as less a physical phenomenon and as more “abstractly” dependent upon a specific historical period. Implicit in his comment about the “moral terrain” of Vietnam is the fact that this terrain necessarily includes the United States, for his moral experience in that country was profoundly, definitively shaped by the fact that he was there as an American soldier; the word “Vietnam” in his statement encompasses not merely one place but also a time, an enduring moment in our national history, one which spanned the seemingly insurmountable geographical boundary of the Pacific and linked two radically different countries in one horrible experience (and O'Brien has insisted that he cannot write about the war as anything but an American, cannot but superficially attempt to portray what it was like for the Vietnamese people—“The Man I Killed” may be as close as he comes to trying to do so). Today many Vietnamese immigrants to this country rightly criticize Americans for still failing to recognize that their country is not a war, but a place; for O'Brien as for many other veterans, however, it was and remains quite inseparably both.

The structure of the composite novel allows O'Brien to connect Vietnam and America more radically than he might have done in a “conventional” novel, to depict artfully the radical connection of the seemingly disparate countries. The first (and eponymous) story, “The Things They Carried,” establishes this connection in its first sentence, which links First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross to “Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey” (3). The foxholes of Vietnam and this collegiate world in the urban American Northeast are bound together inexorably, and the rest of the story—despite its largely “factual” tone—will suggest that all of what these men carry through this foreign place is ultimately attached to America, whether it be supplies from “the great American war chest,” “sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter,” (16) or the bonds of emotion. And “Love,” which follows immediately after, suggests that the bonds run both ways through space, and through time as well; set in Massachusetts, the story depicts Jimmy Cross and O'Brien's narrator persona perhaps a quarter century later, remembering Vietnam by remembering the girl from New Jersey.

Similar connections are established regularly throughout the work, next—in another explicit act of remembrance—in “On the Rainy River,” where the narrator persona leaps back in time from some indeterminate postwar present to the summer before his entry into Vietnam; before he tells any more about that bloody tropical place he must tell about small-town America and the placid, cold northern woodland that is the border of Minnesota and Canada. Having done so, he leaps back into vignettes set again in the war itself (though interspersed with more letters home; e.g., Rat Kiley's in “How To Tell a True War Story”) before attempting what is perhaps his most radical connection of the two countries, in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Almost midway through the book, this story goes further than any other in drawing America into this violent ghost-place, Vietnam. The war's seduction of Mary Anne Bell, a young girl fresh from Cleveland, bespeaks the fundamental involvement of even the most seemingly innocent Americans in this setting. After a few weeks in the country, she wants “to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country …”; and by the story's end, she is in fact “part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and her necklace of human tongues” (125).

Then, after O'Brien delves as closely as he might into the Vietnamese experience of the war in “The Man I Killed,” he again shifts the next lengthy story in space and time, back to America and after the war. In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker is the returned veteran living in the small town Midwest in the silent aftermath of Vietnam. The ennui of his life here seems diametrically opposed to the anxiety of life in the war; yet, once again, the two experiences are part of the same whole. The ennui of the war itself has been evident in other tales, and the drama of the war intrudes here—in Iowa—as he remembers the night of Kiowa's death. And throughout this story, the lake Bowker circles both serves as the centerpiece of his current mundane existence and suggests the horror of the boggy field, which is only gradually revealed to the reader.

Indeed, in this story and in “Notes,” “In the Field,” “Good Form,” and “Field Trip,” O'Brien reveals a single event through glimpses of Norman Bowker's life in 1975 Iowa, the murky “present” of the narrator persona in Massachusetts, the wartime past of Alpha Company, the narrator's Massachusetts present again, and then a few months more into that present—but back in Vietnam. These four adjacent stories, perhaps more comprehensively than any others, encapsulate the scope in space and time of the work as a whole. But then O'Brien, after briefly returning to the familiar (in “The Ghost Soldiers” and “Night Life,” two more stories set in the conflict itself) performs his most drastic expansion of place and time at the very end of The Things They Carried, in “The Lives of the Dead.” Here the narrator persona begins by recording his first exposure to death in Vietnam, but uses this tale as an occasion to frame his very earliest experience of death. In doing so he returns again to his prewar Minnesota, but not to the time of “On the Rainy River”—no doubt just a few months prior to this incident—but rather to an utterly pre-Vietnam era, 1956, and his childhood. His first exposure to death on the battlefield becomes an occasion to reflect on the common human experience of death, whether it come in a napalmed village in wartime Southeast Asia or in the movie theaters and shopping malls of the peacetime United States. O'Brien here uses a radical shift of setting to suggest finally a truth that transcends place, but only after he has masterfully used the composite novel to render the boundaries between America and Vietnam fluid, to merge both together as not just a “physical place” but also “spiritual and moral terrain,” to depict aspects of the experience of a whole American generation, and—even more broadly—that of the whole of humanity.

The previous discussion of setting suggests another manner in which the collected stories in The Things They Carried unite to form a composite novel: through their development of both, on the one hand, a clear “collective protagonist,” and, on the other, an “emerging protagonist”—a narrator persona who is apparently Tim O'Brien but who is in fact, as the reader discovers, largely invented.

Morris and Dunn define the collective protagonist as “either a group that functions as a central character” or “an implied central character who functions as a metaphor (an aggregate figure who … may be … archetypal …)” (59). In this work the applicability of the first definition seems quite clear; the title, after all, is concerned with a “they” that seems quite clearly delineated in the dedication to the “men of Alpha Company.” Yet given O'Brien's statement regarding the appropriateness of including women in the war in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and the nature of the work itself, we might extend the concept of the collective protagonist even further. The composite novel structure necessarily works against assigning any character a “minor” status, and, as we have seen in the previous examination of the complexities of setting, these stories are painfully inclusive of civilians as well as soldiers—indeed of as much of the whole of humanity as O'Brien can squeeze in. Therefore, not only Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, and Kiowa are central characters here, but also Martha, Elroy Berdahl, Mary Anne Bell, even Linda (the first and last names in this list—in the first and last stories—suggest that The Things They Carried is as much a story about love as it is about war).

Perhaps a similar observation might also be made regarding the development of a “single” archetypal protagonist here—something like the disillusioned veteran of Hemingway's In Our Time—but there is a clearer and more undeniable focus on a shifting persona who is a sort of Tim O'Brien. Morris and Dunn observe in many composite novels “a narrator-protagonist as the focus and significant element of interconnection,” (49) and such is clearly the case in The Things They Carried. The author has confirmed in interviews what his narrator persona says at the beginning of “Good Form”: that, other than the fact that he is a writer and a former foot soldier in Quang Nai province, “almost everything else is invented.” Indeed, even as he writes this “I invent myself” (203).

While this ongoing invention serves to unite the various stories here, it might not necessarily entail any sort of positive progression. The narrator persona is a shadowy figure at best, one hard to pin down in space and time; he is perhaps more accessible in telling about himself in the past than he is in talking “bluntly”—as he says he will in “Good Form”—in the present. He is a figure who is at once seemingly honest and idealistic (his claim that “this is true” runs like a refrain throughout the work), but also cowardly—as in “On the Rainy River”—and crassly vengeful—as in “The Ghost Soldiers.”

He is also a writer who gives credit to his sources, and in doing so reveals how even in developing this single protagonist O'Brien again bears witness to the experience of the whole of humanity. The work begins with “The Things They Carried,” one of the few stories here told entirely in third person; there is no “I” or even “we” here. But immediately following, in “Love,” Jimmy Cross—whose story has just been told—comes to visit “me” at home after the war and to tell another story about Martha. The narrator-protagonist has entered The Things They Carried, and will remain for almost the duration; but almost always he speaks in collaboration with other storytellers, such as Mitchell Sanders (whose tale is essential to “How to Tell a True War Story”) and Rat Kiley (who relates the bulk of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and others), even Norman Bowker. “Speaking of Courage” is in third person but is immediately followed by “Notes,” which gives credit for the preceding story to Bowker; and this almost confessional story is in turn followed by a third and final third person narrative. “In the Field” shows the narrator—almost certainly—as a young, frightened “boy” (186) amidst a group of not much more secure men, including—once again—Lieutenant Jimmy Cross.

Indeed, this recurrently collaborative storytelling function almost implies an emerging collective narrator-protagonist, and suggests as much about O'Brien's concept of narrative as it does about his notions of character. It is noteworthy that in the text itself, in “The Man I Killed,” O'Brien writes of his Vietnamese victim: “He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people [emphasis added]” (144). O'Brien sees The Things They Carried as to a large extent the story of his own village and people, and so gives his characters their fair share in the telling. As he claims in his essay “The Magic Show,” what the writer must do, like the shaman, is to summon “a collective dream” among his people (178).

In some sense, then, the emerging narrator-protagonist of The Things They Carried is radically inseparable from the collective protagonist; and yet in “The Lives of the Dead,” the focus moves from the men of Alpha Company back to the individual narrator-protagonist Tim, to a quite personal story of his youth in Minnesota. Moreover, this final piece is equally a story about storytelling, about “Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story” (273). As such it, along with the other complexities of narrative touched on above, suggests a third focus that unifies the work: storytelling itself.

Morris and Dunn claim that storytelling, “the process of fiction making” itself, can become a unifying focus in the composite novel (88); as the previous discussion of the narrator-protagonist indicates, in this metafiction such a process is clearly at the center of the narrative. Indeed, “How to Tell a True War Story” may have been an even more appropriate title story for the collection than “The Things They Carried”; not only it but also “Spin,” “Ambush,” “Notes,” “Good Form,” and “The Lives of the Dead” explicitly discuss this particular form of truth-telling, and all of the stories here do so implicitly.

O'Brien's explicit concern with talking about storytelling here, in fact, ultimately calls into question the extent to which he is making up stories at all. His metafiction confuses traditional genre distinctions, so that Dan Carpenter can suggest The Things They Carried “evokes the hyperintense personal journalism of Michael Herr and the journalism-as-novel of Norman Mailer,” but is in fact both fiction and nonfiction, even “an epic prose poem of our time” (qtd. in Kaplan 190). O'Brien would certainly be pleased with any such suggestion that his work is, far from being merely “postmodern,” in fact in the tradition of great modern—and even classical—writers. He has cited the influence of not only Faulkner and Joyce but even Homer in conveying to him the sense of “nonlinear time, the experience of one's life as jumps and starts” (Myers 144); and he has indicated his belief that the great stories are those that are continually “retold” and thereby “carry the force of legend” (156). Even Morris and Dunn speak of the composite novel as achieving the very effect of which O'Brien speaks, precisely by returning to the form of “the sacred composite, the epic cycle, and the framed collection.” It is in fact this classical conception of storytelling—if his theme is that of the Iliad, his form is that of the Odyssey—which most fully allows O'Brien to unite his “Vietnam” stories with the whole human experience, not only with humans alive at this time and place in Viet Nam and America, but all those living and dead.

O'Brien's notion of the writer-shaman summoning a “collective dream” suggests his view that storytelling itself is by nature communal. His entire collective-metafictional technique here is perhaps a way of getting at larger cultural and human truths. In Mitchell Sanders's tale about a “talking” Vietnam in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in the tale of the man who “would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people” (144) in “The Man I Killed,” and in the generations-deep quagmire of “In the Field,” it is clear that O'Brien senses something like an alien collective unconsciousness in Vietnam, a mysterious cultural psyche that is known—albeit only partially—through talk and stories. What he does with the new yet ancient form of the composite novel is to tap into some of the established myths of his own culture. In short, he alludes to older stories, stories which bespeak both his own tradition and the perennially human heart—and particularly those told in this century through the form of the composite novel. O'Brien's commitment to the stories of the past, to the dead as well as the living, is established by the beginning epigraph from a Civil War diary (also by a former sergeant from the Midwest, as Philip Beidler notes [37]). But his commitment to a small pantheon of great moderns can be established by briefly examining his allusions—both thematic and formal—to three writers for whom he has repeatedly expressed admiration: Conrad, Hemingway, and Joyce.

O'Brien has expressed his disappointment with the majority of films purporting to chronicle the war in which he served, but he admits an at least partial admiration for Apocalypse Now, which places a mad Colonel Kurtz at the end of a river deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The idea of enacting Heart of Darkness during the Vietnam conflict was, then, not a new one when O'Brien wrote “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” but it certainly seems to be one he draws from with a power all his own. As noted previously, he has spoken repeatedly of Conrad's influence on his work, which is thematically evident throughout all of The Things They Carried. But it is concentrated in “Sweetheart” [“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”], and with the brilliant adaptation of not only shifting the setting to Viet Nam but also of characterizing the corruption of a Kurtz who is not a merchant or colonel, but rather an archetypally innocent American female. Although Heart of Darkness is obviously not drawn from a composite novel itself, the composite novel form allows O'Brien to—in the middle of a “longer” work—echo one of the greatest works of twentieth-century short fiction.

Carpenter referred to The Things They Carried as “an epic prose poem of our time,” but doubtlessly O'Brien also had in mind one of the great American composite “war” novels of our era: In Our Time. The newer work parallels Hemingway's account of the generation that fought the first great war of this century both in its overall form and in individual stories. “Speaking of Courage,” featuring a tired veteran returned to his small Midwestern town, almost certainly echoes Hemingway; as Steven Kaplan notes, “Norman Bowker's dilemma is … remarkably similar to that of Hemingway's character Krebs in the story “Soldier's Home.” Neither of these men returning from war can tell his story” (189).

Yet while both here and throughout the work O'Brien follows his great predecessor in searching for a definition of courage, he “asserted early in his career that his conclusion could not be a mere restatement of Hemingway” (Myers 144). In his novel Northern Lights, for example, there are some forty pages of parody which echo The Sun Also Rises (much to the dismay of critics); and while The Things They Carried is, fortunately, tainted by nothing so distracting, it is not impossible that O'Brien is reacting to Hemingway even in “On the Rainy River.” O'Brien has stated that the story is a dramatization of the “moral schizophrenia” he felt during the summer of 1968, but that its plot and setting are entirely invented. He saw the river as a concrete means of putting his character “on the edge” (Missouri Review 95-6); but it is also difficult to read the story, set in the woods of the northern Midwest and climaxing in a fateful fishing trip, without thinking of “Big Two-Hearted River.” The loquacity of O'Brien's narrator persona here, however, could not be further removed from the reticence of Nick Adams and his creator; and his open-hearted, anguished concern about the war is emotionally at opposite poles from the ideal of “grace under pressure.”

Though he may call Hemingway's ideals into question in “On the Rainy River,” O'Brien ultimately emulates the great example of In Our Time in this story, in “Speaking of Courage,” and in his utilization of the very form of the composite novel. Given the parallels between his theme and that of Hemingway, his choice to do so is hardly surprising; the imaginative leap from World War I to the Vietnam conflict was perhaps even less difficult to make than that from the jungles of Africa to those of Southeast Asia. But in his final story O'Brien moves from his concern with moral corruption and war to one even more universally human: death. In doing so he sets in 1956 Minnesota a brief tale that alludes to another tale in the most surprisingly alien setting yet—turn-of-the-century Ireland. At the close of The Things They Carried, O'Brien establishes a connection to another of the great composite novels of the twentieth century, Joyce's Dubliners.

Like Joyce's “The Dead,” O'Brien's “The Lives of the Dead” comes at the end of his work and establishes the ongoing presence of the dead in the lives of the living. An individual death in wartime Viet Nam, which introduces the story, is linked in the narrator persona's mind with the death of a young girl in his childhood, in peacetime Minnesota. O'Brien's story, like Joyce's, is one which is about both death and first love, and suggests that the two are necessarily bound together; just as for Gretta Conroy the love of Michael Furey is bound up with his death, so too the narrator Tim O'Brien cannot think long of death without thinking of his innocent love for lost Linda. Both stories also suggest that what O'Brien called the “whole of humanity” somehow includes “all the living and the dead [emphasis added],” as Joyce would say; and the contemporary writer knows that the ranks of “the dead” now include Joyce himself. O'Brien's allusiveness to Dubliners, to “The Dead” and the literary tradition Joyce helped to establish, bears witness to this conviction.

And, fittingly, in this last story O'Brien concludes The Things They Carried not only by shifting settings and bringing in the character of Linda (who has perhaps been with the narrator all along), not only by once again alluding to the broad literary tradition he seeks to emulate, but also by presenting his strongest vision of storytelling itself. In his essay “The Magic Show” he has discursively suggested something of this vision:

The process of imaginative knowing does not depend upon the scientific method. Fictional characters are not constructed of flesh and blood, but rather of words, and those words serve as specific incantations that invite us into and guide us through the universe of the imagination. Language is the apparatus—the magic dust—by which a writer performs his miracles. … Beyond anything, I think, a writer is someone entranced by the power of language to create a magic show of the imagination, to make the dead sit up and talk, to shine light into the darkness of the great human mysteries …


This vision of the writer again suggests his earlier claim that in Vietnam the United States was fighting forces that twentieth century science could not understand, and that he is committed to exploring the nature of those forces as fully as he can. But even more so it suggests again his vision of the shaman who by telling stories summons “a collective dream”; here, too, O'Brien links storytelling to religion, citing not only the shaman but also Christ as a storyteller and miracle worker in one (177). Writing is, he claims, essentially an act of faith, a way of exploring “that which cannot be known by empirical means” and moving toward “epiphany or understanding or enlightenment” (179).

This vision of the role of the writer is perhaps what most fully elevates O'Brien from mere “war writer” to speaker to and for the whole of humanity. And this language, in both “The Magic Show” and in “The Lives of the Dead,” seems allusive again in that it is almost Joycean. The narrator persona here closes in an act of grand affirmation of the powers of the writer to transform lives, to raise the dead, sounding “like a Vietnam version of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus” (Myers 154). Certainly throughout the story—when he speaks of the writer for whom “memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head”—he echoes young Stephen's vision of himself in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a “priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of ever-living life.”

Finally, then, “The Lives of the Dead” ties together all of the focal elements—setting, protagonists both collective and emerging, storytelling, allusiveness—which O'Brien has been working with all along to bind The Things They Carried together as composite novel. The richness and complexity of this book—and the composite novel form—make it difficult to determine where one focal element ends and another begins, where one can examine setting without examining character, or examine an “emerging protagonist” without examining storytelling, and so on. But O'Brien is pleased to have it so, it seems; as many of his statements indicate, he rejects the rigorously analytical vision of the real for one that allows more room for mystery and relatedness. In writing The Things They Carried, he has posited his own vision of the real, not just of his experience in Vietnam but of perennial facets of experience that belong to the whole of humanity.

Works Cited

Beidler, Philip. Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Dunn, Maggie, and Morris, Ann. The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle in Transition. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O'Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Myers, Thomas. “Tim O'Brien.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol 152, American Novelists Since World War II, fourth series. Ed. James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1995.

O'Brien, Tim. Interview. Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

———. “An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” By Steven Kaplan. Missouri Review 14: 1991: 94-108.

———. “The Magic Show.” Writers on Writing. Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Hanover: Middlebury College Press, 1991.

———. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Rosemary King (essay date spring 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: King, Rosemary. “O'Brien's ‘How to Tell a True War Story’.” The Explicator 57, no. 3 (spring 1999): 182-84.

[In the following essay, King asserts that in “How to Tell a True War Story” O'Brien “lures readers into a debate over fact and fiction that ultimately privileges the latter.”]

The title of Tim O'Brien's short story “How to Tell a True War Story” is a pun. On one hand, O'Brien is asking how a listener can distinguish whether a story is a factual retelling of events; on the other he outlines “how to tell” a war story. The meaning of the title depends on the reader's position: If listening to a war story, the title suggests, O'Brien will help you to discern whether the story is real; if telling a war story, the title implies that O'Brien will show you how to narrate a story well. The title, however, defies paradigmatic balance. In other words, the reader is drawn into the role of storyteller as O'Brien works to untangle the relationship between fact and fiction.

O'Brien's word play in the title hinges on the definition of “true,” a word he uses alternately throughout the story to mean either factually accurate, or something higher and nobler. He does this through three embedded narratives: Mitchell Sanders's narration of Curt Lemon's death; the narrator's description of hearing Sanders's story; and Tim O'Brien's commentary on how to tell a true war story.1 Each narrator claims his story is an authentic retelling of events as they occurred in Vietnam, asserting the historicity of their narratives.2 For example, Sanders introduces his story by claiming it is “God's truth” (O'Brien 79). Then he periodically interrupts the story exclaiming its veracity: “This next part […] you won't believe […]. You won't. And you know why? […] Because it happened. Because every word is absolutely dead-on true” (81). Similarly, in the second embedded narration, the narrator tries to convince the reader that he was in Vietnam listening to Sanders's story firsthand when he blatantly states, “I heard this one, for example, from Mitchell Sanders” (79). He continues by recalling where he heard the story, how night slowly fell, the confines of a muddy foxhole, and the garbling of a nearby river, and concludes, “The occasion was right for a good story” (79). The narrator repeatedly says “I remember” throughout the passage to suggest further that he actually remembers Sanders telling the story. In the third narrative, Tim O'Brien recalls how he narrates the episode to an audience. He says, “I'll picture Rat Kiley's face, his grief,” for instance, hinting that he was present at Lemon's death (90). In addition, he states that although he may have warped the details slightly, “it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula […]” (91). Tim O'Brien suggests here that he may have fictionalized past events; even as an eyewitness to Lemon's death, however, the “facts” of the event are unclear at best.

At the same time that O'Brien's characters privilege factual accuracy, they undercut it as well. Sanders, for instance, completes his description of Lemon's death only to add, “I got a confession to make […]. Last night, man, I had to make up a few things” (83). He then tries to recapture his credibility with the listener by pleading, “Yeah, but listen, it's still true” (84). In a sense, Sanders constructs his story (a “way of knowing” in the present) based on what he believes to have happened (a “way of knowing” in the past). As in Sanders's narrative, Tim O'Brien admits fictionalizing “true” war stories as well: “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true” (88, emphasis added). At the end, Tim O'Brien admits that his narration is fictional: “Beginning to end […] it's all made up. Every goddamn detail […]. None of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen […]” (91). The line between fact and fiction in a true war story is more than merely blurred—the line is erased altogether, and fact becomes fiction.

O'Brien's title delivers punch not only through the conflated definition of true but also through the distinction of what makes a war story “true.” He underscores the importance of manipulating what actually happened to get at the essence of truth.

Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything's possible—even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

(O'Brien 89, emphasis added)

“True war stories,” then, capture the genuine experience of war because truth registers only through “gut instinct” (84). Again, O'Brien submits that factual events should not be given a degree of authority simply because they occurred in the past; more important than the historical artifact of what actually occurred is the significance, or truth, of the experience. O'Brien's concept has deep implications for story telling because he suggests that altering facts may be more significant than clinging to the story of what actually transpired. Several critics have commented on O'Brien's unique blend of fact and fiction.3 For example, in Understanding Tim O'Brien, Steven Kaplan summarizes: “O'Brien destroys the line dividing fact from fiction, and tries to show […] that fiction (or the imagined world) can often be truer than fact” (171). What is more significant than the “dividing line,” however, is the reader's position in this debate as storyteller.

In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O'Brien lures readers into a debate over fact and fiction that ultimately privileges the latter. Paradoxically, this debate situates readers as storytellers—even as they read or “listen” to the story—with O'Brien giving advice on “how to tell” a “true war story” by revising factual events. Further, once readers have finished O'Brien's story, they are no longer storytellers but are now listeners—even though they are finished reading or “listening” to the story. The pun of the title thus plays out when the reader tells the story while reading it and listens to the story when finished.


  1. It is questionable whether Tim O'Brien is actually the author or a fictitious character of the same name. A close reading of his short stories “Field Trip” and “The Lives of the Dead,” in The Things They Carried, suggests that Tim O'Brien is a fictitious character.

  2. O'Brien's short story lends itself well to a New Historicist evaluation of the “historicity of texts” and the “textuality of history.” See Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973) and Louis Montrose's “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” Twentieth Century Literary Theory (New York: St. Martin's, 1997).

  3. In addition to the Kaplan article, see Don Ringnalda's Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War and Eric Schroeder's Vietnam, We've All Been There.

Works Cited

Kaplan, Steven. “The Things They Carried.” Understanding Tim O'Brien. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1995. 169-192.

O'Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1991. 75-91.

Daniel Robinson (essay date spring 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Robinson, Daniel. “Getting It Right: The Short Fiction of Tim O'Brien.” Critique 40, no. 3 (spring 1999): 257-64.

[In the following essay, Robinson investigates O'Brien's approach to the truth in The Things They Carried.]

But it's true even if it didn't happen—

—Ken Kesey

In his introduction to Men at War, Ernest Hemingway states that a “writer's job is tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his inventions […] should produce a truer account than anything factual can be” (xi). Tim O'Brien, for whose writing the Vietnam War is the informing principle, returns to this notion of truth in his short fiction.1 His stories revolve around multiple centers of interest—at once stories in the truest sense, with a core of action and character, and also metafictional stories on the precise nature of writing war stories.

For O'Brien, like Hemingway in his introduction, the notion of absolute fidelity to facts almost becomes a non sequitur when considering truth. Facts might provide a chronology of events (and even then, we may disagree on the validity of the facts), but alone they cannot reveal the hidden truths found in a true war story. As Hemingway writes, facts “can be observed badly; but when a good writer is creating something, he has time and scope to make it of an absolute truth” (xi-xii). That is also true for O'Brien: He sometimes writes stories that contradict the facts of other stories; yet the essential, underlying truth of each story is intact and illuminating. Those truths lie as much in the fragmented, impressionistic stories he tells as in the narrative technique he chooses for the telling.

O'Brien does not deliver Vietnam in neatly packaged truisms. The same words that rang obscene for Frederic Henry in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow,” become empty in O'Brien's fiction. Those words imply a rational order to war that does not exist, and the absence of those words mirrors the horror of a world at its most irrational. As O'Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” [O]ften in a true war story there is not even a point” (88). What O'Brien prefers are the images that make “the stomach believe” (89), images of men at war who are too afraid not to kill.

The true reasons that bring O'Brien's characters to Vietnam are far from the abstract words that Frederic Henry dismisses and equally far from the Hollywood notion of heroism so prevalent in war movies prior to American involvement in Vietnam. The average age of the company of foot soldiers O'Brien writes about is nineteen or twenty, and most were probably drafted, as is the case of the fictional Tim O'Brien through whom author O'Brien often tells his stories. Thus, we see boys becoming men before they have had the opportunity to understand what manhood involves. And among the many things each soldier carried—the weapons, charms, diseases, and emotions—they “carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (“Things” [“The Things They Carried”] 20-21). Even the enemy soldiers, the Viet Cong, exhibit that moral dichotomy and fight out of fear as much as nationalism:

In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village.

(“Man” [“The Man I Killed”] 142)

However, quite different from most of O'Brien's characters driven by fear is Azar, the nineteen-year-old draftee who straps a puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and blows the dog to pieces. Azar, still a teenager, loves Vietnam because it makes him “feel like a kid again.” “The Vietnam experience,” he says, “I mean, wow, I love this shit” (“Ghost” [“The Ghost Soldiers”] 237; O'Brien's emphasis). O'Brien's characters choose war for entirely negative reasons, not for unselfish love of country or of basic freedoms but from fear of embarrassment and cowardice or the love of war as if it were a child's game. Even the decision to go to Vietnam is determined not through an examination of positive motives but, again, for negative reasons: “I would go to the war […] because I was embarrassed not to. […] I was a coward. I went to war” (“River” [“On the Rainy River”] 63).

That inability in O'Brien's characters to establish a positive purpose in their reasons for going to war mirrors the historical ambiguities surrounding American involvement in Vietnam. Like the chaotic and morally ambiguous war they fight, O'Brien's characters are unsure of their purpose or even their actions. Azar explains blowing up the puppy as simple childish exuberance: “What's everybody so upset about? I mean, Christ, I'm just a boy” (“Spin” 40; O'Brien's emphasis). After one of his men dies, “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Ke. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon” to a place where they set up camp for the night (“Things” 16). Those men act not from forethought but from some measure of selective emotion: Azar, the sadist, experiences delight from torturing the puppy and, in “The Ghost Soldiers,” torture-prankstering a medic on guard duty who had nearly allowed another soldier to die through inaction; and the troop, following Lavender's sniper-death, razes the nearest village not for some strategic reason but out of an apparent need for revenge. The chauvinistic clichés that so often accompany patriotic fervor are missing. These characters have no center around which they can construct a reason for their involvement, and the only absolute is that resupply helicopters will arrive soon with more things for them to carry: For “all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (“Things” 16).

As Lorrie Smith writes in “Disarming the War Story,” “The ‘story’ of World War II […] has meaning for our culture as a heroic quest, and it forms a coherent narrative in which the soldier's sacrifices are redemptive” (90). All of that coherence of purpose is lost in O'Brien's stories of Vietnam, as his characters stumble through a landscape of disjointed experiences and realities. And though we may, as Smith asserts, “feel acutely the disjunction between ideals and realities” (90) when we attempt to consider Vietnam in terms of heroic quests, coherent actions, and redemptive sacrifices, O'Brien's characters seldom articulate any distinctions. For them, the realities are too overpowering to place against any abstract notions based upon cultural and societal ideals. Only Lt. Jimmy Cross, in “The Things They Carried,” and Tim, in “On the Rainy River,” consider that disjunction, and then only in personal terms, excluding any real notion of established codes.2

One often expects writers of war stories to present antithetical abstractions in a concrete form to establish some moral or ethical base. O'Brien, however, fuses abstracts such as realty and surreality and right and wrong in an effort to emphasize the lack of firm moral ground supporting his characters in a war lacking in definable purposes. To stop his own pain at seeing his best friend blown up, Rat Kiley systematically dismembers a baby water buffalo by shooting pieces from its body—its mouth, tail, ears, nose—until all that remains alive and moving are its eyes. The reaction by Rat's stunned comrades is restrained amazement: “A new wrinkle. I never seen it before. […] Well, that's Nam” (86). A group of Green Berets keep a pile of enemy bones stacked in a corner of their barracks underneath a sign that reads, “ASSEMBLE YOUR OWN GOOK!! FREE SAMPLE KIT!” (“Sweetheart” [“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”] 119). That distillation of moral or ethical standards, an “aesthetic purity of moral indifference” (“True” [“How to Tell a True War Story”] 87), illustrates a general loss of humanity in any war, but possibly more so in a war that lacks any underlying absolutes, any real reasons for having gone to war. Thus the moral confusion Tim feels (in “On the Rainy River”) after finding out he has been drafted becomes a moral indifference once exposed to the brutalities and absurdities of war.

Those apparent indifferences extend even to how the soldiers deal with the death of their comrades. When a man dies, he is not killed, but “greased. […] offed, lit up, zapped.” (“Things” 19). Somehow, by verbally denying the reality of death through hyperbolic misnomers, they reject the death itself. At one point in “The Lives of the Dead,” Tim's unit enters a village it has calmly watched being bombed and burned by air strikes for thirty minutes. When the unit enters, the only person in the village is a dead old man who is missing an arm and whose face is covered by swarming flies and gnats. Each man, as he walks past the dead Vietnamese, offers a greeting and shakes the remaining hand: “How-dee-doo. … Gimme five. … A real honor. … Pleased as punch” (256). After Tim refuses to introduce himself or even offer a toast to the old man's health, he is ridiculed for not showing respect for his elders: Maybe it's too real for you?’” he is asked. “‘That's right,’” he replies. “‘Way too real’” (256). It is only his fourth day, and Tim soon realizes that he must develop the cynical sense of humor he will eventually need to cope with the realities of death. Paul Berlin, on his first day in Vietnam, in “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” watches one of his comrades die of a heart attack brought on by the fear of dying. In his attempt to deal with witnessing his first death, he tries to transform the event into something that had not happened. Eventually, however, as the realities of the experience eat at him, he places the death in comic terms by imagining the official death notification:



Berlin finally concludes that the death will make “a good joke” and “a funny war story” for his father (132). Not superficial male posturing, but overwhelming fear forces O'Brien's characters purposefully to detach themselves from death. They use any method possible, from keeping the dead alive through absurd ceremonial greetings to parodying government form letters to, as Albert Wilhelm writes, “keep the horrors of war at bay” (221).

Ironically, one of the deaths that breaks through the fabricated veneer of insulation is the death of an enemy in “The Man I Killed.” In explicit detail bordering on the religious, Tim vividly recalls the man he killed—maybe the first man or maybe just the first he had an opportunity to study afterwards. Azar dismisses the death in the common distancing dialogue discussed above, “Oh, man, you fuckin' trashed the fucker. […] You laid him out like Shredded fuckin' Wheat. […] Rice Krispies, you know? On the dead test, this particular individual gets A-plus” (140); And Kiowa tries moving Tim beyond his dumbstruck staring at the bloody corpse to talk about his emotions. Only here and in “Speaking of Courage,” where Norman Bowker, back home in Iowa on the Fourth of July, recounts the death of Kiowa in a swampy field, is the examination of death not covered under false layers of fear. O'Brien the writer must now dredge up those deaths that Tim the young soldier tried so hard to bury, which may explain why O'Brien returns to Vietnam in his fiction with such force and passion: he is reliving the horrors he suppressed decades earlier.

As in “The Man I Killed” and “Speaking of Courage,” O'Brien often uses a spiraling narrative technique to draw out the realism of death, even if this characters continue to refute that death. O'Brien revolves those stories around a specific death, as Joseph Heller revolves the first part of Catch-22 around Snowden's death, covering the same ground yet illuminating the moment's particular horror with each movement back to the death. The effect is at once numbing and oddly positive. We sense the overwhelming totality of death on the one hand, but we also imagine the narrator attempting to place a new order to his story, one that will somehow exclude the death. In “The Man I Killed,” the effect is an increasing horror at seeing the dead man; whereas in “Speaking Of Courage,” Norman realizes that he failed to save his friend's life. “The Things They Carried” revolves around the sniper death of Lavender, and in so doing shows Lt. Jimmy Cross's movement from the innocence of his insular world in which, to keep the war at a distance, he pretends that a girl back home in the United States is in love with him. However, with Lavender's death, he must face the reality that his lack of focus in leading his men may in part have caused that death. As many initiations do, Cross's initiation into the realities surrounding him result also in his need to destroy something of his past, which he does when he burns Martha's letters and photographs.

Kiowa's death becomes the center point for Norman Bowker in “Speaking of Courage” and is also the death around which the action revolves in “In the Field.” Ironically, here two other soldiers feel the responsibility for Kiowa's death, which adds an interesting layer of multiplicity of perception to O'Brien's stories. O'Brien further explores that notion of multiplicity of perception through Jimmy Cross's drafting a letter to Kiowa's parents. His first draft places blame on some ubiquitous “They” who sent him and his men to bivouac in a tactically indefensible position; in his second draft, he accepts the blame; and finally, he revises the letter to express “an officer's condolences. No apologies necessary” (197-98). All three drafts are accurate and true, underscoring the inability to write about war in absolute terms.

O'Brien's cyclical pattern that places death as the center point around which many of his stories revolve reinforces a permanence to war that a more linear narrative structure would necessarily exclude. O'Brien's characters cannot leave the deaths behind them and trudge on through a strictly chronological story. “The bad stuff,” O'Brien writes in “Spin,” “never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replying itself over and over” (36). And even when the war is over, it is not over; even though “the war occurred half a lifetime ago, […] the remembering makes it now” (40). So the cyclical pattern established in many of these stories continues to revolve long after the story stops, and the things they carried during the war become eclipsed by the things they carry following the war.

The deaths, of course, form the most visually unforgettable parts of O'Brien's stories. They are, first of all, not Hollywood war deaths: They are not scripted to show grace under pressure or to elevate the human reaction to the horrors of war. O'Brien's characters do not die filled with the notions of courage, honor, and camaraderie: they just die. Ted Lavender dies while zipping up his pants after urinating on a bus,”; Kiowa dies from drowning in the muddy human filth of a village's sewage field; Billy Boy Watkins dies of a heart attack brought on by the fear of dying after stepping on a land mine; Lemon dies from stepping on a land mine while playing an innocent game of catch and is literally blown into a nearby tree; and Jorgenson who dies after eluding enemy patrols and taking a mid-night swim, swallows bad water. None of the deaths are the deaths of heroes; and like the ritualized shooting of the water buffalo following Lemon's death, they serve to show a major theme connecting O'Brien's work—how isolated events of cruelty define war. Azar killing the puppy, Bowker shooting the water buffalo, a little girl dancing to an unheard rhythm outside her burned-out hut following a napalm raid, the first enemy killed, and the singular deaths of friends accrue as acts of cruelty to, as O'Brien says, “touch [the] reader's heart more than a grandiose description of the fire bombing of a village, or the napalming of a village, where you don't see corpses, you don't know the corpses, you don't witness the death in any detail. It is somehow made abstract, bloodless” (Kaplan 102). By focusing on the character—the individual coming in close contact with what death looks like—and allowing the surrounding scenes and events to take secondary importance, O'Brien increases the absurdity and horror. His plots are determined not by incident and event, but by the changing moral attitudes and development of his characters.

Likewise, “declarations about war, such as war is hell” (Kaplan 101) or war is immoral seem, in O'Brien's fiction, just as hollow as the declarations of war that place men in battle. These declarations, while possibly true, are little more than abstract generalities that fail to turn something deep within the reader. “A true war story,” as O'Brien wrote, “if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (84). A true war story, then, may not have a point, and it certainly does not exist in the narrative vacuum of beginning-middle-end, but it functions at a level of truth beyond that found in the story's words. Often, you doubt whether an O'Brien story can be true. Can a man actually transport his girlfriend to an isolated medical post in the Central Highlands and the lose her to the war as she slowly matriculates into the jungle? Some things, Pederson says in “Keeping Watch by Night,” “you just see and you got to believe in what you see” (66). A true war story has no moral, no instruction, no virtue, no suggestion of proper behavior; there is only a revelation of the possible evil in the nature of man: “You can tell a true war story,” O'Brien tells us, “by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (“True” 76). True war stories, as O'Brien writes in his nonfiction narrative If I Die in a Combat Zone, offer “simple, unprofound scraps of truth” that lack any lessons to teach about war. The writer, then, according to O'Brien, must “simply tell stories” (32). However, within that apparent lack of pretense to message lies the phenomenological truths of O'Brien's fiction, which strike much deeper than, as Lorrie Smith writes, an exploitation of “war's larger political implications” (94). By suppressing the abstract in favor of the concrete, O'Brien allows his stories to exist as commentary through the “complex tangles and nuances of actual experience” (Calloway 222).

Beyond that, moreover, as O'Brien tells Steven Kaplan, “good stories somehow have to do with an awakening into a new world, something new and true, where someone is jolted out of […] complacency and forced to confront a new set of circumstances or a new self” (99). The archetypal pattern that O'Brien here alludes to of initiation into the complexities of the real world forms an underlying basis of much of O'Brien's fiction. Paul Berlin's witnessing Billy Boy's death signals his loss of innocence, his transition into manhood, and an unwelcome realization of the world's potential for cruelty. And Tim, who may realize that his only options are kill or be killed, cannot be comforted by that knowledge as his world of relative innocence is shattered by the realities of this new world he inhabits. Correspondingly, that separation between men and boys is also shown by the physical appearance of the soldiers as they trudge along under the weight of all they carry: “The most recent arrivals had pasty skin burnt at the shoulder blades and clavicle and neck; their boots were not yet red with clay, and they walked more carefully than the rest, and they looked more vulnerable” (“Spin” 36). As their appearance evolves and their movements change, so, too, their character changes in the “effort to establish a new order” to their life (Kaplan 99)—one in which the vulnerability of youth is replaced by the cynicism and hardness of manhood.

That also may be why O'Brien still returns to Vietnam in his fiction—because he is still trying to make sense of the new order established in his life over twenty years ago. In his stories, in the futile attempt to regain what he had before the war he can still dream alive the people who died; unfortunately, though, that also necessitates his reliving their deaths. That need may be what still hits O'Brien: “twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point” (“True” 88-89)? The point, however, is all in the telling, as is the healing. In his stories, O'Brien answers his characters desire to make sense out of their experiences: Kiowa imploring Tim to just talk after killing an enemy soldier instead of dumbly staring at the corpse, or Rat Kiley—not wanting to have to listen to the silence of the night—asking Kiowa to tell once again how Lavender fell like a sack of cement, or the platoon waiting once more for Rat to tell his story about the sweetheart of Song Tra Bong. O'Brien's characters, like O'Brien himself, carry their stories with them, sometimes damning the unimaginable weight of relived experience and sometimes extolling the outlet allowed through story-telling, which becomes at times a life-support system and a salvation from the moral complexities of the war.

Those moral complexities required of O'Brien “an innovative form rather than the conventional chronological narrative” (Slabey 206). In presenting stories from a war that lacked a traditional progression or a logical structure, O'Brien demands more from his writing than strict realism can provide. He blurs the distinctions in his stories to present truths coalesced in memory and imagination to, “get things right”—not in the absolute terms of packaged truisms and simplistic judgments but through the inner landscape of experiential truth telling.


  1. In this essay, I consider only those stories of Tim O'Brien's that were previously published as separate short stories and are substantially different from any counterparts in later novels. Thus, I exclude stories that appeared in Going After Cacciato in much the same form as when they were published earlier as well as those stories in The Things They Carried that were not separately published.

  2. Any use of “Tim” in this essay refers to the fictional character, and the use of “O'Brien” refers to Tim O'Brien the author. In an interview with Steven Kaplan, O'Brien discusses the similarities and differences between him and his fictional character:

    Everything I have written has come partly out of my own concerns […] but the story lines themselves, the events […] the characters […] the places […] are almost all invented. […] Ninety percent or more of the material […] is invented, and I invented ninety percent of a new Tim O'Brien, maybe even more than that.


Works Cited

Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: U Georgia P, 1991.

Calloway, Catherine. “Pluralities of Vision: Going After Cacciato and Tim O'Brien's Short Fiction.” Gilman and Smith 213-22.

Gilman, Owen W., and Lorrie Smith. American Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. New York: Garland, 1990.

Kaplan, Steven. “An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” Missouri Review 14.3 (1991): 95-108.

O'Brien, Tim. “The Ghost Soldiers.” O'Brien, Things 215-44.

———. “How to Tell a True War Story.” O'Brien, Things 73-92.

———. “In the Field.” O'Brien, Things 183-200.

———. “The Lives of the Dead.” O'Brien, Things 253-73.

———. “The Man I Killed.” O'Brien, Things 137-44.

———. “On the Rainy River.” O'Brien, Things 41-64.

———. “Speaking of Courage.” O'Brien, Things 155-74.

———. “Spin.” O'Brien, Things 33-40.

———. “Style.” O'Brien, Things 151-54.

———. “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong.” O'Brien, Things 99-126.

———. “The Things They Carried.” O'Brien, Things 1-26.

———. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1991.

———. “Keeping Watch by Night.” Redbook 148 (Dec. 1976) 65-67.

———. “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” Redbook 145 (May 1975) 81, 127-32.

Slabey, Robert M. “Going After Cacciato: Tim O'Brien's ‘Separate Peace.’” Gilman & Smith 205-11.

Smith, Lorrie. “Disarming the War Story.” Gilman and Smith 87-99.

Wilhelm, Albert. “Ballad Allusions in Tim O'Brien's ‘Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?’” Studies in Short Fiction 28.2 (Spring 1991) 218-22.

Jon Volkmer (essay date spring-summer 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Volkmer, Jon. “Telling the ‘Truth’ about Vietnam: Episteme and Narrative Structure in The Green Berets and The Things They Carried.WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 11, no. 1 (spring-summer 1999): 240-55.

[In the following essay, Volkmer compares and contrasts The Things They Carried and Robin Moore's The Green Berets, focusing on the way both authors treat the truth about the Vietnam War.]

Robin Moore's The Green Berets, published in 1965, is one of the earliest novels of the Vietnam conflict. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990), is one of the more recent. Nevertheless, there are many similarities: both are novels-in-short-stories; both focus on American soldiers; both employ mainly jungle settings; and both feature a first-person narrator who is both one-of-the-guys AND separated from them by the status of being a writer. Moreover, each book makes an explicit claim that it tells the “truth” about the Vietnam conflict, a truth which each claims is only accessible through a fictive presentation of action and events.

My purpose is to interrogate the claims to ownership of “truth” in these two novels, and discuss how presumptions about the nature of “truth” affect the fictive shaping of the novel. By this comparison, I hope to show how these two novels form what might be called a set of bookends of the Vietnam era, with Moore's work reflecting the simplicity and naïveté of a country embarking on war, and O'Brien's work living as testament to the complexity and hard-won, although limited, knowledge from the perspective granted by a quarter of a century.

I started with some similarities that make these books ripe for comparison. The rest of my essay is devoted to their differences. A look at the titles reveals much. The synecdoche of The Green Berets (GB) is not accidental. Throughout the book, Moore's characters are described solely in terms of their qualifications as fighting men. Hence,

Sven Kornie was the ideal Special Forces officer. Special Forces was his life; fighting, especially unorthodox warfare, was what he lived for. He had no career to sacrifice; he had no desire to rise from operational to supervisory levels. And not the least of his assets, he was unmarried and had no attachments to anyone or anything in the world beyond Special Forces.


While man and mission are submerged into the same “truth” in GB, the title of The Things They Carried (TTC) signals the separation of man from mission. The war, and all its paraphernalia, are the unhappy load carried on the back of the foot soldiers. The first and eponymous chapter lists pages and pages of things that soldiers carried in the war, listings which are used to highlight the soldiers' individualities as much as their commonalities:

Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.


Later in the chapter, the list of “things they carried” is enlarged to include the abstract and metaphysical. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing” (20). There is one thing they do not carry:

They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not.


O'Brien pays little attention to his characters as soldiers. As foreshadowed by the title, O'Brien's truth is always individual; it lies in the idiosyncrasies of individuals. Robin Moore, as I will show, believes in a common and objective Truth; his emphasis is on the soldierly qualities that his characters share, as idealized and symbolized by their head gear.

The Green Berets is a book of truth.” Thus Moore begins his introduction. He explains that while he had originally planned a nonfiction work, two things convinced him that he should employ a fictional presentation. The first is a kind of names-changed-to-protect-the-guilty routine. “Time and again, I promised harried and heroic Special Forces men that their confidences were ‘off the record’” (2).

Moore's other reason is more ambitious. He praises other reporters for giving “detailed incidents,” but his idea, he says, is to give “the broad overall picture of how Special Forces men operate, so each story basically is representative of a different facet of Special Forces action in wars like the one in Vietnam” (1).

Notice that Moore claims veracity for his portrayal not only of the Vietnam engagement, but of all wars like it. How does he presume to so generalize? Through Cold War Manichaeism, of course. The presumptive “truth” that underlies GB is the vision of the world as a giant struggle between Good (freedom, democracy, America), and Evil (tyranny, Communism, the Soviet Union). Moore is quite happy to employ the metaphor of an encircled jungle outpost for the state of the world, not only in his own time, but seemingly for all time:

In essence, these stories will be true of the political problems and combat situations Special Forces men are facing in 1965, or for that matter 1975, wherever Americans must fight to keep the perimeter of the free world from shrinking further.


The crucial failure of the book (and, it might be argued, of America's early involvement in the Vietnam), is a refusal to see or acknowledge how this Manichaean episteme influences the perception and construction of narrative events. Robin Moore was in Vietnam. He claims much firsthand experience of the war, including, presumably, all the ambiguity that accompanies such experience. And yet, when that experience is translated into what the author promises is a higher fictive “truth,” the reader finds it first suspiciously, and sometimes laughably, unambiguous.

In Moore's book, shades of gray are strained out in favor of broad swatches of black and white. The Special Forces men are uniformly lionized for their courage, strength, and intelligence, while the North Vietnamese are demonized as vicious and fanatical Communists. The South Vietnamese allies are treated with suspicion and contempt. These sentiments are broadened still further in lines like: “‘Now we get the Oriental mind at work,’” Stitch said wearily to the Americans in the room. “‘If we stay here twenty years we won't change them, and God save us from getting like them’” (46-7).

While Asians are routinely described in phrases such as “the sinister little brown bandit” (36), the ethnic ideal for the Special Forces men is chillingly Aryan. Talking about “the ideal Special Forces officer,” the narrator states with pride that Sven Kornie, “joined the German Army and miraculously survived two years of fighting the Russians on the eastern front” (22). Thus, in the strict dualism of the Cold War, the character's possible Nazi past is not only pardonable but praiseworthy, because he was fighting Communists. Kornie's men—given the names Borst, Schmelzer, Stitch, Bergholtz—seem to have a lot in common with their commander, a fact not lost on the narrator: “He introduced me to Sergeant Bergholtz, and I sensed my guess was correct that a Germanic-Viking crew had indeed been transported intact to the Vietnam-Cambodia border” (25).

Moore's plots are as predictable as his characters. In each of the nine stories, the heroic Green Berets are beset by overwhelming odds, or treachery, or the restrictions imposed by short-sighted career army officers who don't understand the dictates of “unconventional” war. The linear narratives rise to dramatic climaxes that usually take the form of a battle where a smashing victory is snatched from the jaws of near certain defeat.

In one story Moore even employs his own version of a Fisher King myth. “Home to Nanette” has the Green Beret hero, Arklin, sent to singlehandedly transform a peaceful Meo village “into an orderly paramilitary operation” (177). The villagers treat Arklin as a demigod, presenting him the choicest young virgins. He at first resists this heathen practice, but finally “bowed to the inevitable” (173) and accepts a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl “much lighter colored than the others, smaller breasted, and more delicately boned” (172). (She turns out, of course, to be half-French, conveniently blending a Western epitome of sensuality with the native allure.) Arklin, a married man, stoically refrains from sex with the willing native. However, he finds the Meos surly and uncooperative because of this rejection. So Arklin, a true Green Beret, must do whatever it takes to fulfill his mission. As Moore tells it:

Out of desperation born of his inability to circumvent his morals and nearly inflexible sense of responsibility, Arklin drank three gourds of Meo liquor. The alcohol produced the release and Arklin consummated his ‘marriage’ to Nanette. Once breakthrough had been effected, Arklin so thoroughly pleased and satisfied his young bride that the Meos, seeing her the next day, knew at once that the American was finally one of them. …

Tasks were accomplished much more quickly now. The weapons room was finished. … Sandbags were filled and molded into bunkers, and on the firing range the Montagnards worked hard to improve their marksmanship.


Thus the erect penis of the Green Beret restores vitality to the stagnant community. Besides the poorly concealed prurience, there is also the irony, apparently lost on Moore, that the “fertility” his Fisher King instills portends unmitigated catastrophe for the village. By the end of the story most of the Meos are dead, the village is on the brink of being overrun, and the survivors must be evacuated by airplane. But in the book's perspective, the operation is a success because, in Arklin's words, “They [the Meos] inflicted heavy damage on the Communist buildup” (220).

Robin Moore's fictional imperative, as it turns out, is to strain out the moral ambiguity of war, as well as the tactical ambiguity of jungle warfare, in favor of his vision of Morality (Green Berets are always the good guys), and Justice (they always win). This formula of rendering the Vietnam war as a series of gritty but simplistic action-adventure narratives probably accounts both for the novel's pop culture presence1, and for its dismissive treatment by scholars of Vietnam war literature.2

Robin Moore attempts to use the fictive constructs to present the truth about Vietnam. As I have tried to show, Moore betrays, and is betrayed by, those selfsame constructs. The Green Berets is, at best, a part of what Neil Sheehan calls the “Bright Shining Lie” of Vietnam. At worst, it is gruesome comedy, a testament to the naïveté, self-delusion and arrogance that launched the United States into its Vietnam nightmare.

As GB demonstrates, while the traditional plot structure—rising action, climax, denouement—is well suited for war literature, it is not politically neutral. By imposing order and coherence on events, the plot invests them with significance. Whether the plot culminates in triumph or tragedy, the plot tends to bless its subject with meaning, even glamor.

In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien makes the problem of locating truth the central theme. Instead of promising the truth, O'Brien spends most of his time hacking away at the very idea of “truth” when it comes to war. The term is too closely aligned with “meaning,” “coherence,” and “significance” for his liking. O'Brien's strategy, throughout the book, is to hook the reader into an engaging story, then radically disrupt the narrative. O'Brien wants to pull the rug out from under the reader, explode the complacencies, keep the reader on edge and guessing. This state of never coming to conclusions, never being allowed to settle into a truth, paradoxically provides a “truer” sense of the experience of Vietnam than a consistent narrative could do. Responding to this point in a letter to me, O'Brien writes, “Thing is, I do state conclusions. Many, many conclusions. But as I say at one point, ‘the truths are contradictory.’ They swirl. There are varieties of truth, angles on truth, reports of truth, etc.” He continues:

In general, I guess, I'm saying that “truth” does not seem to be … something we can touch and eat for breakfast. Take a look at the Rat Kiley stuff about story and believability and truth in “Sweetheart” [“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”]; take a look, too, at the fat bird colonel thing in “How to Tell a True War Story”: how we hear, what we bring to a report of truth (say a story being told) determines in part our judgments about “truthfulness.” (How can a thing be true if we don't believe it's true? No way, unless you accept the notion of noumenon.) The fat bird colonel has wax in his ears, wrong frequency—i.e. military rank and rear-echelon-ness and officerlike values add up to the inability to hear or listen to or believe what those six guys experienced up in the mountains. For the colonel, that cocktail party in the fog cannot be true—not literally, not metaphorically. Same-same with Rat's “Sweetheart” story: nobody believes him because they've come to the story with certain values and conventions about women and combat. Rat explicitly disputes these conventions, yet doesn't convince his buddies—the guys never do believe him, though he claims to have witnessed certain events with his own two eyes.

(August 1993)

As illustrated in this quote, O'Brien brings an ingenious arsenal of weapons for disrupting reader expectations and complacencies. His narration is recursive rather than linear. He happily contradicts himself.

A strategy which O'Brien uses over and over again is the invitation to and the denial of the authorial fallacy. This begins even before the reader gets to the first story, and discovers that the narrator's name is “Tim O'Brien.” The front matter of the book contains the routine disclaimer that, “all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” But a page later, the author “lovingly” dedicates the book “to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa”—that is, to those selfsame names and characters we have just been assured are imaginary.

In many places the narrative claims to be dropping the pretense of fiction in order to tell the reader what “really” happened, only to snap the fictive trap. Nowhere is the reader more thoroughly indicted than at the end of the chapter called “How to Tell a True War Story.” Here the narration of an episode in the setting of Viet Nam makes one of its frequent meta-narrational jumps into a more familiar time and place, only this time the reader is given an actual stand-in:

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It's always a woman. Usually it's an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She'll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can't understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she'll say, is put it all behind me.

I won't say it but I'll think it.

I'll picture Rat Kiley's face, his grief, and I'll think, You dumb cooze.


The meta-narrator's voice continues in this indignant tone, damning the kindly woman (and by extension, all readers) for accepting the writer's earlier portrait of a moving moment in a horrible war. Now he insists, “Beginning to end, … it's all made up. Every goddamn detail—the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo. None of it happened. None of it” (91).

And then the O'Brienesque quick reversal: “And even if it did happen, it didn't happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy” (91).

At this point, the poor woman might be forgiven if her temperament became less kindly and she demanded of the author, What in the hell do you want from me? It seems that both writer and reader are caught in a double bind. As any Vietnam vet will tell you, you can't know what it was like unless you were there. But O'Brien adds that you can't know what it was like even if you were there, and even when a writer succeeds in touching the reader's emotions, there is still the ever present danger of melodrama and sentimentality. In this section, more than anywhere else in the book, the writer's frustration is evident.

In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O'Brien most directly attacks the romantic treatment of war. Here's the plot: a soldier is killed; his friend writes a long letter to the dead man's sister; she never writes back. Interwoven with the fragments of this narrative are didactic pronouncements on the nature of a “true” war story. Among them:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. 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.


O'Brien is, as usual, talking only indirectly about war itself; his contempt is reserved for the stories of war.

Throughout TTC, one finds a preoccupation with epistemology, so that it turns out to be as much a book about a man trying to write a book as it is a book about the war. O'Brien never forgets, or lets the reader forget, that no reader ever has direct experience; the “experience” we read is always mediated through the memory and imagination of the writer, which complicates the search for truth:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed.


The metaphors weave in and out. In an earlier chapter, “Spin,” O'Brien compares the process to a traffic circle:

You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up in your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come.


In “How to Tell …” [“How to Tell a True War Story”] he employs the metaphor of the weave of cloth:

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story except maybe, “Oh.”

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.


After all the generalization and abstraction, the reader must do a double take at that last line. What then, is O'Brien saying about Truth? Where is the locus of reality? I believe O'Brien's book points to a complicated and dynamic version of reality: it can never exist in the details, for details are whimsical and accidental. It can never exist in generalizations, for they are prey to politics and romanticism. And yet, those are the only two choices, the only constructs at hand, so they must be used. But the undercutting of the authority of either one is just as important as its authoritative delivery, and real truth exists, if at all, in glimmers and glimpses, in an unstable ethereal place that occurs just above the rabble of raw detail and below the Olympian realm of generalization and abstraction. There is never a conclusion, there is only endless process: “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (91).

In comparing Moore to O'Brien, it is instructive to look at the one story in TTC in which the Green Berets play a prominent role. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is one of the longest pieces in O'Brien's book, and the one that most resembles a typical “war story.” The plot concerns a medic who ingeniously contrives to bring his girlfriend all the way from the United States to the Vietnamese jungle, just to be with him. The girlfriend is happy with him for a while, but then becomes fascinated with Vietnam, with the war, and with the Green Berets who are encamped on the other side of the outpost. Eventually the boyfriend who brought her loses her to the Green Berets. She goes on their ambushes, and goes further, leaving even them in the end, to become a jungle creature, a preying cat almost, that spooks the Green Berets themselves.

O'Brien's book is about grunts, common fighting men who for the most part didn't choose or want to be in Viet Nam, not about elite Green Berets, and it's curious to see how O'Brien presents them in his book as something ghostly, otherworldly. Curiously, the enemy is often referred to in the same terms of ghosts and mystery and otherworldliness. In “Sweetheart,” we come the closest to Moore's view: the Greenies, as O'Brien calls them, have adopted the ways of the enemy, and are engaging the enemy in ways that the regular grunts don't know and don't care to know. O'Brien's common soldiers are almost as wary of the Greenies as they are of the enemy. Moore would probably be comfortable with this view.

But O'Brien undercuts this credibility by making “Sweetheart” more a story about storytelling than a paean to the Green Berets. The story of the girl who goes native is not presented straight out; the book's first-person narrator gets it from another character, Rat Kiley, who is branded unreliable—an habitual liar and gross exaggerator. Other characters respond to the story as Rat Kiley tells it, providing a metafictional commentary about the story as story, what stories accomplish, and the rules that stories must follow. For example, at the point where Rat Kiley tells the others that the girl has disappeared, he pauses to gauge the audience response:

When he first told the story, Rat stopped there and looked at Mitchell Sanders for a time.

“So what's your vote? Where was she?”

“The Greenies,” Sanders said.


Sanders smiled. “No other option. That stuff about the Special Forces—how they used the place as a base of operations, how they'd glide in and out—all that had to be there for a reason. That's how stories work, man.”

Rat thought about it, then shrugged.

“All right, sure, the Greenies. …”


In this interchange, we see an example of the complicated way that O'Brien sees story and reality working together. Rat has previously sworn again and again this is a true story he's telling, although the narrator has told us not to trust Rat. In his response to Sanders, it is almost as if Rat is making it up, agreeing with Sanders that the facts of the story dictate that the girl ran off with the Green Berets, and so he will agree to that and continue the story with that as a “fact” even if it hadn't occurred to him before. The way O'Brien italicizes the word “reason,” it's clear he has Sanders using the word in the sense of “rule,” as in the rules of storytelling.

Near the story's conclusion, Rat shrugs and says he doesn't know whatever became of the girl. This infuriates Mitchell Sanders, whom O'Brien uses throughout as spokesman for the rules or obligations of storytelling. These obligations are not only not arbitrary, but alleged to be connected to something essential, to “human nature” itself:

“You can't do that.”

“Do what?”

“Jesus Christ, it's against the rules,” Sanders said. “Against human nature. This elaborate story, you can't say, “Hey, by the way, I don't know the ending. I mean, you got certain obligations.”


Once again, O'Brien is using italics to link the most important parts, “rules … nature … ending,” as if there is some organic, inviolable structure to storytelling.

Rat fulfills his obligation, but of course O'Brien undercuts it with Rat's disclaimer that he doesn't know the conclusion of the story from his own experience, but “I heard it secondhand. Thirdhand, actually” (124). He then goes ahead and gives the story a most romantic, sensational, and unbelievable ending:

If you believed the Greenies, Rat said, Mary Anne was still out there in the dark. Odd movements, odd shapes. … She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill.


After reading O'Brien's “Sweetheart,” one can't help but think of Moore's earnest narrator as a less self-aware Rat Kiley. The reader is ever more cognizant of Moore's manipulation of details in slavish adherence to conventional rules of narrative structure. Each of Moore's stories rises to such a clear climax, conclusion and closure, with such clear good guys and bad guys, that the reader cannot help disbelieving him, because the shaping hand of the author is too much in evidence making everything come out right for the sake of story every time. In “Sweetheart,” O'Brien makes the machinations of storytelling itself the central aspect of the story.

Despite the superficial similarities, The Green Berets and The Things They Carried are novels that come not only from opposite chronological positions, but from opposite ends of the war's epistemological spectrum as well. Robin Moore claims to possess Truth at the cosmic level (Good vs Evil), and at the empirical level. However, he imposes fictive constructs, characterization and plot, with such programmatic rigidity that he violates a reader's common sense apprehension of the ambiguities and chaos of real life, and ends up being disbelieved despite all his claims.

While Moore tries (and fails), to make sense out of the chaos of the Vietnam conflict, O'Brien promises (and succeeds), to portray the war as a cacophony of competing truths, but not one that reduces itself to chaos or meaninglessness. O'Brien writes, “Complication isn't chaos. I was after clarity, of a sort” (letter to the author, August 1993). While Moore tries to bring the suspense and satisfaction of traditional plot structure to strengthen his claim on the reader, O'Brien attacks reader expectations. He distrusts any large claim of truth. He distrusts any simple explanations or answers. He even distrusts his own memory.

And yet, for all his disclaimers and disruptions, O'Brien's episteme is not nihilistic. He does believe in truth, but in his conception it's a slippery thing, dynamic, tentative, tenuous, transforming itself into untruth as soon as one gets complacent with it. Whenever he explicitly tells the reader that something is “true,” the reader learns to expect that truth to be contradicted or undercut somewhere else in the book.

The transcendent concept for O'Brien is not “truth” but “story”:

Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.


At the beginning of this essay, I referred to GB and TTH as “bookends” of the Vietnam era. Moore's experience in Vietnam was in the first half of 1964, a time the United States was precisely on the cusp of the massive political and social upheavals often referred to as the counter culture revolution. Domestic opposition to the Vietnam war was central to this inter-generational American conflict, both as a cause and an effect. That Moore's book could be a best seller reflects, I believe, its publication during the last stages of society's WWII-era combination of glorified patriotism and pervasive paranoia over the threat of a worldwide Communist hegemony. A few years later, in 1968, John Wayne's attempt to bring GB to the big screen was a famous flop. The most often cited moment in the movie is the ending, where The Duke, hand in hand with the tiny orphan Vietnamese boy, walks into the sunset on the beach. Except in Vietnam the coast faces east. A western beach sunset could only happen in someplace like … California. Which is where, as the wags always say, this movie is really set.

The most serious and successful film statements about the Vietnam appeared in the late 1970s, and tried to make sense of the war in mythical or archetypal terms. Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) cross-reference war scenes with, in the former case, archetypal small-town America, and in the latter, Joseph Conrad's mythical vision of evil and the human heart.

Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1975) fits into this category. In this novel, the scenes of Vietnam warfare are interwoven with a preposterous but almost believable plot of a deserter being tracked, on the ground, all the way from the battlefield in Southeast Asia to Paris, France. Thus the longing of the frightened homesick soldier becomes transmuted into an epic and archetypal quest.

I have noticed, however, that many Vietnam veterans express dissatisfaction with these three highly acclaimed works of art. It's as if the artistic qualities of the construction interfere with the down-to-earth realism that those who experienced the Vietnam war demand. And once again we are back to the conundrum formulated earlier in this essay of generalities versus details. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter and Going After Cacciato, although liberally infused with gritty, even gory realism, finally exist more at the level of generalization, of mythic or aesthetic statement. At the other extreme, some of the finer works of journalism, Michael Herr's Dispatches, say, offer extraordinary glimpses of the details of the war, but leave it up to the reader to provide any overarching meaning or point.

Which brings me back to The Things They Carried. This book arrived on the scene in 1990, coincidental with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Evil Empire, and the end of whole Manicheaen dualism that dominated political discourse since the end of WWII. What is left when the Evil Empire is gone? The story of how some men once believed in it. And how others who didn't were sent to fight a war in a faraway country by those who did. And the Truth, or Truths, or truths of the war can only be found in the reverence for story.

Reverence for story is what ultimately separates GB from TTC, and, I would argue, what raises O'Brien's book above nearly all of the imaginative representations of the Vietnam War. Whereas Robin Moore's book is a failed attempt to make story serve his version of “truth,” Tim O'Brien finds truth in allowing it to serve the needs of story. In the narratives that he weaves around “Tim O'Brien,” around Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the rest, without glamorizing the obscenity of war, he achieves the beauty of art, and the ring of truth.


  1. Moore co-wrote the hit song “Ballad of the Green Berets” with Sgt. Barry Sadler; John Wayne starred in the movie.

  2. Moore's book is not even mentioned in Arthur Casciato's comprehensive article, “Teaching the Literature of the Vietnam War” (Review, Vol. 9, 1987).

Works Cited

Moore, Robin. The Green Berets. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

———. Letter to Jon Volkmer. 3 August, 1993.

Carl S. Horner (essay date spring-summer 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Horner, Carl S. “Challenging the Law of Courage and Heroic Identification in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 11, no. 1 (spring-summer 1999): 256-67.

[In the following essay, Horner maintains that O'Brien challenges conventional ideas about courage and heroism in If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.]

In his autobiographic text, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me up and Ship Me Home, and in his novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien questions the presumed sanctity of the oldest male law. Courage and masculinity, so-called “professionalism,” the “old order” (If I Die 192), grace under pressure, or the collective male psyche could, O'Brien writes, blind a man into stupidity during the Vietnam War. Not that he could always rely on published information or even rationally determine a wise course in the call of duty, but a citizen had the obligation to discover whether business leaders, politicians, and military officers had moral, legal, and therefore truly evident causes for sanctioning violence in Vietnam. Blind or obsessive duty for the sake of honor, God, and country might be bravery to a fault, or nothing more than “manliness, crudely idealized” (If I Die 142).

Courage is only one part of virtue, O'Brien explains, alluding to the warnings of Plato. Courage cannot be separated from wisdom, temperance, and justice. Once a man sheds heroic identification and merit deeds; once he refuses either to compromise his morality, to kill illegally, or to entrap himself in the futile sacrifice of “a war fought for uncertain reasons” (If I Die 135); once he seeks inwardly and deliberately for the meaning of courage (an obligation more frightening and dangerous than prescriptive duty), he escapes mechanical bravery and the spiritual death that blind conscription can produce. That is, the soldier who responds not to what he really believes but to the expectations of indoctrinated parents, small-town neighbors, sergeants, and lieutenants is charged, O'Brien writes, with the passion, the ignorance “merely” of “a well-disguised cowardice” (If I Die 135).

Throughout gender history, men have been pressured to react to deadly crisis according to the sacred rules of a male honor code. From Odysseus to King Arthur, from Ulysses to George Washington, and from Aeneas to Norman Schwarzkopf, clearly the most widely accepted values of integrity, dignity, respect, self-respect, valor, and thus unquestioned masculinity hinge upon a commissioned response to fear and duty. Rational control over the emotion of fear or doubt; strength not only of body but also of mind—the tangential strength, that is, of the gifted athlete and military wizard; appropriate aggression fed by a competitive spirit; full-pitch confidence to win against overwhelming odds; and utter loyalty to duty, to God, to country, to family, and to friends collectively define the classic male hero. Here is the meaning of inventiveness, resilience, and endurance in the male universe. Here is the legendary crisis crusher, the icon of national and international glory and fame, the Captain, my Captain of moral common sense and duty, the human bush hog cutting the memorial path to higher truth. “It's the old story,” Major Callicles insists in If I Die in a Combat Zone. “Guts to stand up for what's right. … It's not standing around passively hoping for things to happen right; it's going out and being tough and sharp-thinkin' and making things happen right” (194-195). Clearly, undaunted courage lies at the heart of this “crucible of men” and epic “events” (22-23).

A “blond, meticulously fair, brave, tall, [and] blue-eyed” Captain Johanson would be recognized traditionally and yet blindly as his “nation's pride” for his classic masculinity when in “the steady, blood-headed intensity of Sir Lancelot” (If I Die 131, 144) he charges across a rice paddy to kill a Vietcong soldier nearly at point-blank range. Did he act for the benefit or the safety of his platoon? Was his deed an act of self-sacrifice? Was this an “ag-ile, mo-bile, and hos-tile” man “resigned to bullets and brawn” (If I Die 44, 91)? Or was this mission nothing more than an adrenalin rush—not bravery, not courage really, but mindless aggression? “It's the charge, the light brigade with only one man” sailing neither with fear nor with regret into harm's way, O'Brien cautions, that typically comes to mind “first” in the classification of heroes. Men who charge the enemy despite their fear of death “are remembered as brave, win or lose.” Here are the sacred heroes forever tall, true, and tough—forever rough, ready, and rugged—and men like Johanson confess that they would “rather be brave” in this way “than almost anything” else in life. These men are truly “heroes forever” in war history and in literature, but we must not conclude that “courage” presupposes the bloody “charge” (If I Die 131).

“Courage is nothing to laugh at, not if it is proper courage and exercised by men who know what they do is proper” (133), O'Brien writes in If I Die in a Combat Zone, arguing that if we are not thinking, we are not human. If we are not thinking, by extension we are not brave in the human dimension. “Proper courage is wise courage,” O'Brien explains, alluding to Plato's dialectic of noble bravery in “Laches.” “It's acting wisely, acting wisely when fear would have a man act otherwise. It is the endurance of the soul in spite of fear—wisely” (133).

Mindless charge has its place in war—indeed, force can generate the power necessary to win a deadly conflict. But we must not confuse crude aggression with the noble cause enlivened by courage. Doing the best that any individual can do, according to his own conscience, keeps common sense and meaning in the acts of courage. Routine physical acts, the thing to do at the time, raw valor, doing what everyone else is doing to avoid shame, acting bravely “out of a spirit of righteousness … necessity … resignation” (If I Die 45), merely following orders—is that acting gallantly? What might be classified or even decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor as courageous mentality could like the “endless march” of duty honestly be reduced to a physical response to stressful experience with “no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy … a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility” (Things [The Things They Carried] 15).

Human courage comes not from the hypothalamus, not from the anterior pituitary or adrenal glands, and not from any other direct or indirect influence on a fight-or-flight response to stress, including the central nervous system and the testicles, but from the clear thinking cortex of the brain. “Men must know what they do is courageous,” O'Brien argues in If I Die in a Combat Zone—that is, “they must know it is right, and that kind of knowledge is wisdom and nothing else” (137). Be it Plato's rationalism or Heidegger's and Sartre's existentialism, acting knowingly and thoughtfully is the human condition.

Within this self-limiting vision of courage, O'Brien hesitates to celebrate many brave men. “Either they are stupid and do not know what is right,” including one Alpha Company soldier who had no thoughts about his participation in the war—certainly, no high thoughts about morality or politics—and who only wanted to get out of Vietnam alive. “Or they know what is right and cannot bring themselves to do it. Or they know what is right and do it, but do not feel and understand the fear that must be overcome” (If I Die 137). Holding ground on principle, or for no other reason than to hold it, as in the example of a cow taking countless rounds from O'Brien's company in a free-fire zone, is neither courage nor endurance. It is mortal stupidity.

Of course, O'Brien is not the first writer to challenge the law of courage, warning that mindless assault, even for honorable causes, loses the human dimension of bravery. Although Hemingway vehemently opposed the psychoanalytic view popular in his day that each individual suffers a point at which his mind or body will break down under pressure, Colonel Lum Edwards explained that even during the most frightening combat of the 1944 Hurtgen campaign Hemingway was never “impressed by reckless bravado.” While he “admired the man who could see clearly what was necessary to do and had the courage to do it, regardless of the percentage of risk involved,” never did Hemingway identify “raw courage,” or suicidal aggression, as honorable or even as desirable “unless it was the only way of getting the job done.” Impressed by Hemingway's love of direct action over diction, Edwards concluded that his friend practiced his honor code sincerely each of his eighteen days in Hurtgenwald:

I never saw him act foolishly in combat. He understood war and man's part in it to a better degree than most people ever will. He had an excellent sense of the situation. While wanting to contribute, he knew very well when to proceed and when it was best to wait awhile.

(qtd. in Baker 435)

Despite the attractive filter that Hemingway placed on courage—essentially, that a life-threatening event in war (or in any deadly crisis) is merely a test, a test not only of courage and endurance but also of dignity—O'Brien notes in If I Die in a Combat Zone that simple stoicism is not a consistently adequate measure of bravery under any circumstance in war:

It's too easy to affect grace, and it's too hard to see through it. … Grace under pressure means you can confront things gracefully or squeeze out of them gracefully. But to make those two things equal with the easy word “grace” is wrong. Grace under pressure is not courage.


If Hemingway had lived under the daily grind of a combat soldier for a year or more, rather than drifting in and out of deadly conflict as a correspondent, the law of averages would have shattered his stoicism and thus his own law of courage, as the ironies, uncertainties, and cruelties of the war theater would contradict, any man's inflexible belief.

Shoved or hit in his childhood school yard, any man of Alpha Company would fight. Rather than lose dignity or the appearance of courage, he would scream and snarl and flail the air and flail his enemies in the cruel power and glory of male potency. Indeed, public confessions about the fear of death were more than “bad luck” or “the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy,” all of which was strictly “taboo” (If I Die 138) for any soldier in any combat platoon during the Vietnam War. The collective male honor code precludes the contemplation of fear. Admitting fear is simply illegal or shameful in the male universe. The men of Alpha Company were nurtured in the same laws of masculinity as any other soldier in any other war. A man must not cry. He must not whine or complain. Worse, he must not lose control over his emotions or run in the heat of crisis. He must at least wear the mask of bravery in all conflict. The burden of fear and the shame that he would have to suffer if he let it creep into his face haunted even the toughest soldier of Alpha Company. Everyone “carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide.” Certainly, under the crushing weight of stress, violence, and ordnance, the male role “was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down.” Carrying “the soldier's greatest fear,” the terror not of death but “the fear of blushing,” the men of Alpha Company “were too frightened to be cowards.” No high “dreams of glory or honor” threatened their dignity, merely “the blush of dishonor.” They might even sneer at death in order not to be embarrassed by it. Indeed, men “died so as not to die of embarrassment” (Things 20-21). Here we see to what extent soldiers are driven in war, the bright center stage of the collective male psyche, not only by the Darwinism of androgen, testosterone, and adrenaline that inflames their aggressive spirits but also by the far more imperial grip of social Darwinism.

The “secret” to success in all crises, Bill brags to Jake in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, is “never be daunted.” Of course, we can presume that Bill has been frightened by the violent experiences that any boy or man must endure in social reality, but he must always be politically correct, and thus he will not show his fear. “Not in public. If I begin to feel daunted I'll go off by myself” (73). The silly Lion believes that he will be king over the forests of Oz if he develops not heart and not mind but courage. Ironically, Juno fails to realize in Virgil's Aeneid that men value courage over life and safety; thus, her effort to save Turnus from certain death in fated battle with Aeneas only frustrates the man beyond either the fear or the pain of death. “The horror of it!” Turnus shrieks, realizing that he has fled the battlefield in pursuit not of his rival but only of an apparition of Aeneas. Here for the classic soldier is “a fault so grave,” a “disgrace” and “shame” so unforgivable and “terrible” (271-272), that only Juno can restrain her mortal from instantly killing himself on his own sword or foolishly attempting to swim back to land in order to regain his dignity in the heat of war.

In order to protect themselves from shame and forbidden fear, some soldiers in Alpha Company “carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation.” Other soldiers wore the masks of “pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good human or macho zeal.” All of them were inwardly “afraid of dying,” the bravest leaders like Captain Johanson and the toughest grunts like Rat Kiley, “but they were even more afraid to show it” (Things 19).

“All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth,” O'Brien writes—that is, “bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit.” Alan Ladd and Humphrey Bogart had impressed O'Brien's childhood dreams in the formidable way in which a hero responds to crisis. In his impressionable childhood, O'Brien incubated the belief that he “would simply tap a secret reservoir” of his “moral capital” (Things 43) and conquer mounting evil as if he were the new generation's Frederick Henry, Captain Vere, or Shane (If I Die 139). However, the “old image” of himself “as a man of conscience and courage” (Things 60) collided with the Darwinian forces of the Vietnam War. Would his decision to go either to Canada where he could live according to his conscience or to Vietnam where he would answer his call to duty despite his conscience result in an honest act of courage? If he did succumb to national pride, would he find the path to truth and honor promised by his culture or merely kill the citizen's obligation to follow his inner voices in matters of political dispute?

Despite respected warnings from Ezra Pound that soldiers have entrapped themselves in war “from fear of weakness” or “from fear of censure” (qtd. in O'Brien, If I Die 37), or from fear of not being manly, and despite O'Brien's research into the political contradictions of Ho Chi Minh, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Geneva Accords, SEATO, and the division, if not the “moral confusion,” among “smart” American politicians who “could not agree on even the most fundamental matters of public policy,” O'Brien suffered the gnawing pressure to abandon his belief “that you don't make war without knowing why” (Things 44). This “moral split,” he explains, caused him to experience “a kind of schizophrenia” (Things 48), even to the degree of hallucinating the faces and voices of his parents, his hometown friends, alien neighbors and civic leaders, Civil and World War veterans, high school cheerleaders, his best friend who died in her childhood, a memory of his cowboy hat and mask, Jane Fonda, Gary Cooper, and a myriad of other polar impressions. Although the events “On the Rainy River” are invented in The Things They Carried only to evoke O'Brien's confusion and anguish that he more autobiographically expresses in If I Die in a Combat Zone, the feeling of psychic warfare draws us into a haunting truth:

I couldn't make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure.

(Things 48)

Cleanth Brooks writes that moral pressure is exerted as “the essential ether” (52) in American small towns. Indeed, aliens to community codes risk the deadly loneliness not only of spoken and unspoken ridicule but also of self-doubt. Besides his mother and father, whose hurt over a son's resolution to go against the stream he could vividly imagine, O'Brien could picture the emotional violence of town leaders and gossips if they were to discuss his decision to follow his conscience:

My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted, and it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Café on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O'Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada. At night, when I couldn't sleep, I'd sometimes carry on fierce arguments with those people. I'd be screaming at them, telling them how much I detested their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simple-minded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn't understand and didn't want to understand. I held them responsible. By God, yes, I did. All of them—I held them personally and individually responsible—the polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club. They didn't know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. They didn't know history. They didn't know the first thing about Diem's tyranny, or the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French.

(Things 48-49)

Of course, O'Brien could not discuss his inner turmoil with anyone so heavily locked into conservative beliefs about men, heroes, and war. And even though he recognized the irony of giving up honest feelings about himself in order to live a life without conflict with people whom he did not know or care about intimately, he could not tolerate the anticipation that these underinformed citizens would condemn him to the leagues of cowards and traitors.

When the heart is squeezed, the intellect cannot always make decisions according to what O'Brien idealizes as “an act of pure reason” (Things 54). Rather than make decisions inwardly—that is, trusting an internal barometer and therefore being true to ourselves—O'Brien learned that fear of public condemnation might determine what we finally do. Under the “terrible squeezing pressure” (Things 59) that attacks the human conscience, we can succumb to whatever society says that we must do and thus judge ourselves according to what other people say or do “as we make our choices or fail to make them” (Things 62). Under the “great worldwide sadness” that “came pressing down” and the “weight” that kept “pushing [him] toward the war” (Things 54, 59), O'Brien suffered “a moral freeze” on the Rainy River. “Canada had become a pitiful fantasy,” not a solution to the pressure but a “silly and hopeless” dream of escaping his gnawing pressure:

I couldn't decide, I couldn't act, I couldn't comport myself with even a pretense of modest human dignity. … Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave. That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream. Bobbing there on the Rainy River, looking back at the Minnesota shore, I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation.

(Things 59-60)

Facing the strange and alien moment in his life when he was “ashamed of [his] conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing” (Things 55), ashamed of the philosophical and political convictions that made him doubt his ability to make a moral decision ironically to fight what he believed to be an immoral war, O'Brien confesses that the boiling rivers of “hot, stupid shame” (Things 54) finally determined the currents of his inner struggle. National and hometown patriots would not know that they sent a “coward” to fight their war in Vietnam. “It had nothing to do with morality,” good thinking, and courage, O'Brien finally writes. “I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to” (Things 62-63).

Although we cannot expect ideal or even rational consistency in the contemplation of courage, O'Brien learned first in the war that raged between his heart and his intellect and then in the bush of the Vietnam War “that manhood is not something to scoff at”—indeed, that “soldiering … is something that makes a fellow think about courage, makes a man wonder what it is and if he has it” (If I Die 136, 202). In the honesty of mental toughness, no man is a total hero. No man is a total coward. Working toward his own perspective on bravery, O'Brien explodes the popular cliché: “A coward dies a thousand deaths but a brave man only once.” The error in this false assumption, O'Brien explains, is that no man is either “once and for always a coward” or “once and for always a hero.” Operating as a foot soldier in the area of Chu Lai, including the villages of My Khe and My Lai one year after the well-known My Lai Massacre, O'Brien learned the tough reality that in the bush

… men act cowardly and, at other times, act with courage, each in different measure, each with varying consistency. The men who do well on the average, perhaps with one moment of glory, those men are brave.

(If I Die 143)

So ambiguous is the truth about courage, so intense and forgivable are the inconsistencies and contradictions of real men in crisis, a classic honor code—no matter how ideally projected, distorted, and perpetuated in gender history—deconstructs its own pressures in the hideous violence of war. In no literature about the war theater do we come to this intersection of courage more honestly than in the example of Alpha Company struggling under the fire of bullets, duty, pride, and self-preservation in The Things They Carried:

For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them.


Unlike the inspiring and yet coolly unrealistic cowboys, soldiers, and celebrated heroes of our childhood dreams and movies, taking fire—actually taking rounds intended to kill us, to kill the trembling flicker of perception that stands between us and dusty death—gives us vision about our vulnerability in crisis. We are never more alive, O'Brien is saying in If I Die in a Combat Zone and in The Things They Carried, than when we are almost dead. War gives us this mirror of our mortality, this truth about our humanity and courage:

Afterward, when the firing ended, they would blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand. As if in slow motion, frame by frame, the world would take on the old logic—absolute silence, then the wind, then sunlight, then voices. It was the burden of being alive. Awkwardly, the men would reassemble themselves, first in private, then in groups, becoming soldiers again. They would repair the leaks in their eyes. They would check for casualties, call in dustoffs, light cigarettes, try to smile, clear their throats and spit and begin cleaning their weapons. After a time someone would shake his head and say, No lie, I almost shit my pants, and someone else would laugh, which meant it was bad, yes, but the guy had obviously not shit his pants, it wasn't that bad, and in any case nobody would ever do such a thing and then go ahead and talk about it. They would squint into the dense, oppressive sunlight. For a few moments, perhaps, they would fall silent, lighting a joint and tracking its passage from man to man, inhaling, holding in the humiliation. Scary stuff, one of them might say. But then someone else would grin or flick his eyebrows and say, Roger-dodger, almost cut me a new asshole, almost.


Works Cited

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner's, 1926.

O'Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me up and Ship Me Home. New York: Delta-Dell, 1989.

———. The Things They Carried. 1990. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Plato. “Laches.” The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Bollingen Series LXXI. New York: Pantheon-Random, 1961. 123-144.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight. New York: Penguin, 1956.

Christopher Michael McDonough (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: McDonough, Christopher Michael. “‘Afraid to Admit We Are Not Achilles’: Facing Hector's Dilemma in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.1Classical and Modern Literature 20, no. 3 (spring 2000): 23-32.

[In the following essay, McDonough utilizes “the tragedy of Hector” from the Iliad to glean insight into The Things They Carried.]

“The war, like Hector's own war, was silly and stupid.”

—Tim O'Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone, 145

What has Troy to do with Vietnam? In recent years, the pertinence of the one Asian war to the other has been powerfully argued by numerous scholars, notably Jonathan Shay, in his seminal study, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Athenaeum, 1994), as well as by various authors responding to Shay in a special issue of Classical Bulletin 71.2 (1995), “Understanding Achilles.” As can be seen in the titles here mentioned, the critical emphasis has generally been laid on the experience of Achilles, while little attention has focused on what James Redfield once called “the tragedy of Hector.” Some discussion of the great Trojan hero might prove useful, however, especially for understanding Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, one of the finest works of American literature to emerge from the experience in Vietnam: for Hector as well as the protagonist of The Things They Carried, both brought to the brink by the necessity of battle, the dilemmas posed by the warrior mentality force unsettling questions about their societies and themselves.

As it was for the many young men who opposed the war in Vietnam, the debate over whether to fight or to flee had been at once a personal and political one for O'Brien. After negatively assessing the justice of the American involvement in Indochina, the narrator wonders whether it would be courageous or cowardly to fight for a cause he believed to be wrong. Although O'Brien elected to go to the war, the quandary remains in the foreground of his work: a central concern of The Things They Carried, a quasi-autobiographical work of fiction, is the shifting and indefinite line which divides bravery from cowardice (as well as honor from shame). “For the common soldier,” O'Brien remarks in an oft-quoted sentence, “… the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity” (88). Many literary critics have rightly characterized O'Brien's uncertainty as postmodern,2 but in fact The Things They Carried deals with issues of courage as old as war itself—or at least as old as the oldest literature about war. In If I Die in a Combat Zone, an earlier work which anticipated many of the themes of The Things They Carried, O'Brien often turned to Plato for enlightenment in these matters, citing definitions of courage from both the Laches and the Republic and applying them to his own situation in Vietnam. But in The Things They Carried, and especially in the chapters “On the Rainy River” and “Speaking of Courage,” O'Brien discusses topics which might more profitably be considered from a Homeric rather than Socratic viewpoint.

As one scholar has noted of The Things They Carried, “There is nothing new in what O'Brien demonstrates here about trying to tell war stories … and, of course, Homer's Iliad is the primal statement on the contradictions inherent in war.”3 Some consideration of Homer's poetry can help to sharpen analysis of combat experience as, in fact, Jonathan Shay has shown in his aforementioned study of post-traumatic stress disorder.4 While much of The Things They Carried likewise deals with the subsequent effects of combat, O'Brien also assesses the soldier's frame of mind before going off to war: in the book's first chapter, he lists not just the assorted weapons and supplies each soldier must carry while marching, but also “the emotional baggage of men who might die” (20), thus delineating the things they carried mentally as well as physically. The contours of this state of mind are most vividly portrayed in “On the Rainy River,” in which the narrator—“Tim O'Brien,” a character distinct from the author—describes what he did after receiving his draft notice, in June, 1968, a few short weeks after his college graduation. At first enraged and then filled with self-pity, he spends an anxious month debating whether he should go to the war or flee his Minnesota home for Canada. One day, he snaps—a matter to be discussed more fully below—and drives north until he reaches the Rainy River; there he stops at the Tip Top Lodge, an abandoned resort on the American side of the border, run by an octogenarian named Elroy Berdahl. It is not anything which the old man says or does that is important for O'Brien during the agonizing days that follow—quite the opposite. Throughout this difficult time, the narrator is especially grateful for the “willful, almost ferocious silence” (52) Berdahl maintains, a reprieve from the pressing voices which are described at various points in the episode. Before his flight north, for instance, he had thought of what might be said by the people of his conservative hometown:

… it was easy to imagine [them] sitting around a table at the old Gobbler Café on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O'Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada.


It is ultimately in these voices that O'Brien locates the source of his anxiety: in addition to a fundamental disagreement about the war in Vietnam, his dilemma is a struggle between a well-founded fear of death and a profound feeling of being ashamed. As he writes,

Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Café.


To be at odds with public opinion was not an unusual position in 1968, to be sure. But while it would be wrong to reduce O'Brien's objections to the war to the mere desire to save his own skin, his remarks nonetheless take on meaningful perspective when compared with several episodes in the Iliad centering on the intertwined notions of glory and shame.

In his ground-breaking study, The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds has noted, “Homeric man's highest good is not the enjoyment of a quiet conscience, but the enjoyment of time, public esteem.”5 This is not to say that the warriors at Troy are mindless automata surrendering all individuality to the whims of the crowd: in fact, they are acutely aware that the needs of the self and the demands of society may well be in conflict. James Redfield aptly puts it, “All men are born to die, but the warrior alone must confront this fact in his social life … The greatness of Homer's heroes is a greatness not of act but of consciousness.”6 There is a direct relationship in Homer's world between the risks one is willing to run and the respect society will confer; for this reason, the battlefield, where the threat to life is greatest, is the hero's proving ground. It is important to realize that the hero's status depends upon (and, in fact, cannot exist without) the tension between personal and public impulses: this tension is at the center of the epic. “The wrath of Achilles”—the words with which the Iliad famously opens—is directed not at the Trojans but at Agamemnon, the commander who has arbitrarily stripped him of his war-bride, Briseis. As a woman, Briseis means little to the hero, but as a prize he has legitimately earned for valor in battle, her significance is immense. In this foolish exercise of power, Agamemnon unintentionally sets into motion a crisis about the nature of heroism which brings Achilles face-to-face with the hollowness of his shame culture: why should there be any personal risk, if there is to be no public recognition?7

In addition to the possibility of winning glory, the Homeric hero is motivated also by aidos, “shame.” By and large, this aspect of the ancient mentality is typified in the person of Hector, Achilles' great Trojan opponent.8 More than any other combatant at Troy, Hector is aware of his special status as a warrior: as the greatest hero on the Trojan side, he carries the greatest burden in its defense and has the greatest reputation to lose in any defeat. Nonetheless, Hector is only mortal and cannot overcome Achilles, the son of a goddess; Achilles' withdrawal, however, allows Hector to score enormous victories over the Greeks, culminating in the slaying of Patroclus. When Achilles subsequently rejoins the battle, Hector has grown proud in his achievements and so ignores the advice of his brother Polydamas that he remove the troops from the field. What follows is a complete disaster for the Trojans: those who escape slaughter run headlong back to Troy, leaving Hector alone in Book Twenty-two to face the all-but-invincible Achilles. There, before the gates of Troy as the whole city watches from the walls, harsh reality begins to set in on Hector, who says to himself (22.99-110),

Ὤ μοι ἐγών, εἰ μἐν κε πύλαs καὶ τείχεα δύω, Πουλυδάμαs μοι πρω̑τοs ἐλεγχείην ἀναθήσει, ὅs μ' ἐκἐλευε Τρωσὶ ποτὶ πτόλιν ἡγήσασθαι νύχθ' ὕπο τήνδ' ὀλοὴν, ὅτε τ' Ὤρετο δι̑οs' Αχιλλεύs. ἀλλ' ἐγo οὐ πιθόμην· ή τ' ἂν πολὺ κερδιον ήεν. νυ̑ν δ' ἐπεὶ Ὤλεσα λαὸν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ἐμῃ̑σιν, αἰδἐομαι Τρω̑αs καὶ Τρῳάδαs ἐλκεσιπἐπλουs, μή ποτἐ τιs εἴπῃσι κακώτεροs ἄλλοs ἐμει̑ο· ‘′Εκτωρ ἠφι βίηφι πιθήσαs Ὤλεσε λαόν. os ἐρἐουσιν· ἐμοὶ δἐ τότ' ἂν πολὺ κἐρδιον εἴη ἄντην ή Αχιλη̑α κατακτείναντα νεεσθαι, ἠἐ κεν αὐτἳ̑ ὀλησθαι ἐϋκλειω̑s πρὸ πόληοs.

Ah me, if I go now inside the gates and wall, Polydamas will be the first to reproach me, since he tried to convince me to lead the Trojans back to the city on that fateful night when godlike Achilles rose up. But I would not listen, though it would have been far better had I. Now since I have by my own stupidity destroyed my people, I am ashamed before the Trojans and the Trojan women in their trailing robes, that some lesser man than I will say of me, Hector put his faith in his own strength, and destroyed his people. That is what they will say. But for me, it would be much better then to confront Achilles, strike him down, and return, or else to be killed by him in glory before the city.

Generations of readers have rightly admired the determination of Hector to see this heroic challenge through to its fatal end; O'Brien himself writes in If I Die in a Combat Zone how hard it is to picture oneself “as the eternal Hector, dying gallantly” (146). Hector's refusal to retreat, however, must not be judged according to a reductive concept of bravery, but rather in terms of competing disincentives, as identified succinctly by Redfield: “Hector's fear of death is overcome by his greater fear of disgrace.”9

Although a very different set of political circumstances stands in the background, a similar fear of disgrace overtakes O'Brien as he agonizes on the Rainy River. Like Hector who envisions the ridicule of the Trojans, he imagines his entire community watching and yelling at him, an overwhelming sensation he cannot endure. “I would go to the war,” he writes, “—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to” (62). Perhaps somewhat harshly, O'Brien calls himself a coward for giving in to these voices; he knows, though, that he has only chosen the lesser of his fears, stating earlier in the book of soldiers in general, “It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards” (21). These thoughts are handled more fully in “Under the Mountain,” a chapter from If I Die in a Combat Zone, in which the narrator's friend Erik discusses Ezra Pound's “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” while the pair are still in boot camp at Fort Lewis, Washington. “All this not because of conviction, not for ideology,” Erik says,

rather it's from fear of society's censure, just as Pound claims. Fear of weakness. Fear that to avoid war is to avoid manhood. We come to Fort Lewis afraid to admit we are not Achilles, that we are not brave, not heroes.


As a consideration of the theoretical roots of heroism shows, the warrior's status is etched round by fears: it is only a matter of which one to give in to, or not to give in to, as the case may be. In Book Twenty-two, Hector is quite literally backed up against a wall. Before him lies Achilles and certain doom, behind him the Trojans and intolerable derision. Although he toys temporarily with the fantasy of a settlement, between these options there really is no other—he can be either a dead hero or a live coward. But at the crucial moment, as Achilles bears down, Hector runs. It would be a misinterpretation to see this as the cowardly choice, for it is neither cowardly nor a choice: we must note that, caught between difficult options, Hector does not run back inside the walls of Troy but instead around them, in this way straddling the line between death and dishonor. Eventually, the goddess Athena fools him into thinking his brother has joined him for the fight; he stops, realizes the trick, and is killed. Nonetheless, Homer's portrait of Hector powerfully captures the unyielding nature of the heroic paradox: the poet renders the warrior's inability to decide in terms of a mad dash around a wall.

Something like this Homeric trope of indecision—Hector's going around in circles—is to be found in O'Brien's work, where it symbolizes much the same thing. In If I Die in a Combat Zone, for instance, he writes that, after getting his draft notice in 1968, “Late at night, the town deserted, two or three of us would drive a car around and around the town's lake, talking about the war …” (25). O'Brien has employed this image several times in his work, most notably in “Speaking of Courage” from The Things They Carried. In this vignette, the narrator's friend, Norman Bowker, having returned home from the war, spends the Fourth of July driving his father's car around a lake eleven times pondering an important failure of nerve he had experienced in Vietnam. In both places, O'Brien patterns the decision between cowardice or courage in terms much like Hector's run, as a repeated circular motion.10

Closer still in spirit to Hector's dilemma is O'Brien's own flight to the Canadian border in “On the Rainy River.” Throughout the difficult time after getting his draft notice, the narrator feels in himself “a moral split,” an overwhelming sensation which, though eventually growing to encompass the world around him, originates in a simple dichotomy: “Run, I'd think. Then I'd think, Impossible. Then a second later I'd think, Run.” As he continues, “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile” (48).11 Later in the summer, this sense of internal division manifests itself externally, when one day, as he remarks, “I felt something break open in my chest … a physical rupture—a cracking-leaking-popping feeling” (49). As a result of this crisis—quite literally a breaking point—O'Brien suddenly takes off, driving north until he reaches Elroy Berdahl's Tip Top Lodge. When O'Brien first sees the old man, his sense of self-division is all the more reinforced, since Berdahl carries a small paring knife, and furthermore, as he notes,

His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open.


While the narrator acknowledges that this sensation is a result in part of guilt, we might also see his description of Berdahl's gaze as the widening of his problem from the personal to the cosmic. So great is the crisis which O'Brien feels—so strong is his sense of the dilemma facing him—that he feels it is visible to the people he meets. Indeed, this “moral split” which has already affected his body he now even senses in the landscape, as he waits for resolution by “the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, and which for me separated one life from another” (50).

It is in this ambivalent region, poised between conflicting visions of his future—balanced precariously at the Tip Top, as it were—that O'Brien wrestles with his conscience. Here, where he describes himself as “half awake, half dreaming,” his riven mental state is figured strongly by his liminal status: we might recognize that the dilemma which Hector in the Iliad faced (and never resolved for himself) was rendered in topographical terms, as it is here by O'Brien, who envisions himself “on the margins of exile,” and “[g]etting chased by the Border Patrol” (53).12 At this excruciating point in the narrative, Elroy Berdahl takes O'Brien out for a fishing trip on the highly symbolic Rainy River. As the small motorboat makes its way upstream, O'Brien realizes “that at some point we must've passed into Canadian waters, across that dotted line between two different worlds” (58). The narrator surmises that, in bringing the situation to this point, Berdahl had taken him “to the edge” and would watch “as I chose a life for myself” (58). He chooses Vietnam rather than Canada—that is, fight rather than flight—making the same decision Hector did, though by surviving, he avoids Hector's fate. In forcing O'Brien's decision between the difficult options before him, Berdahl re-enacts the role which Athena had played in Hector's final moments, though the old man with the sharp gray eyes is more benevolent to his charge than the gray-eyed goddess had been. “He was a witness, like God, or like the gods,” writes O'Brien, “who look on in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them” (62).

Though these gods seem more Lucretian than Homeric, perhaps the author has consciously drawn on the Iliad for these remarks. In this context, it is worth noting Homer's description of the divine audience watching Hector's final moments (22.158-166):

                    πρόσθε μἐν ἐσθλὸs ἔφευγε, δίωκε δἐ μιν μεγ' ἀμείνων
                    καρπαλίμωs, ἐπεὶ οὐχ ἱερήϊον οὐδἐ βοείην
                    ἀρνύσθην, ἅ τε ποσσὶν ἀἐθλια γίγνεται ἀνδρω̑ν,
                    ἀλλὰ περὶ ψυχη̑s θἐον ′Εκτοροs ἱπποδάμοιο.
                    ὡs δ' ὅτ' ἀεθλοφόροι περὶ τἐρματα μώνυχεs ἵπποι
                    ῥίμφα μάλα τρωχω̑σι· τὸ δἐ μἐγα κει̑ται ἄεθλον
                    e τρίποs ἠἐ γυνὴ ἀνδρὸs κατατεθνηω̑τοs·
                    os τo τρὶs Πριάμοιο πόλιν περιδινηθήτην
                    καρπαλίμοισι πόδεσσι· θεοὶ δ' ἐs πάντεs ὁρω̑ντο·
It was a great man who fled, but far better he who pursued him
rapidly, since here was no festal beast, no ox-hide
they strove for, which are the prizes that are given men for racing.
No, they are running for the life of Hector, breaker of horses.
As when about the turnposts racehorses with uncloven hooves
run at full speed, since a great prize is laid up for their winning,
a tripod or a woman, in games for a man's funeral,
so these two swept whirling about the city of Priam
in the speed of their feet, while all the gods were looking upon them.

As his moment of crisis, O'Brien feels that he too is surrounded by a roaring stadium crowd “[l]ike some weird sporting event” (60), and that the gaze of a civic pantheon which includes Abraham Lincoln, Saint George, the U.S. Senate, and LBJ, falls upon him. Numbered among these cultural luminaries is “a blind poet scribbling notes” (60). Very likely this description refers to Robert Frost's famous reading at the inauguration of President Kennedy, but does not the epithet “blind” also bring to mind the blind poet of Chios, Homer himself?

As an issue of interpretation, however, it can hardly matter whether or not O'Brien alludes deliberately to Homer. Because all wars result in widespread destruction and death, survivors “shape their own discoveries of war into patterns first to be found in Homer,” as classicist James Tatum once noted in The Yale Review.13 Both Homer and O'Brien portray the experience of those who must come to grips with the dilemma courage imposes: on the one hand is the loss of face, on the other, the loss of life. For Homer, the debate which rages within Hector's heart about these difficulties is dramatized as a race around the walls of a city which his hero cannot honorably enter. This same debate is felt inside Tim O'Brien's heart as well and manifests itself bodily, growing so large at last that it requires the natural and political boundary dividing a continent to describe it. In each work, the authors imagine such divisions of self in broadly geographical terms, as their protagonists negotiate the no-man's land between the antitheses described by O'Brien so well: “War makes you a man; war makes you dead” (The Things They Carried, 87).


  1. Works of Tim O'Brien which will be referred to infra are: The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990) and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1973). Translations from Greek are the author's own. For their help with this piece, the author would like to thank Kelly Malone, David Gill, S. J., and CML's editor and anonymous referee.

  2. See Steven Kaplan, Understanding Tim O'Brien (Columbia: U of South Carolina Pr, 1995), 169-192; Don Ringnalda, Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War (Jackson: University Pr of Mississippi, 1994), 90-114; and Catherine Calloway, “‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried,Critique 36 (1995): 249-257. For a recent Marxist critique of this postmodern position, see Jim Neilson, Warring Fictions: American Literary Culture and the Vietnam War Narrative (Jackson: University Pr of Mississippi, 1998), 191-209.

  3. Kaplan (above, note 1) 185.

  4. O'Brien has called Shay's book “one of the most original and most important scholarly works to have emerged from the Vietnam war,” although he does not consider his own work to be therapeutic (1990: 179).

  5. E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: U of California Pr, 1951), 17.

  6. James M. Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector, enlarged edition (Durham: Duke U Pr, 1994), 101.

  7. See Achilles' famous response to Odysseus, Iliad 9.307-429, especially 318-322.

  8. See Redfield (above, note 5) 119, who notes, “Hector is a warrior not because he loves war but because he is before all else a hero of aidos.

  9. Redfield (above, note 5) 115.

  10. The various revisions of “Speaking of Courage” have been expertly charted by Mark Taylor, “Tim O'Brien's War,” The Centennial Review 39 (Summer 1995): 213-230, who notes that the

    circles around the lake suggest the endlessness and purposelessness of the Vietnam War to those who fought it … and the undifferentiated moments of life afterwards for many veterans. These circles also suggest O'Brien's going round and round the central events of his own wartime experience, and of his imagination, working tirelessly to get it right, to find the truth, to display the meaning he wishes to display.


  11. On exile in O'Brien's work, see especially Tina Chen, “‘Unraveling the Deeper Meaning’: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried,Contemporary Literature 39 (1998): 77-98.

  12. Ringnalda (above, note 1) 101-102 has explicated “On the Rainy River” as a description of “liminal uncertainty” conveying the ambiguity between genres of truth and fiction. Typically, Ringnalda overstates his case: “O'Brien knows that reality is accessible only through mediation. That being the case, he spurns the Western paradigm of Manichaean dualism, which convinces most of the people most of the time that they can tell the difference between reality and fiction” (104). Is Manichaean dualism really “Western”? See the penetrating critique of Neilson (above, note 1) 200-203 on this point.

  13. James Tatum, “The Iliad and Memories of War,” The Yale Review 76 (1986): 16.

John H. Timmerman (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Timmerman, John H. “Tim O'Brien and the Art of the True War Story: ‘Night March’ and ‘Speaking of Courage’.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 1 (spring 2000): 100-14.

[In the following essay, Timmerman compares the conflict between the reality of war and normal life as portrayed in “Night March” and “Speaking of Courage,” which appear in The Things They Carried.]

The Vietnam war story is not simply about the rise and fall of nations (South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, China, Thailand, the United States, the Soviet Union). Rather, it is about the rise and fall of the dreams of individual soldiers—their hopes riddled by disillusionment, their fantasies broken by shrapnel-edged realities. In his Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, Don Rignalda observes that Washington engaged in the war as a clinical and statistical commodity: “We imposed a carpentered reality on a country (South Vietnam) that wasn't a country at all, but merely a recent, diplomatically created abstraction run by a series of corrupt puppets. Oblivious, Americans became ‘cartomaniacs’ in Vietnam” (14). Having reduced the Washington-created enemy to ciphers, the cartomaniacs did precisely the same thing to the American soldier. In a war fought according to statistics, and where ciphers are thrown against ciphers, who is left to tell the true war story? Who enters the lives and uncovers the dreams, the dark secrets, the fears and the hopes that bestow personality back on the cipher?

Certainly it is possible to engage the experience of war exclusively on scholarly and academic terms, to configure the experience according to statistics and historical accounts. Every time human experience is rendered as fact, however, the human place in was becomes more abstracted and more simplistic. In “We're Adjusted Too Well,” Tim O'Brien voiced his dismay that the nation's hope for everything to slide back into some vague state of being “normal”—or “adjusted”—has been fulfilled all too well. For his part, O'Brien says, “I wish we were more troubled” (207). If American society is no longer troubled, if it has exorcised a segment of our historical past, it has also occluded something of our human nature. War stories must evoke the dreams and lives of individual soldiers, as opposed to giving a statistical or historical accounting of data.

This telling raises several aesthetic questions. Can one capture the reality of the event in such a way that the reader imaginatively participates in it? Is there a point where the imaginative life evokes a greater reality than the factual accounting, so that the reader understands not only what happened but also why it happened and how it affected the soldier? Furthermore, as the war recedes into the past, can the writer preserve an authentic memory of it, free from romantic idealism or bitter cynicism? Or are we better off letting it slide, as two of O'Brien's characters (the fathers of Paul Berlin and Norman Bowker) suggest?

A gap inevitably opens up between the imaginary casting of an event (the fictive event) and the factual details of that event (the historical chronicle). That forces of the First Cavalry Division, for example, combined with CIDG soldiers to kill 753 NVA regulars near Fire Base Jamie on December 6, 1969, is the historical chronicle. What happened in the hearts and minds of the soldiers who fought that battle is not conveyed by clinical data. To uncover that is the task of fiction.

This is precisely the task that Tim O'Brien undertakes.

The essential dialectic of the war story lies in this interplay between reality as data and the reality of the human spirit. O'Brien aims for nothing less than resolving this dialectic into an integrated whole, often by means of a metafictional discourse in which his characters and narrators engage in the dialectic themselves. Two notable examples are his companion short stories “Night March” and “Speaking of Courage,” both of which pose a fundamental distinction between the fact of what “actually” happened and the reality experienced by the individual.

Examining these two works also raises questions about how the true war story can be told. Is the disparity between personal experience and the historical facticity of war irresolvable? Or is it possible to achieve some integration, and if so, how? Such questions further define the complementary and conflicting elements of these two stories. After examining the stories, therefore, I will consider what in general constitutes the true war story for Tim O'Brien.

“Night March” is O'Brien's most widely anthologized story. It first appeared in Redbook in May 1975 under the title “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” and was revised to become a chapter of Going After Cacciato in 1978. It still stands independently, but in Going After Cacciato it is woven seamlessly into the rather wide-ranging plot of one man's imaginary long walk away from war. All the stories in Cacciato stem from Paul Berlin's reflections while on observation post. Past horrors and present dreams (echoing the book's epigraph from Sassoon) buckle together at the moment of “observing.” But at that moment, Paul Berlin's actual goal, we are told, is simply to live long enough to escape to the real world. What constitutes the real world is the essential issue.

The internal tensions of the war story “Night March” may best be understood by comparing it to O'Brien's postwar story “Speaking of Courage.” First published in the Summer 1976 issue of Massachusetts Review and then in Prize Stories and The O. Henry Awards in 1978, “Speaking of Courage” finally became a part of O'Brien's 1990 work The Things They Carried. The two stories are connected in several ways. For example, the 1976 version of “Speaking of Courage” reprises chapter 14 of Going After Cacciato, where Paul Berlin thinks he could have won the Silver Star if he had rescued Frenchie Tucker. In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker thinks he could have won the Silver Star if he had rescued Kiowa. But neither Berlin nor Bowker rescued, and neither won. Like men on plastic ponies at the carousel, they hang suspended, bouncing up and down between reality and fantasy.

More pointedly, however, both stories address a conflict between the reality of war and the reality of normal, civilized life. In “Night March,” Paul Berlin tries to deny the reality of the war he is in so that he can survive. He endures his war life by a daily pretending, a fantastic escape not unlike Cacciato's imaginary trip to Paris. He insists that his primary reality lies elsewhere, in what the infantrymen in Vietnam called “the World.” The World is a state of mind—an absence of fear and conflict, an idealized place that really exists nowhere. For Cacciato the imaginary utopia is Paris; for the average infantryman like Paul Berlin, it is simply the United States.

This displacement of reality through insistence on the unreality of the war becomes necessary to survive. Each individual is forced to supply his or her own reasons for personal actions and the personal meanings of those actions as well. For example, The Things They Carried first introduces a young Vietnamese soldier in “Spin,” and then, nine chapters later, in “The Man I Killed,” the narrator details killing this soldier and creates a short hypothetical biography for him—a “past” used to escape the reality of his death. The next chapter, “Ambush,” suggests that perhaps the man is not really dead after all. Finally, near the end of the book and after three more variations of the event, the narrator's nine-year-old daughter beseeches him, “‘Daddy, tell the truth. … Did you ever kill anybody?’” The narrator reflects that he “can say, honestly, ‘Of course not.’” But then again, he “can say, honestly, ‘yes’” (204). The tension is unnerving. There are too many vagaries in war. How then does the writer work toward the “true” war story?

In an interview, O'Brien reflects on the dialectic between reality and fantasy as an essential state of the war novel. The war novel contains an element of surreality in order to deny the horror. O'Brien observes that

In war, the rational faculty begins to diminish … and what takes over is surrealism, the life of the imagination. The mind of the soldier becomes part of the experience—the brain seems to flow out of your head, joining the elements around you on the battlefield. It's like stepping outside yourself. War is a surreal experience, therefore it seems quite natural and proper for a writer to render some of its aspects in a surreal way.

(qtd. in McCaffrey 135)

Moreover, citing The Red Badge of Courage as an example, O'Brien adds that “Every war seems formless to the men fighting it” (135). So soldiers dream; they pretend and deny in order to diminish the horror. Precisely because it captures that human reality in the midst of war and unbelievable horror, O'Brien claims that “Cacciato is the most realistic thing I've written. The life of the imagination is real” (142). The life of the imagination is real precisely because it embraces the experience, moving beyond factual data.

“Night March” is an “interior” war story—the story of a combat participant immediately involved in the war. From the outset, the story is couched in denials and pretending. Reality, after all, lies in that ambiguous other place, the World. As the “Night March” platoon moves in “the dark, single file,” as if in an actual nightmare, the pattern of negation intensifies: “There was no talking now. No more jokes” (Cacciato 186). At the same time, Paul Berlin's denial of the fact of war intensifies: “He was pretending he was not in the war. And later, he pretended, it would be morning, and there would not be a war” (186). The negations develop through the early stages of the story, often closing off a paragraph of objective description by the omniscient narrator, as if each stab at engaging the fact of war is deflected by an act of will. The mind of Paul Berlin clutches on the negatives: “There was not yet a moon” (187); “So he tried not to think” (187); “He would not be afraid ever again” (188).

The reality of war that Paul Berlin struggles to avoid, however, will not disappear. O'Brien lets it slip into the first paragraph almost accidentally, as if flitting momentarily through the gates of denial erected in Berlin's mind: “Pretending he had not watched Billy Boy Watkins die of fright on the field of battle” (186). Historical fact keeps leaking through, even as the denials mount. It even comes as snatches of a song: “Where have you gone, Billy Boy, Billy Boy.” Bits and pieces of the grim fact keep intruding: this is war; Billy Boy Watkins died.

Denying Billy Boy Watkins's death, however, is necessary in order for Paul Berlin to deny his own relentless fear. Soldiers are supposed to be brave, after all. And Paul Berlin tries mightily to keep the pose of bravery: “He would laugh when the others made jokes about Billy Boy, and he would not be afraid ever again” (188). But like the darkness, fear envelopes him. “The trick,” Paul Berlin reflects, “was not to take it personally” (188). But such a trick is impossible.

Paul Berlin wishes that some day he may be courageous enough to laugh at death. Through laughter he might be absolved of fear. It is not coincidental that tragicomedy has surfaced as a subgenre in war literature. Tragicomedy as a literary mode essentially sees the world as an evil place; the necessary human response to it is laughter, for laughter holds evil in abeyance and demarcates the wholeness of the individual human. A good description of the genre arises in Ken Kesey's tragicomic novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest where the embattled Randal Patrick MacMurphy, who, incidentally, led an escape from a prison camp during the Korean War, exclaims, “When you lose your laugh, you lose your footing” (65).

A tragicomic scene in “Night March” offers contrasting reactions to the reality of war. A “child-faced” soldier (Cacciato), smelling of Doublemint gum—that keen reminder of the World—creeps up to Paul Berlin and offers him a stick of gum. As Cacciato and Berlin relax and chew their gum, Cacciato begins whistling tunelessly. He isn't even aware of his whistling. The whistling is contrasted to Paul's giggling. Whereas Berlin is painfully aware of his own giggling, Cacciato is oblivious to his whistling. While Berlin fights, and fails, to escape the present fact of war, Cacciato seems to do so naturally. He seems to have escaped to his imaginary reality.

The question of time arises. Neither Berlin nor Cacciato has a watch. Cacciato says “Time goes faster when you don't know the time” (215) and remembers that Billy Boy Watkins owned two watches. But Billy Boy is dead. Even with two watches he doesn't know the time. The irony wrenches the two soldiers into a confrontation with the fact of Billy Boy's death.

This was no ordinary death. All along Paul Berlin has been fighting his personal fear, but Billy Boy actually died of fear: “A heart attack! You hear Doc say that? A heart attack on the field of battle, isn't that what Doc said?” (192). The very fear they feared most had, in fact, gripped and killed Billy Boy Watkins. Dozens of horrible ways to die, and he died of fear.

Suddenly Paul Berlin begins to giggle—suffocating, spasmodic laughter that has him helpless in the grass:

He giggled. He couldn't stop it, so he giggled, and he imagined it clearly. He imagined the medic's report. He imagined Billy's surprise. He giggled, imagining Billy's father opening the telegram: SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON BILLY BOY WAS YESTERDAY SCARED TO DEATH IN ACTION IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. Yes, he could imagine it clearly.

He giggled. He rolled onto his belly and pressed his face in the wet grass and giggled, he couldn't help it.


To survive his own fear Paul Berlin battles it with laughter. But it is laughter on the verge of hysteria; since nothing makes any sense, all one can do is laugh.

As he lies giggling on the grass, now watching the clouds pass over the moon, marking the passing of time and the nightmare, Paul Berlin now imagines himself talking with his father. As in “Speaking of Courage,” the absent father is one of the most important characters in this story. He represents both a confessor figure and also an incarnation of personal and moral values in a war without apparent purpose or value. And now Paul Berlin finds a way to respond to this father:

Giggling, lying now on his back, Paul Berlin saw the moon move. He could not stop. Was it the moon? Or the clouds moving, making the moon seem to move? Or the boy's round face, pressing him, forcing out the giggles. “It wasn't so bad,” he would tell his father. “I was a man. I saw it the first day, the very first day at the war, I saw all of it from the start, I learned it, and it wasn't so bad, and later on, later on it got better, later on, once I learned the tricks, later on it wasn't so bad.” He couldn't stop.


The moon clouds up again. The column moves on. Cacciato—to this point unnamed, a scarcely seen visitant called “the boy”—hands Paul Berlin a stick of Black Jack gum—“the precious stuff.” And then we learn the boy's name with his ironic jest: “‘You'll do fine,’ Cacciato said. ‘You will. You got a terrific sense of humor’” (195)—ironic in that it was fear, not humor, that provoked Berlin's uncontrolled giggling.

The moral argument that the horrors of war so threaten human sensibility that they must be escaped by fantasy or fought by laughter (both of which Berlin does with only limited success) is precisely reversed by the conditions of the postwar story. Having now arrived back in the World, the ideal world always dreamed of during the war, the veteran discovers that he carries with him the undeniable fact of war. He cannot escape the memory. Oddly, the present world now becomes the fantasy; the past war has become the reality. The fantasy is engendered by the simple fact that people in the world have chosen to deny the reality of the war; they don't want to hear about it. Least of all do they want to hear about it from the returned veteran, which would make their abstracted, statistical notions of war altogether too real.

Other thematic patterns of “Night March” survive intact in “Speaking of Courage.” Norman Bowker was originally Paul Berlin. Like Paul Berlin, he has struggled with courage and cowardice. He too seeks a confessor-father into whose ears he wants to pour his story. But in this carefully crafted tale, all of civilization seems to block the telling, and thereby to deny reality to Norman Bowker.

Such a story requires a different sort of telling. The nightmare of the observation post and the circling memories are now replaced by the tranquillity of the home town and Bowker's circling drive around the lake, encapsulating the weary circularity of his own life and mind. Paul Berlin's desperate effort to escape time in “Night March” is replaced by Bowker's uncanny ability to tell time from the feel of the day—or night. Paul Berlin in fact shares Norman Bowker's preternatural ability to “feel” the time. However, during the conflation of memories that occurs during his stint on observation post duty from midnight to 6 a.m., time itself seems suspended as the surreal images glide in and out of his mind. Norman Bowker is never separated from the consciousness of time, now that he has nothing to do, nowhere to go, little to fill up the hours except aimless traveling. While Paul Berlin sought to deny time, Bowker seems trapped in a psychological clock, ticking off meaningless hours.

The difference in how one apprehends time also mirrors the difference between fact and fantasy. Eric Schroeder makes a distinction “between time past and time present and … this becomes complicated by the introduction of another temporal dimension: time imagined.” The result, Schroeder points out, is an indeterminacy about “not only when a particular event happened, but whether it happened” (“The Past and the Possible” 124). Just as Paul Berlin imagines life in the World occurring simultaneously during his six hours on observation post, so too Bowker attempts to reconstruct his present in the World by conflating past realities and imaginary time—what might have been.

We see, then, several points of comparison developing between the two stories. “Night March” shows a soldier, Paul Berlin, during the war; “Speaking of Courage” shows a soldier, Norman Bowker, after the war. Paul Berlin attempts to escape the reality of war through fantasy, particularly that of the World; Norman Bowker finds that even though he is in the World, he cannot escape the reality of war. Both characters attempt to escape time; both develop a preternatural ability to “feel” time; and neither can fully escape time imagined—that is, the reality of personal events that shape the entirety of their lives.

Furthermore, Paul Berlin reacts to his immediate world of war by trying to drive back fear with laughter, even though it borders on hysteria. Norman Bowker finds himself in a grim, absurdist world where nobody listens to what he has to say. The Things They Carried is very much a novel about telling one's story into an apparent abyss. How does one tell the truth about war when no one wants to listen? Here lies the essential issue for the writer of the true war story. The issue is complicated, however, by the very question of whether language and narrative are adequate to tell the story. Thus the narrative in both stories is roughly circular, replaying events, lurching into indecision, in an effort to get the true story woven into a whole.

“Speaking of Courage” opens on Norman Bowker cruising around the lake one Fourth of July: “The war was over and there was no particular place to go” (The Things They Carried [TTC] 157). Whereas in “Night March” there is a denial of place, in this story there is no place to go. The World is everywhere the same as Bowker remembers it, but it is now perceived as flat—the sameness becomes empty, for all of it is seen through memory shaped by war. Aimlessly, like a patrol without direction, he wheels his father's “big Chevy” on its seven-mile loop around the lake. The lake itself is flatly prosaic—a nondescript midwestern lake that was “a good audience for silence” (158). Thus the central metaphor is established—an aimless, circular traveling around a vast silence. Readers of O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone will recognize the same pattern in chapter 3 of that work, where O'Brien recalls driving around the lake before being drafted, weighing his own options, “moving with care from one argument to the next” (25). In “Speaking of Courage,” the “smooth July water, and an immense flatness everywhere” (TTC 159) suggest the same uncertainty in the returned veteran's life.

As he travels, Norman Bowker's mind aimlessly circles around patterns of recollection. The first involves his prewar memory, imaged specifically in his boyhood sweetheart, Sally Kramer, now Mrs. Sally Gustafson. Norman spots her working in her yard and almost pulls over “just to talk.” But knowing “there was really nothing he could say to her” (159), he accelerates past. Sally represents things lost, the way things might have been, and also, perhaps, a measure of Norman's internal change.

So too Norman measures the town by the huge psychological distance he has grown from it. The town is home, but “The town seemed remote somehow. Sally was married and Max [his boyhood friend] was drowned and his father was home watching baseball on national TV” (159). While the World falls into its holiday routines, Norman Bowker wanders slightly apart from it all. He is the Prufrockian man, alone in a world undisturbed by his anguish, and like Eliot's Prufrock, he also finds that “It is impossible to say just what I mean.” What he says is that tired phrase that passed the lips of countless Vietnam soldiers when faced with yet one more impossible task—a polite, meaningless phrase rippling with undertones of anguish: “‘No problem,’ he muttered” (159). No problem: it was an act of denial in order to survive—a lie then, a lie now. His aimless circling works then to demonstrate Norman Bowker's inability to settle back into the routine of the World and exemplifies the psychological distance between his former and present selves.

The second pattern evoked by his aimless wandering is the recollection of war. The imagined meeting with Sally initiates a recollection of Norman's war experience, but like Paul Berlin's, this experience is couched in terms of denial: “He would not say a word about how he'd almost won the Silver Star for valor” (160). The need to speak of it, however, is nearly overwhelming, so Norman Bowker invents a conversation with his father: the way things should have been. The third pattern in the story, then, develops the imaginary confession. The war story is spoken into unhearing ears, signaled by the change in verbs: they all become “might have” or “would have.” The discourse takes place wholly in the fantasy world.

What people would have heard, if only they had listened, was Norman Bowker's story of how he had courage, of how he almost saved his friend Kiowa, except for the terrible stink of the shitfield. His father was the appropriate one to initiate the hearing, for his father also knew the truth of war: “that many brave men did not win medals for their bravery, and that others won medals for doing nothing” (160). But his father is a disappeared self for Norman Bowker—the person who, himself having had no one to listen, has buried the stories and adopted the routine manners of the present by no longer listening. Norman Bowker's father is immersed in his own pointless circularity, watching players on TV circle the bases in the great national pastime.

Nonetheless, Norman Bowker mentally relates his story to the imagined confessor-father. Recounting the experience in the muck field, he pauses before the worst parts:

“Sounds pretty wet,” his father would've said, pausing briefly. “So what happened?”

“You sure you want to hear this?”

“Hey, I'm your father.


This father murmurs, “Slow and sweet, take your time,” and Norman slows the big Chevy, the mechanical replacement for his father, on the circular road. He observes the fireworks under preparation for the Fourth of July celebration. Stories start to converge. As he nears the actual fireworks the remembered story of the mortar attack in the muck field intensifies. Oddly, Sally Kramer-Gustafson momentarily intrudes as the imagined listener. But she is too much of the present. She couldn't listen, Norman Bowker realizes, for the reality of war is too powerful, too overwhelming, too truthful. She would wince even at the language. But his father, were his father here listening, would understand “perfectly well that it was not a question of offensive language but of fact. His father would have sighed and folded his arms and waited” (165). It is a matter of how to tell a true war story; the facts themselves are offensive, not the language that directs the facts. Finally Norman Bowker, after recollecting Kiowa's death, realizes: “A good war story, … but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds. But the town was not to blame, really. It was a nice little town, very prosperous, with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences” (169).

After his seventh circle of the lake, Norman Bowker pulls into a drive-in restaurant for something to eat. Ironically, he is as ignorant of procedures at the drive-in as the patrons there are of his war. The conflict of realities is almost perfectly, heart-breakingly, completed. He honks his horn for the car-hop girl: “The girl sighed, leaned down, and shook her head. Her eyes were as fluffy and airy-light as cotton candy” (170). Condescendingly she points to the intercom and asks, “You blind?” Yes. Indeed. By virtue of his war experience, Norman is now blind to the ways of the world. He'll never see straight again; it will always be circular, through the crooked paths of a memory he can neither deny nor express.

The irony intensifies, for the abstracted voice over the intercom rasps at Norman in field communications from the war. The phrases clip out: “Affirmative, copy clear.” “Roger-dodger.” “Fire for effect. Stand by.” The gulf between the intercom voice and Norman's sensibility is nearly overwhelming. The war reality is reduced to a game.

Nonetheless, the very abstractedness of that voice stirs Norman. It is just a piece of metal and some strange electronics next to the Chevy window. Still, through it a voice asks, “Hey, loosen up. … What you really need, friend?” And for a moment, in this weird electronic confessional, Norman almost tells:

“Well,” he said, “how'd you like to hear about—”

He stopped and shook his head.

“Hear what, man?”



He cannot get it out, not even to this depersonalized voice over the intercom, which, oddly enough, mimics the listening father Norman longs for.

Norman drives slowly away, the longing to tell now a deep, pervasive ache inside:

If it had been possible, which it wasn't, he would have explained how his friend Kiowa slipped away that night beneath the dark swampy field. He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste.

Turning on his headlights, driving slowly, Norman Bowker remembered how he had taken hold of Kiowa's boot and pulled hard, but how the smell was simply too much, and how he'd backed off and in that way had lost the Silver Star.

He wished he could've explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important. Max Arnold, who loved fine lines, would've appreciated it. And his father, who already knew, would've nodded.


The longing is buried, however, deep in memory. As the war story coils back inside his brain, he stops the Chevy, walks out into the water of the lake like one trying to baptize himself into a new reality, then stands and watches the fireworks, the town's own little fantasy battle. “For a small town, he decided, it was a pretty good show” (173).

“Night March” and “Speaking of Courage” represent two angles of vision on the Vietnam war experience. One a war story, the other a postwar story, they are juxtaposed in patterns of denial and affirmation. From the perspective of Paul Berlin, the immediacy of war must be denied in order to retain the reality of a world where sanity and peace still hold sway. From that of Norman Bowker, the world to which he has returned is deaf to his war experience. But the stories are also very much about the literary art of telling a true war story. Examination of the artistry of the stories is incomplete without consideration of the larger aesthetic issue toward which all the elements point. In fact, each story becomes a metafiction: they are about the process of telling war stories as much as they are war stories themselves. This is a fundamental issue that O'Brien has grappled with and cogently defined during the development of his career: how to tell the true war story.

The Vietnam war was different from earlier wars, and so posed challenges to the writer that often pushed him or her beyond the limits of conventional literary stereotypes. Dennis Vannatta remarks that “part of the problem that fiction writers have had is trying to build an artistic structure around a war that lacks the familiar geometry of clearly established battle lines, troop movements, and advances and retreats” (242). Steven Kaplan observes that “almost all of the literature on the war … makes clear that the only certain thing during the Vietnam War was that nothing was certain” (43). Oddly, the very uncertainties also provided a certain liberation for the fiction writer. It was possible to speak more freely of courage, of cowardice, of fears and fantasies.

The combat veteran who writes of combat writes from both inside and outside the experience. Chapter 30 of Cacciato provides an interesting gloss on this fact, for by that point in the book, the reader understands that the term observation post is multidimensional in meaning. Literally it is the elevated spot one climbs to in order to observe possible enemy action. But during the long night hours it is also a spot for reflective observation on the war itself. And the observation post is also a self-reflective place. In chapter 30, Berlin had been fiddling with the optics on the night-vision goggles but now is playing a time-guessing game. Vision and time unify all the reflections of the observation post. Now Paul reflects: “It was a matter of hard observation separating illusion from reality. What happened, and what might have happened” (247). He goes on to wonder why evil things happen, and never the pretty things, and then agrees with Doc Peret's view “that observation requires inward-looking, a study of the very machinery of observation” (247-48). Insight and vision, and Paul wonders, “where was the fulcrum? Where did it tilt from fact to imagination?” (248). The writer undertakes such observation, trying to balance the outside and inside vision, fact and imagination. Such is also the basic strategy for O'Brien's linking independent stories into the thematically unified novel.

The process of the inside and outside vision bears particular significance for O'Brien's The Things They Carried, for here the writer is very much aware of himself writing fiction about a historical reality he himself experienced. The writer abruptly introduces himself into the text—“I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and the war has been over for a long while” (36). Of course, this may be construed simply as a narrative pose. As Catherine Calloway has pointed out, substantial biographical details of the author differ from those of the narrator (250). Furthermore, in the concluding notes to The Things They Carried, O'Brien again introduces himself as the forty-three-year-old writer, but tells us that “almost everything else is invented.” But he insists “it's not a game. It's a form” (203).

Maria S. Bonn points out that “The dizzying interplay of truth and fiction in this novel is not solely aesthetic postmodern gamesmanship but a form that is a thematic continuation of the author's concern throughout his career with the power and capability of story” (13). While soldiers carry many things into battle, as the book's initial chapter details, they also carry many things from battle. In this case, the writer carries stories, sometimes “odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end” (TTC 39), which, like the fragmented war itself, he seeks to place into some kind of order. The writer observes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.


While bits and pieces of the writer flicker in and out of the narration, at one point O'Brien stops the narration altogether and addresses the act of writing itself in “How to Tell a True War Story” (TTC 73-91). He establishes several qualities of the true war story, but the first one seems to contradict what he has said elsewhere about the story's engagement with philosophical and moral substance. In one interview, for example, O'Brien claims that “The writer needs a passionate and knowledgeable concern for the substance of what's witnessed, and that includes the spiritual and theological and political implications of raw experience” (qtd. in McCaffery 137). And in another interview, he points out that “My concerns have to do with abstractions: what's courage and how do you get it? What's justice and how do you achieve it? How does one do right in an evil situation?” (qtd. in Schroeder, “Two Interviews” 145).

But there is a difference between exploring the moral meanings of humans confronting battle and the didactic reduction of that confrontation to moral precept. The true war story, O'Brien says, “does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it” (TTC 76). Truth to experience is a higher aesthetic value than moral precept. Moral lessons are not given by the writer. Rather, the writer's task is to represent experience authentically so that others understand the event, and from that understanding they may, if they choose, adduce their own moral lessons.

This is particularly true regarding courage, the vexing issue before Paul Berlin and Norman Bowker. What actually constitutes courage? Perhaps that's the wrong question because it's too easy to give categorical responses. Either Paul or Norman might have won the Silver Star—a physical representation of an act of courage. Much harder is to assess courage as a quality of human nature itself, yet that is the task O'Brien sets for himself. In an interview, O'Brien says that “Courage interpenetrates the whole fabric of a life. To take a strand out and say this is courage and this is something else violates a central humanness” (qtd. in Naparsteck 4). If there is an ethics of writing for O'Brien, it assumes that the highest moral imperative for the writer is an authentic revelation of human nature.

A second challenge to the writer of the true war story arises precisely out of that effort toward authenticity. Every event is recalled by the intellect and as the emotions experienced during the event; writing involves, as Hemingway understood, the head and the heart. O'Brien puts the challenge like this: “In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed” (TTC 78). The difficulty is precisely enacted through Paul Berlin in Cacciato. The story is as much about the fantasy of war as it is about the so-called reality. Soldiers are dreamers: that dreaming is a part of their reality, what O'Brien calls “that surreal seemingness” (Cacciato 78). Paradoxically, as Steven Kaplan has observed, the war fiction becomes “more real than the events upon which it is based” (46) when the life of the imagination arranges the experience of the facts. Literary art is never straightforward fact; rather, it arranges facts to communicate what the author wishes to seem true for the reader.

A third trait of the true war story, according to O'Brien, might be called its fundamental inconclusiveness. “You can tell a true war story,” O'Brien writes, “by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever” (TTC 83). Vietnam gave the lie to tidy endings. It lingers yet in the minds of veterans, sneaking up during unprotected moments. It lingers for them precisely as it does for Norman Bowker. Thus, the true war story resists reduction to generalized moral statements. As O'Brien observes, “In the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh’” (TTC 84).

The true war story tells the things that happen to real people. They might, out of abject fear and loneliness, dream away the hours on observation post, delighting, as Cacciato does, in a stick of Black Jack gum. Or, stricken by the inconsolable loneliness of having a story that no one wants to listen to, they might drive in endless circles around an unruffled lake. Late in The Things They Carried, Mitchell Sanders exclaims, “‘Hey, man, I just realized something.’” Then, very deliberately, “He wiped his eyes and spoke very quietly, as if awed by his own wisdom.” It is the wisdom also conveyed by the true war story. “‘Death sucks,’ he said” (271).

Works Cited

Bonn, Maria S. “Can Stories Save Us? Tim O'Brien and the Efficacy of the Text.” Critique 36 (Fall 1994): 2-15.

Calloway, Catherine. “‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.Critique 26 (Summer 1995): 249-57.

Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.Critique 35 (Fall 1993): 43-52.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: Viking, 1962.

McCaffery, Larry. “Interview with Tim O'Brien.” Chicago Review 33 (1982): 129-49.

Naparsteck, Martin. “An Interview with Tim O'Brien.” Contemporary Literature 32 (Spring 1991): 1-11.

O'Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Delta, 1978.

———. If I Die in a Combat Zone. New York: Dell, 1972.

———. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton, 1990.

———. “We're Adjusted Too Well.” The Wounded Generation: America After Vietnam. Ed. A. D. Horne. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1981. 205-07.

Rignalda, Don. Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.

Schroeder, Eric James. “The Past and the Possible: Tim O'Brien's Dialectic of Memory and the Imagination.” Search and Clear. Ed. William J. Searle. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1988. 116-34.

———. “Two Interviews: Talks with Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone.” Modern Fiction Studies 30 (Spring 1984): 135-64.

Vannatta, Dennis. “Theme and Structure in Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato.Modern Fiction Studies 28 (1982): 242-46.

Mark A. Heberle (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Heberle, Mark A. “True War Stories.” In A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam, pp. 176-215. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Heberle provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Things They Carried and locates the book within O'Brien's oeuvre.]


After publishing his fable of nuclear age trauma in 1985, O'Brien's next novel was to have been The People We Marry, a work that eventually appeared as In the Lake of the Woods in 1994 (Kaplan 1995: 218). In the interim, however, he published several short stories, some set in Viet Nam and others in the United States but all related to the war. The shorter stories took on a life of their own and eventually a comprehensive form that became The Things They Carried, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990, four years before the novel that was to have followed The Nuclear Age. Its award-winning title story, which appeared in 1986, was the first part of the larger work to be published. In 1989, just before its publication, O'Brien called Things [The Things They Carried] the best thing he had yet written (Naparsteck 8), and he has noted how much he enjoyed putting together the book as a whole. Indeed, reviewers greeted The Things They Carried as O'Brien's triumphant return to form after the relatively disappointing achievement of The Nuclear Age. The work has received admiring academic critical attention as well. Calling it a “remarkable text” (28), Philip Beidler used a citation from the title story as an epigraph to his 1991 study of Vietnam authors, and Don Ringnalda referred to Things as O'Brien's “ultimate Vietnam War fiction” (105). Even Lorrie Smith, a critic who finds much of the work “pernicious” in its masculinist discourse, concedes that Things “contributes significantly to the canon of Vietnam War fiction” and is “remarkable” in its treatment of writing and soldiering (38).

O'Brien has told one interviewer that the genesis of the book was the image of the war as something to be carried, a weight of things that derived from his own experiences: “remembering all this crap I had on me and inside me, the physical and spiritual burdens” (Lee 200). As a work derived from painful memories that must be borne again, The Things They Carried has also been admired by mental health professionals for its insightful representation of combat trauma. Things is the only work of Vietnam War fiction quoted in Jonathan Shay's comparative study of the Iliad and PTSD or in Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery. (And among the jacket blurbs for each book appear commendations by O'Brien.) Shay cites the narrator's insistence in “How to Tell a True War Story” that “a true war story is never moral” to argue more generally that trauma can never be easily resolved through writing (183), a point also emphasized by Kali Tal in discussing Lawrence Langer's study of Holocaust literature (Tal 1996: 49-50). Herman … cites passages from Things to exemplify Vietnam War trauma generally.

As O'Brien's satisfaction with the writing of the book suggests, however, Things is a work of recovery as well as trauma. Although “you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (“How to Tell a True War Story” 76), yet “this too is true: stories can save us” (“The Lives of the Dead” 255). The Things They Carried negotiates between these two truths by making storytelling itself the most important subject of the book. Throughout the work, stories are produced through a wide variety of discursive gestures, including recollection, confession, and explanation, as well as explicit storytelling; and many tales are repeated, elaborated by further details, or supplemented by additional explanation or commentary. This ceaseless replication of the fictive process witnesses to the mutual dependence of trauma and narrative as O'Brien reinvents himself as a soldier and as a writer. In the end, the work exemplifies both the need to write one's way beyond trauma and the impossibility of ever doing so.


Composed of twenty-two pieces, beginning with “The Things They Carried” and ending with “The Lives of the Dead,” O'Brien's fifth book has been characterized both as a collection of short stories and as a novel, but neither classification exhausts its generic range. Among the “things” carried in the volume are apparent fiction and apparent nonfiction, including straightforward realism, fantasy, memoir, author's notes, and literary commentary. In content and form, Things revises O'Brien's two previous war-sited works. Like If I Die in a Combat Zone, the book originated in a few independently published pieces that prompted a larger structure that would come to incorporate them; as with Going After Cacciato, those earliest elements were a series of prize-winning stories.1 Although closely resembling Combat Zone in form and mode, Things is not a memoir; and although it includes many interconnected stories, it is not a continuous narrative work like Cacciato. O'Brien has called it simply a “fiction,” and it is more appropriate to identify its twenty-two “fictions” as “pieces” or “sections” rather than as chapters or stories. For example, “Spin,” the third section, merely narrates or recalls a number of short, unconnected sketches, some of them identified as memories, others as stories; the seventh piece, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and the last, “The Lives of the Dead,” are similarly miscellaneous. Whatever its genre, most of Things follows a group of about a dozen GIs who experience the mixed trauma and boredom of combat in Viet Nam and reappear in the various episodes that make up the book. These protagonists are a rewriting of Cacciato's Third Squad, and both groups are fictional versions of the men of Alpha Company with whom O'Brien served in Viet Nam during his year in-country; indeed, the soldiers in Things belong to an Alpha Company themselves. As in Combat Zone, Tim O'Brien is one of its members, and a great deal of first-person narrative and commentary in the book presents his own point of view.

Revisiting the war through the experiences and point of view of a representative group of GIs is a cliché in American representations of Vietnam (Leland 740), but Things is also a self-conscious refashioning of the structure of Cacciato. The novel had begun with a list of the dead, followed by a description of the living. The title fiction of Things is O'Brien's supreme use of a list, a masterpiece of literary realism and formal patterning that focuses on everything carried by each soldier in the book, from jungle boots, 2.1 pounds; to letters from home, 10 ounces; to grief, terror, love, shameful memories, and “the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (20-21). Thus, both works open with a catalog of characters, burdened by personal and collective trauma, who will reappear in the episodes to follow. Like Cacciato as well, Things goes on to recall the deaths of squad members until all have been recuperated by the end of the book, where they reappear in the oxymoronically titled final piece—it seems that “the lives of the dead” are not over in The Things They Carried.

Formally, then, O'Brien's fifth book combines the most obvious features of his two earlier Vietnam narratives: A series of structurally coherent scenarios portray the war through the experiences of a small group of GIs; and the writer represents himself as a protagonist, participant, or commentator in all but three (“The Things They Carried,” “Speaking of Courage,” and “In the Field”). The site of narration thus varies from piece to piece, moving from the first-person point of view of Combat Zone (and The Nuclear Age) to the third-person intimate perspective of Cacciato (and Northern Lights). The title narrative, nearly an epitome of the war as it was represented in both Combat Zone and Cacciato, sometimes takes on an omniscient perspective that reflects what O'Brien has represented in the earlier books about men in combat.

Throughout The Things They Carried, O'Brien refashions traumatic experiences that were first represented in Combat Zone and rewritten in the later books. Thus, breakdown in combat was briefly described in Chapter XIII (119-20) of the memoir, but its description in “The Things They Carried” (18-19) explicitly recalls not only Paul Berlin's experience on Cacciato's hill but also William Cowling's embarrassment in guerrilla training:

For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them. Afterward, when the firing ended, they would blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. … After a time someone would shake his head and say, No lie, I almost shit my pants, and someone else would laugh, which meant it was bad, yes, but the guy had obviously not shit his pants, it wasn't that bad, and in any case nobody would ever do such a thing and then go ahead and talk about it.

Whether or not O'Brien personally did “such a thing,” he wrote about it in both Cacciato and The Nuclear Age. The destruction of Tri Binh 4 recalled in the memoir (“Alpha Company”) and revised in the obliteration of Hoi An in Cacciato (“Fire in the Hole”) reappears in the wiping out of Than Khe in “The Things They Carried.” All three operations are ordered by junior officers during patrols near hostile villages, and the two purely fictional accounts are brutal responses to the death of an American GI, Jim Pederson in Cacciato and Ted Lavender in Things. Alpha Company's destructive takeover of a Buddhist monastery as a combat base in “July” (Combat Zone) is refashioned more positively in “Church,” where the monks' gracious courtesy is reciprocated by some of their guests. In the same chapter of the memoir, Captain Smith's incompetence leads to an American soldier's being buried in mud when a half-track runs over him, and his comrades have to find his corpse and pull it out of the mire. The episode is elaborately expanded and altered in several of the later sections of Things, which focus on the fate of Kiowa, an American Indian GI who is lethally buried under mud and human waste during a nighttime mortar attack. In “On the Rainy River,” O'Brien refashions his failure to flee from military service when he had a chance to do so, concluding his account with the same moral paradox that had haunted his recollection in Combat Zone (“Escape”): “I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war” (63). And as noted … O'Brien's description of the destruction of a water buffalo, recalled in Combat Zone (139) and rewritten in both Cacciato and The Nuclear Age, reappears in “How to Tell a True War Story.”

The Things They Carried rewrites O'Brien's earlier work, but it also revises itself as it proceeds, frequently providing multiple versions of a single episode and commenting on its own origins. The work's continual self-reflection upon its own status and purpose as imaginative writing has prompted Catherine Calloway (1995) to label it a metafiction. Perhaps the most comprehensive subject of Cacciato is its own making, as represented in the meditations of Paul Berlin. But Things is more explicitly metafictional, as the very titles of “How to Tell a True War Story,” “Notes,” and “Good Form” indicate. In the last sentence of the book, O'Brien reimagines himself as a ten-year-old boy, “skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story” (273). The image is a memory, a story, and a metaphor for the story making that has now come to an end—indeed, “Spin” is the third piece in The Things They Carried.

In this final passage, O'Brien is re-membering himself, an act that combines the roles of artist, character, and audience. Such self-representation is the most striking feature of The Things They Carried and its most significant means of making storytelling a crucial subject. Except in Northern Lights, the protagonists of his previous books were authorial surrogates, and even Paul Perry shares the quasi-authorial role of meditative observer or narrator that characterizes Berlin, Cowling, and O'Brien himself in Combat Zone. In Things, however, the author is directly refashioned as the figure whom O'Brien has referred to as “the Tim character” (Naparsteck 7) and “the character Tim O'Brien” (Kaplan 1991: 96-97).2 We will refer to O'Brien's persona as “Tim O'Brien” or as “the narrator” to distinguish him from the author. By employing what we may call the trope of memory, suddenly recalling and then elaborating in more detail a past scene from the war, this latest version of O'Brien combines his identities as soldier and author, which had been distinct in the earlier books. For example, “Spin” consists of eighteen short sections, most of them brief scenes from the war introduced by the simple formula “I remember” or an equivalent. Four sections are prefaced by the reflection that “what sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end” (39). The final section identifies O'Brien's authorial role by making explicit the relationship between memory and fiction: “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future” (40). In remembering, the author rewitnesses what the soldier had seen, so that the two selves also merge, like Tim the writer and Timmy the ten-year-old. Both are present even in brief sketches such as “Stockings,” which describes Henry Dobbins's unwavering faith in a personal talisman: “Even now, twenty years later, I can see him wrapping his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush” (129). By the end of the piece, which describes Dobbins's decision to keep wearing the stockings for good luck even though his girlfriend has dumped him, the narrator has rejoined his platoon imaginatively: “It was a relief for all of us” (130). As in Combat Zone, the use of “we” and “us” incorporates the narrator Tim O'Brien into five other brief war pieces that are not directly presented as memories.

In “The Things They Carried,” “Speaking of Courage,” and “In the Field,” however, the narrator is neither remembering what once happened nor is present when it does. But each of these originally independently published stories is followed by a brief sketch in The Things They Carried—“Love,” “Notes,” and “Field Trip,” respectively—that identifies O'Brien's persona as the author of the preceding longer story. Indeed, in these three metafictional appendices and in nine of the other pieces in Things, Tim O'Brien is the narrator, remembering, describing, arguing, or explaining things to us in the first person.

Two of the other works, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “Night Life,” are represented by O'Brien's persona as stories that were narrated by his comrades Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” Norman Bowker tells how Morty Phillips suffered a lethal infection after taking a swim, and Kiley and Sanders tell additional stories in “Spin” and “How to Tell a True War Story.” Telling stories is thus omnipresent in Things, and Tim O'Brien represents himself and his comrades as an eager audience:

By midnight it was story time.

“Morty Phillips used up his luck,” Bowker said.

I smiled and waited. There was a tempo to how stories got told. Bowker peeled open a finger blister and sucked on it.

“Go on,” Azar said. “Tell him everything.”

(“The Ghost Soldiers”—221)

Tim O'Brien's presence in such scenes enacts a trope of storytelling to represent his fiction as simply the transmission of episodes overhead and repeated, just as the act of remembering defines his function as merely recovering and fleshing out actual incidents. In the latter case, he is a witness; in the former, an audience for twice-told tales. The notion of sharing the accounts of others is reinforced by the narrator's general references to the war as a source of stories; for example: “Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that, but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane. This one keeps returning to me. I heard it from Rat Kiley, who swore up and down to its truth, although in the end, I'll admit, that doesn't amount to much of a warranty” (101). This is the introduction to “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley's account of Mary Anne Bell, a football cheerleader from Ohio who flies to the war zone to join her high school sweetheart but gradually becomes so enamored of counterguerrilla terrorism that she migrates into the jungle and is last seen prowling about in her pink culottes, wearing a necklace of human tongues. O'Brien has claimed that the story is based on an actual incident (Coffey 61, Baughman 205), so it perfectly exemplifies the convincing lunacy of a true war story that lasts forever.

Insofar as The Things They Carried presents itself as a miscellany of overheard and remembered episodes from the war, strikingly mundane and authentically bizarre, the book resembles the method and material of Michael Herr's Dispatches, a work and a writer O'Brien greatly admires. But its self-conscious use of remembering and storytelling also recalls Proust and Conrad. The work ends, like Remembrance of Things Past, by recalling the originating instance of the narrator's identity as a writer—in Tim O'Brien's case, the death of his childhood girlfriend Linda and his dreams of her continuing presence in his life. And “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is O'Brien's Heart of Darkness, Americanized, Vietnamized, and surrealized (and possibly encouraged by Francis Ford Coppola's film version of Conrad, Apocalypse Now, for which Herr wrote the screenplay). Like Conrad's tale, “Sweetheart” [“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”] is filtered through three sets of narrators, since Rat Kiley heard the end of the story from a comrade who talked to the Green Berets, and in their account the high school sweetheart is already turning into a ghostly legend: “[A] couple times they almost saw her sliding through the shadows. Not quite, but almost. She had crossed to the other side” (125). The Ohio cheerleader becomes the Kurtz figure who has “crossed to the other side,” while the Green Berets practice the barbarous rites that she first emulates and then goes beyond. And both in this story and in those that the other members of Alpha Company tell, O'Brien makes the circumstances of storytelling itself part of the tales, complete with interruptions by listeners and characterizations of his own narrative by GI storytellers, who thus become additional authorial surrogates.

Overall, Tim O'Brien appears in nineteen of the twenty-two pieces that make up Things as a participant, audience/observer, or commentator, and he is identified as the author of the other three. Whether as writer or soldier, he is the book's central figure, and his multiple roles as author and character make Things a peculiarly Proustian work, despite its subject. But just as Proust's narrator is not the author of Remembrance of Things Past but a young man who is about to write it, the Tim O'Brien who appears in The Things They Carried cannot be simply identified with the author who has created him. As noted above, O'Brien's book is identified as “a work of fiction” on the title page and in the brief foreword, which notes that “except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” Although the autobiographical details virtually identify author and protagonist, O'Brien has given himself an imaginary daughter in “Ambush,” “Good Form,” and “Field Trip,” and the last of these pieces details a trip back to Viet Nam with her in 1990 that, needless to say, never happened. There are also less obvious differences between O'Brien and his persona, including some noted by the author: The vengeful behavior of Tim O'Brien in “The Ghost Soldiers” represents some of his creator's darker impulses, but the episode never occurred; and O'Brien does not share the narrator's mystification of war's violence (e.g., “For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat”—87) in “How to Tell a True War Story” (Naparsteck 9). Thus, the Tim O'Brien who appears in the book, a soldier who fought in Viet Nam in Quang Ngai Province and is now a writer and the author of a book called Going After Cacciato, is a character created by the Tim O'Brien who wrote The Things They Carried.

The narrator provides a confession and a justification for O'Brien's self-fabrication in “Good Form,” as if the apparent misrepresentation of the first seventeen sections of Things were an act of bad faith with the reader:

It's time to be blunt.

I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it's not a game. It's a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I'm thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is.


The narrator then proceeds to revise “The Man I Killed,” an earlier piece that seems to recall his emotional breakdown after killing an enemy soldier, by revealing what actually happened, only to confess that the second account is also invented. And both versions are finally revealed to be fictive substitutes for what did not happen rather than what did:

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.


What “really” happened was a failure to feel, an emotional constriction in response to trauma that the narrator associates with moral cowardice. “Responsibility” recalls the narrator's choice to participate in a bad war, represented in Things by the account of a traumatic breakdown in “On the Rainy River” when he is unable to flee to Canada; “grief” is felt for all the dead, even the enemy, and all the other wasted casualties. “Good Form” thus represents Tim O'Brien, the narrator of The Things They Carried, as a trauma writer and as a trauma survivor and provides a significant explanation for his rewriting of Vietnam. But although traumatization may be an important source of the writing, the source of the narrator's feelings remains both unspecific and endless, as “faceless” but also as all-embracing as all the things he carried out of the war. By refashioning himself so, O'Brien not only gives his personal traumatization a fictional form but also represents its ineffability.

The recycling in The Things They Carried of material from O'Brien's experiences and from his earlier books indicates the persistence of significant war memories in the writer's imagination. Some of them may be the unresolved traces of traumatic experiences, but they are also the inspiration for his writing. In Things the distinction between trauma and inspiration is frequently blurred in any case: Many of the pieces dramatize traumatization and various reactions to it, whereas others show how trauma is directly converted into a fiction. But the repetition of incidents and experiences in O'Brien's work also raises issues of authenticity and verisimilitude. War literature has commonly been validated on the basis of its truth to actual experience, but O'Brien's multiple rewritings radically question such assumptions. The problem of authenticity is addressed by Tim O'Brien in “How to Tell a True War Story,” which questions the categories of “truth” and “war story” through the communication of unspeakable grief.


“How to Tell a True War Story” is not only O'Brien's most complex meditation on war literature in general but also a brilliant representation of trauma writing. The work is narrated by the Tim O'Brien who is a fictional persona for the author and who self-reflectively interweaves stories and commentary on his own writing. The longest of its fourteen sections is an actual example of formal storytelling that raises issues that are developed throughout the piece, including, the validity of fiction and its relationship to trauma:

I remember how peaceful the twilight was. A deep pinkish red spilled out on the river, which moved without sound, and in the morning we would cross the river and march west into the mountains. The occasion was right for a good story.

“God's truth,” Mitchell Sanders said. “A six-man patrol goes up into the mountains on a basic listening-post operation. The idea's to spend a week up there, just lie low and listen for enemy movement. …”

Sanders glanced at me to make sure I had the scenario. He was playing with his yo-yo, dancing it with short, tight little strokes of the wrist.

His face was blank in the dusk.


The blank-faced narrator goes on to describe how the six soldiers become so hyperaroused by the sounds emanating from the mountains—Vietnamese music, a cocktail party, a “terrific mama-san soprano … gook opera and a glee club and the Haiphong Boys Choir” (81)—that they call in an all-night air strike against the mountains and flee back to base camp in the morning. Asked by a “fatass colonel” what happened, “[t]hey just look at him for a while, sort of funny like, sort of amazed, and the whole war is right there in that stare. It says everything you can't ever say. It says, man, you got wax in your ears. … Then they salute the fucker and walk away, because certain stories you don't ever tell” (82-83). Sanders then moves off into the dark, his story over. But in the next two sections of “War Story” [“How to Tell a True War Story”], he returns in the morning to give it a moral (“you got to listen to your enemy” [83]) and then later to revise that to “just listen,” while confessing to Tim O'Brien that most of the account was made up. “[B]ut listen,” Sanders insists, “it's still true” (84).

Mitchell Sanders's fable resembles some of the strange and true stories of the war reported by Michael Herr in Dispatches that stand by themselves as comments on its absurd and incomprehensible violence: for example, “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened” (Herr 6). Like “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” O'Brien's episode mimics Conrad in its careful attention to the narrative situation, metacommentary by the storyteller, and symbolic details (Kaplan [1995] notes that the narrator Tim O'Brien recalls minutely the almost comic icon of the storyteller's magic: “Even now, at this instant, I remember that yo-yo” [183]). Within its fictional setting, this account of American soldiers who go into the mountains, undergo a traumatic experience, but ultimately return safely addresses the anxieties of its listeners, who anticipate their own dreaded mountain mission in the morning. Whether it happened or not, it is true to their fears and hopes. Finally, the survivors' inability to tell others what they have been through suggests that although storytelling is a necessary outlet for traumatization, the trauma event itself is incommunicable. Sanders's attempt to give the tale a moral and to separate “fact” from “fiction” are unnecessary, therefore, as the narrator Tim O'Brien knows and as much of “War Story” demonstrates.

Sanders's tale exemplifies that a story can be truer than what actually happened, that it can be more valuable than actual experience, and that it can make the survivor's trauma meaningful, but only to the right audience. O'Brien's representation of his authorial persona in “War Story” is concerned with these issues as well, particularly in the account of Rat Kiley's slaughter of a baby water buffalo, the ninth of the fifteen sections that make up “War Story.” Tim O'Brien introduces this third revision of the water buffalo incident from Combat Zone by noting that “I've told it before—many times—many versions—but here's what actually happened” (85). But at the end of “War Story,” the Rat Kiley episode—story? memory of actual occurrence?—has become another example of storytelling, a piece that he often reads in public and that is sometimes mistaken for a personal experience still bothering the storyteller, mistaken usually by “an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics” (90): “She'll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can't understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she'll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell” (90). The narrator uses her reaction to denounce two sorts of misreadings of O'Brien's own fiction that derive from the relationship between traumatization and war stories.

On the one hand, a story may be interpreted as an actual experience rather than the fabulation of something that may or may not have happened: “Beginning to end, you tell her, it's all made up. Every goddamn detail—the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo. None of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen, it didn't happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (91). The narrator initially uses direct experience to validate the episode, only to deny that it happened; but if it did, he adds, it will be found in Going After Cacciato! Even the authenticity of the original account in Combat Zone must now be questioned, if what “actually happened” is to be found in “How to Tell a True War Story,” or in Chapter Six of O'Brien's second novel. Paradoxically, a “true” story is one that has multiple versions. Ultimately, the greater truth of the revisions depends not on what happened, but on the different ways in which killing a water buffalo is rewritten as a powerfully traumatic experience in Cacciato, The Nuclear Age, and Things.

Nevertheless, introducing the episode in “War Story” as an actual happening has established its credibility and thus met our need to believe that it is literally “true”—the narrator himself uses the mimetic fallacy before he disabuses his sympathetic listener of trusting in it as anything more than a narrative device. And of course the story's authenticity is validated by the listener's concern for the storyteller: She assumes that he has been traumatized because the terrible details are so real, so vivid. Indeed, her response suggests that the story has fulfilled an important criterion of a “true war story, if truly told”: It “makes the stomach believe” (84). Whatever her concern about the narrator's obsession with the war, she has enjoyed the story, after all, despite its “absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (76), another of the narrator's criteria. In fact, her response is contradictory: Moved by what has been narrated, she exhorts the author to write about something else.

Forced to correct the mistaken assumption that true war stories represent actual experiences, the narrator is even more upset by the notion that their subject is war. If the mimetic fallacy mistakes fiction for fact in a true war story, a second sort of misreading misses the point of the fiction itself. In the first instance, the well-meaning reader or listener misattributes traumatization to the storyteller; in the second, she fails to locate the true fictional source of trauma and its victim. The water buffalo episode is the last of three sections in “How to Tell a True War Story” that deal with Rat Kiley, and although all of them take place during the war, their subject is something else.

“War Story” begins with a narrative episode followed by a commentary upon it, a pattern repeated throughout. In the first, Rat Kiley writes a letter to the sister of a good friend who has been killed, filling it with a few dubiously eulogistic stories to illustrate “how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way” (75). At the end of the letter, “Rat pours his heart out. He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world. They were like soul mates, he says, like twins or something, they had a whole lot in common. He tells the guy's sister he'll look her up when the war's over” (76). But at the end of the section, his war stories are ignored: “Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back” (76). In the commentary that follows, Rat's disappointment is used to illustrate that “a true war story is never moral”:

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

Listen to Rat: “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin' letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back.”


After two more sections with commentary, Rat's methodical massacre of the baby buffalo is gruesomely detailed, together with the platoon's reaction: “He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn't to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. … Curt Lemon was dead, Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week he would write a long personal letter to the guy's sister, who would not write back, but for now it was a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away chunks of meat below the ribs …” (85). By the end of the atrocity, “Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but then cradled his rifle and went off by himself” (86). The narrator and the platoon have become witnesses of “something essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a name for it. Somebody kicked the baby buffalo” and eventually Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders dump what remains of the animal in the village well. The episode ends with Sanders's commentary: “‘Well, that's Nam,’ he said. ‘Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin's real fresh and original’” (86).

The platoon reacts as if it were the audience for the kind of fiction that “makes the stomach believe,” according to the narrator: “[I]n the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh’” (84). By contrast, Tim O'Brien's own listener has tried to interpret the story as personal testimony and so missed its point:

I won't say it but I'll think it.

I'll picture Rat Kiley's face, his grief, and I'll think, You dumb cooze.

Because she wasn't listening.

It wasn't a war story. It was a love story.


Keeping his own brutality to himself, the narrator goes on to explain that a true war story is made-up, as we have noted above. But missing its subject is worse than mistaking its fictionality. The story does not represent Tim O'Brien's trauma, but Rat Kiley's. His love for his best friend is displaced through his behavior toward a Vietnamese water buffalo and Curt Lemon's sister; both the little atrocity and the profanity are reactions to combat death, brutal expressions of loyalty to a lost comrade. The atrocity takes crazed vengeance upon the only available trace of the enemy; the letter tries to make something good come out of the waste of his friend, perhaps even to perpetuate his love through someone intimately connected to Lemon. To Rat, the sister is dismissing his love for her brother, even invalidating the Curt Lemon that Rat admired. We can perfectly understand and support her silence, but to the doubly spurned lover her failure to answer is an act of betrayal that leaves his own wound unhealed.

The sister resembles the narrator's well-meaning but theme-deaf listener, who weeps for the baby water buffalo while ignoring the point of the episode: Rat Kiley's pain. But the story does not shrink from exposing the obscenity of the war, a point reinforced by Mitchell Sanders's commentary. Somebody's (i.e., anybody's) kicking the murdered baby buffalo and the poisoning of the village well by the GIs epitomize their everyday brutality toward Viet Nam and the Vietnamese, a destructiveness nakedly celebrated even in Rat's tribute to Lemon. But they, too, have lost a comrade, and Rat's love needs validation, his vengeance and breakdown need closure. Trauma cannot be healed by sympathetic atrocity, of course, which will only make it worse, but destruction seems the only means at hand for these violence-tempered young men. Violence and love depend on each other so closely in the Rat Kiley episodes that as in any “true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning” (84). In his fourth version of buffalo hunting, O'Brien nonetheless does produce a love story from the elemental filth of the war, one that avoids sentimentality or a happy ending.

“How to Tell a True War Story” ends with an emphatic denial of the mimetic and thematic limitations of war literature as popularly understood (and written):

You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.


By calling attention to its materials, O'Brien reminds us that “War Story” has fulfilled its own criteria. People who never listen include Curt Lemon's sister, Tim O'Brien's audience, and everyone denounced when Mitchell Sanders tries to define the moral of his story: “Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothin'. Like that fatass colonel. The politicians, all the civilian types. Your girlfriend. My girlfriend” (83). True war stories are not simply stories about war but fictions of traumatization that require willing listeners as well as skillful storytellers. Nor are they solely narratives of past events: Rat Kiley's breakdown is no more merely a record of some terrible events in the Vietnam War than Heart of Darkness is just an account of a trip down the Congo River in 1890. The war is a fictional creation that speaks of important human truths every time it brings together a storyteller and an audience, whether in Quang Ngai Province in 1969 or in a lecture hall in 1990, and that is the ultimate point of O'Brien's fictional essay with examples (or vice versa). The conclusion also reminds us that everything in the piece has been made up, including the narrator Tim O'Brien and the kindly listener whom silently he browbeats. His repetition of Rat Kiley's profanity links them as both storytellers and fictional characters; like Mitchell Sanders, the narrator has had an audience for his story, and he has taken his listener aside to comment on it; and the narrator himself has also been a listener—to Rat Kiley, to Sanders, and even to his audience.

Through fictionalizing himself here as elsewhere, O'Brien is able to represent trauma and its consequences without merely representing his personal experiences. Everything in the work speaks of psychic or moral breakdown, from the listening post soldiers who call in air strikes upon the jungle and abandon their post, to Rat Kiley, crying over a dead friend, a slaughtered water buffalo, and the wasting of himself and others that is the war. But although stories can both replicate and relieve trauma by displacing it formally, they cannot give it closure. By presenting a fable derived from their own nightmares, Mitchell Sanders's story temporarily calms men who will be facing combat the next day in the mountains, but his attempts to censor its falsehood and draw out a moral call attention to the limited magic of fictions.

And Rat Kiley is not the only figure who cannot forget the death of Curt Lemon. The narrator of “War Story” is obsessed with this traumatic incident. In the third section of the piece, he identifies Lemon as the friend for whom Rat Kiley wrote his love letter and then describes in detail how he was blown to pieces by a booby-trapped mortar round underneath a giant tree while tossing smoke grenades with Rat. Used to help explicate Kiley's letter writing, the description thus becomes a fragment that chronologically reverses antecedent and consequence, as if it were an afterthought to the letter instead of its cause. While Rat cannot let Lemon's death be the end of the story, the narrator Tim O'Brien cannot introduce it directly. Yet this traumatic incident is the origin of all the storytelling in “War Story.” Tim O'Brien refers to Lemon in seven of the fifteen sections that make up the work, and he describes his death in four of them. Its continual intrusion suggests an ineffaceable trauma, so that “War Story” epitomizes in miniature the recurrence of traumatization characteristic of Things as a whole. The first of the descriptions is the longest and most detailed; the second, which repeats phrases from the first, is the briefest: “We crossed that river and marched west into the mountains. On the third day, Curt Lemon stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff” (85). This account is followed immediately by the baby water buffalo incident, which it motivates; but the battle in the mountains also recalls Mitchell Sanders's story, which is told the night before such a battle, and the cross-references suggest a complex of traumatization that has been fragmented throughout “War Story.”

The third description of Lemon's death follows the briefest of the fifteen sections in “War Story,” a typical combination of metafictional comment with example:

Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point?


The paragraph itself is a “true war story,” of course, even though the episode occurs two decades after the war is over in the domestic security of a couple's bedroom. But here it is impossible to distinguish between story and traumatic intrusion: Whatever is being reimagined resists even the narrator's attempt at thematic closure, and it cannot be explained, even to his wife. It has no point at which it can be resolved, but it is also pointless to bother her with it—she probably wouldn't be able to listen. (As Jonathan Shay notes, “normal adults do not want to hear trauma narratives” [193].) The third death of Curt Lemon follows immediately in the next section. The narrator introduces it as another example of a “pointless” story, but does so in a way that suggests an unwelcome traumatic intrusion: “This one wakes me up” (89). In this account, Tim O'Brien is involved directly with Lemon's death, for he has to gather the pieces of body left in the trees after the booby trap has detonated, and he uses the trope of memory so chillingly, so tangibly, that story and continued traumatization are indistinguishable: “I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must've been the intestines. The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts” (89). The last sentence concludes this particular war story but not the nightmare, which now circles back to the dream that wakes him up “twenty years later” in bed with his wife and thus epitomizes the endless recirculation and ineffability of trauma, as well as its asynchronous fragmentation.

“Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon's face” begins the narrator's last description of the death. The “sunlight” will be among the subjects used to illustrate his final assertion that “a true war story is never about war” (cited above). Here, it recalls the moment when the doomed soldier stepped beyond the shade of the trees where he and Rat Kiley were fooling around and onto the booby trap, so that “when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must've thought it was the sunlight that was killing him.” “[I]f I could ever get the story right,” the witness/survivor/narrator continues, “how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, … then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must've been the final truth” (90). Here the “right story” would be literally untrue, yet we would believe in it. It might also efface all visible traces of trauma by eliminating the presence of an observer who would watch Curt Lemon die, and then survive to tell about it, dream about it, write a letter about it, and commit atrocities in its name. But the desire to get the story “right” after four accounts of Lemon's death shows that trauma, however displaced, can never be buried: “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.” As Tobey Herzog notes (1997: 29-30), Lemon's obliteration is based on the death of the author's friend Chip Merricks, who stepped on a mine in Pinkville, a traumatic incident that was casually and ironically recorded in Chapter IX of Combat Zone. It is also briefly alluded to in “The Vietnam in Me” as the author revisits the site of the fatal ambush. Thus the actual event, nearly irrecoverable for O'Brien and rendered through the register of emotional constriction in both of the autobiographical memoirs, is here replaced and supplemented by a fiction, rendered from four different perspectives, that is more “true” than what actually happened yet remains without closure—and is thus available for additional posttraumatic refabrication. Whether as author or as narrator of “War Story,” Tim O'Brien can't get over whatever it was that happened to Chip Merricks or to Curt Lemon.


Ultimately, the imagined listener is right about the narrator's obsessiveness, wrong about urging him to put the war behind him. Although everything is made up—including Tim O'Brien and the listener herself—the author of The Things They Carried has created a true story that shows how trauma may be recycled but can never be closed. “How to Tell a True War Story” is O'Brien's most elaborate metafiction of traumatization, but other sections of the work handle the subject with comparable artistry. Besides Lemon's death, the narrator Tim O'Brien witnesses the deaths of Ted Lavender, Kiowa, and an enemy soldier, as well as several other Vietnamese. Lavender's death is represented in “The Things They Carried,” Kiowa's in “Speaking of Courage” and “In the Field,” and the Vietnamese soldier's in “Ambush.” Traumatic episodes all, their representations are fittingly marked by fragmentation, violation of chronology, instrusiveness, and repetition.

The award-winning title story is a brilliantly organized epitome of O'Brien's representation of the war in Combat Zone and Cacciato. Written in thirteen sections, it can be seen as a master catalog of combat trauma that combines and refabricates three lists from the earlier novel: the roll call of the dead and living that introduces Cacciato, the seriatim characterization of each of the squad members in Chapter 22 (“Who They Were, or Claimed to Be”), and the itemization of ignorance that made Viet Nam and the Vietnamese bewilderingly alien to the GIs who searched and destroyed them (Chapter 39, “The Things They Didn't Know”). The physical, psychological, and moral burdens and the objects of destruction, survival, pleasure, and hope carried by Alpha Company are categorized, section by section, until the war has been established as a site of obscene violence and almost unbearable trauma.

Within the larger catalog, O'Brien weaves two discrete narratives. The first appears only in the middle section, where Lee Strunk goes down an enemy tunnel for what seems to his waiting comrades an eternity and then emerges “right out of the grave,” according to Rat Kiley, “grinning, filthy but alive,” to hear his friends make “jokes about rising from the dead.” This story rewrites the tragic tunnel narratives of Cacciato as rough comedy, but we are told that at the moment when Strunk “made [a] high happy moaning sound,” Ted Lavender “was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. … There was a swollen black bruise under his left eye. The cheekbone was gone. Oh shit, Rat Kiley said, the guy's dead. The guy's dead, he kept saying, which seemed profound—the guy's dead. I mean really” (13).

Lavender's killing interrupts and completely displaces Strunk's survival, a discrete and coherent episode that is buried and isolated in the middle of the narrative. By contrast, the unexpected death reappears throughout the piece from beginning to end. Within the catalog of things carried by necessity, for example, we are told that “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April” and that “until he was shot, [he] carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity” (4). And this catalog ends as a parody of an army field issue description with ironic practical application: “Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each [soldier] carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away” (5). These repeated fragments register the persistence of Lavender's death, while their mechanical assignment to the appropriate list suggests emotional constriction.

But Lavender's death also intrudes more dramatically into Things, which combines the omniscient narration of lists with the imaginative meditations of Alpha Company's commanding lieutenant, Jimmy Cross, an ironic Christ figure who survives Vietnam and whose men suffer while following him. Cross carries the burden of responsibility for his men, but he also carries ten ounces of letters, two photographs, and a good luck pebble from his virginal girlfriend Martha as well as memories, hopes, and fears about her love for him. Like Paul Berlin or O'Brien himself, Cross is a reluctant warrior, and he dreams of Martha while trying to carry out his duties. He blames his own negligence for Lavender's death, and his hopeless love for his negligence. Alone in his foxhole the night after Lavender is shot, Cross breaks down and cries: “In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, … because he realized she did not love him and never would” (17).

Like Cacciato, the piece ends with the sacrifice of dreams for duties, but the lieutenant's ironic immolation of his keepsakes will do nothing to efface his guilt:

On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha's letters. Then he burned the two photographs. …

He realized it was only a gesture. Stupid, he thought. Sentimental, too, but mostly just stupid.

Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.


Nor can he efface his love for Martha, since “the letters were in his head,” or the realization that “she wasn't involved. She signed the letters Love, but it wasn't love, and all the fine lines and technicalities did not matter” (23). Turning away from both his griefs, he resolves at the end of the story to dedicate the one and sacrifice the other to command responsibility: “He would dispense with love; it was not now a factor. And if anyone quarreled or complained, he would simply tighten his lips and arrange his shoulders in the correct command posture. He might give a curt little nod. Or he might not. He might just shrug and say, Carry on, then they would saddle up and form into a column and move out toward the villages west of Than Khe” (25). But the conclusiveness of this resolution is belied by the play-acting going on inside his imagination, which tries to cover up or replace the death of Lavender and the loss of Martha.

The final reference in Things carries us back to other vain attempts to close off the trauma of Lavender's death. Kiowa notes so repetitiously that the dead man went down “like cement” that his fixation irritates Norman Bowker, who makes a crude joke of the death (“A pisser, you know? Still zipping himself up. Zapped while zipping” [17]); waiting for the dustoff, his comrades smoke the rest of the dead man's dope. The most decisive reaction displaces traumatization with futilely murderous devastation: “When the dustoff arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward they burned Than Khe. They marched until dusk, then dug their holes, and that night Kiowa kept explaining how you had to be there, how fast it was, how the poor guy just dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down, he said. Like cement” (8). The constriction of the atrocity is followed so closely by the reintrusion of Lavender's death that traumatization seems to be feeding on itself. And a more detailed repetition of the sequence reintrudes later, suggesting the recurrence of what has been repressed in the narrative: “After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling” (16). Cross's trembling initiates the little breakdown noted above; and his tears for Lavender, Martha, and himself show the futility of violence as a remedy for traumatization.

In its original form, “The Things They Carried” appeared as a short story in Esquire in 1986, and O'Brien's masterpiece has been frequently reprinted in anthologies. By itself, the piece is not explicitly a posttraumatic narrative, and it lacks the presence of the character Tim O'Brien as participant, observer, storyteller, or audience. In Things, however, O'Brien adds a first-person postscript that establishes the relationship between traumatization and storytelling which characterizes the book as a whole. This second piece in the volume tells of Lieutenant Cross's postwar visit to the Massachusetts home of the writer Tim O'Brien. Not only does it introduce the figure who will be the chief character in the rest of Things, but it also introduces the subject of unresolved trauma and the trope of memory:

Spread out across the kitchen table were maybe a hundred old photographs. There were pictures of Rat Kiley and Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders, all of us, the faces incredibly soft and young. At one point, I remember [emphasis added], we paused over a snapshot of Ted Lavender, and after a while Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he'd never forgiven himself for Lavender's death. It was something that would never go away, he said quietly, and I nodded and told him I felt the same about certain things.


They reminisce about happier memories, and Cross goes on to reveal that he met Martha in 1979, when he discovered that she was an unmarried Lutheran missionary, and impulsively revealed his undiminished love for her. Gently but decisively rejected, he explains that he now carries a copy of the photo of her that he had burned in Viet Nam, her farewell gift to him at the end of their final meeting. As his former lieutenant's visit ends, Tim O'Brien gets his approval to write a story about what they have discussed, and Cross jokes about getting Martha back—“Maybe she'll read it and come begging”—and being portrayed positively—“Make me out to be a good guy, okay? Brave and handsome, all that stuff. Best platoon leader ever” (31).

O'Brien's brief narrative, which is titled “Love,” thus functions as the inspiration for the longer narrative that precedes it, a truer story than the heroic melodrama requested by its protagonist. Viewed as a unit, the two works become a metafiction representing both the persistence of trauma—Cross is still bothered by Lavender's death and its connection to his unrequited love for Martha—and the reformulation of trauma into a fiction that transcends and transforms it: Jimmy Cross's double burden becomes the foundation and groundwork of a fiction masterpiece. “Love” is also O'Brien's first example in Things of a true war story that isn't about war, as its title indicates. Its title identifies as well the thematic significance of Jimmy Cross's traumatization in “The Things They Carried”: the conflict between loving his men and loving Martha and the way in which love, like war, can be unbearable.

Although Lavender's death is recuperated fictionally as Jimmy Cross's trauma, the deaths of Kiowa and the enemy soldier, which are narrated in “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed,” respectively, continue to haunt the narrator. The Native American, who perished during a horrendous night mortar attack, was his best friend in the war; the unnamed North Vietnamese was killed by Tim O'Brien himself. Like Ted Lavender's, both deaths appear as intrusive fragments that violate chronology. They persist through several different versions, just as Curt Lemon's death is narrated four times in “How to Tell a True War Story.” Moreover, like Jimmy Cross's obsession with Lavender and Martha, they are not simply past events but remain present in the narrator's imagination.

Like Lavender's death, both traumas are also reconfigured metafictionally in The Things They Carried. In contrast to the relatively simple sequence of war story followed by its putative origin “many years after the war” (“Love” 29), however, the traumatic origins of “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed” are revealed only indirectly and evasively. Their complex representation reflects their deeper level of shock: The narrator cannot get over Kiowa's death or his own killing of the young soldier, whereas Ted Lavender is Jimmy Cross's burden, and “The Things They Carried” a finely polished transformation of trauma into a coherent fiction by a former soldier who has become a writer.

The narrator identifies himself also as a trauma survivor in “Love,” where he tells Jimmy Cross of his own haunting by unnamed things that cannot be forgotten. Only in the penultimate list of memories in “Spin” does Tim O'Brien's traumatization begin to emerge, however, and only as a disconnected series of fragments that intrudes into and concludes a list of remembered images from the war:

A red clay trail outside the village of My Khe.

A hand grenade.

A slim, dead, dainty young man of about twenty.

Kiowa saying, “No choice, Tim. What else could you do?”

Kiowa saying, “Right?”

Kiowa saying, “Talk to me.”


The full story will finally come out ten pieces later, only to be further explained and justified in “Ambush” and “Good Form.” While the intrusive memory focuses on the man he killed, Tim O'Brien's fixation on Kiowa's presence as comforter significantly ties together this earlier trauma with his friend's horrible death, as if the latter itself were a terrible memory only beginning to emerge from repression.

Like the stories, therefore, the narrator's traumatization only gradually and fragmentarily defines itself. The reference in “Love” to experiences that will not go away is more fully realized in “The Man I Killed,” the twelfth of the twenty-two sections of Things. Occupying the center of the book, it begins suddenly as an image of the narrator's victim that goes on for nearly a full page, an anatomy that begins with the head—“His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole”—and ends at his feet—“His rubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a few meters up the trail” (139). Gradually the image becomes an obituary as the narrator imagines the background and circumstances that have led the “slim young man” to his death on a trail outside My Khe. And within another page the characterization has become a memory, a narrative, and a scene of trauma as the narrator squats next to the body while Azar exults (“you laid him out like Shredded fuckin' Wheat. … Rice Krispies, you know?” [140]) and then Kiowa tries to talk his friend out of his shock: “Nothing anybody could do. Come on, Tim, stop staring (141). … You feel terrible, I know that (142). … Talk to me” (144). These three final words end “The Man I Killed,” but not the trauma, which is presented not as an episode in the past but as an intrusive memory haunting the narrator. Talking only to himself, he never responds to Kiowa; therefore, although he is able to recover this traumatic experience (unlike his part in Kiowa's own death, as we shall see), it remains unexpressed to others. As studies of PTSD survivors have revealed (Shay 115-19), destroying the enemy can be as terrible an experience as the death of one's comrades, but ideological and social codes make the public expression of grief in such cases more difficult. O'Brien's narrator tries to resolve his feelings both by re-creating the young Vietnamese soldier in his own image, especially his sense of obligation to others, and by imagining that his victim's death will find some redemption: “He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier. … He was not a fighter. … He liked books. … Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. … He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people” (140-44 passim). But however much the narrator refigures his own distress, it can neither be laid to rest nor communicated to others.

The persistent cover-up of trauma is also dramatized in “Ambush,” right after “The Man I Killed” has dramatically re-created the incident alluded to in the fragments of “Spin.” When his daughter was nine years old, the narrator begins, she questioned his obsession with Vietnam: “You keep writing these war stories … so I guess you must've killed somebody” (147). “Of course not,” he answered her then but now relates for the third time the account of his killing a young enemy soldier with a grenade as the latter passed by his ambush position on a trail near My Khe. This is a matter-of-fact, third-person account that rewrites the fragments of “Spin” and the direct traumatization of “The Man I Killed” as a coherent, cause-and-effect narrative. At the end, however, Tim O'Brien's continued psychic wound is made apparent as he imagines what might have happened if he had simply let his victim pass:

Even now I haven't finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don't. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to dwell on it, but now and then, when I'm reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I'll look up and see the young man coming out of the morning fog. I'll watch him walk toward me, his shoulders slightly stooped, his head cocked to the side, and he'll pass within a few yards of me and suddenly smile at some secret thought and then continue up the trail to where it bends back into the fog.


The almost journalistic account of his kill is thus undercut by the persistent trauma that concludes “Ambush,” and both seem to make the response to his daughter a lie intended to protect her innocence and his repression of the memory.

As we have noted, however, in “Good Form” Tim O'Brien insists that everything in Things has been invented and then presents a fourth version of the incident at My Khe, a confession that he was present but did not kill the young man. “But listen”—he warns us after finishing this account—“even that story is made up” (203). Finally, we seem to reach an explanation that would respond both to the kindly listener, who would like the narrator to stop writing war stories, and to his daughter, who wonders why he continues to do so: He writes stories not to recall past experiences but to make them up, to overcome the emotional constriction of the past. Stories, he asserts, can “make things present” so that “I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again” (204). In this account, writing transforms Vietnam into morally meaningful fiction through fictional traumatization; but it also functions as therapy for a still-unidentified guilt connected with things that the narrator couldn't carry at the time they occurred. We might associate his grief with O'Brien's own feelings that if he had been brave enough, he would never have even been in the war. But that would be to mistake Tim O'Brien for the author and to analyze a state of mind that the story deliberately leaves undefinable. Just as the various versions of “The Man I Killed” deny an authoritative account, the narrator's feelings resist the closure of a final resolution. In fiction, he concludes in “Good Form,” his daughter Kathleen can ask,

“Daddy, tell the truth … did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”


Storytelling thus becomes a vehicle for the endless reproduction of trauma, revealing and covering it up, revising what has happened or inventing what has not. The author of “Good Form” has no daughter, of course; but that everything in the story and in Things as a whole is made up means that O'Brien is representing how guilt and grief are endlessly recycled rather than simply recalling his own.

Such recirculation is also fashioned with authentic complexity in the case of Kiowa's death. The narrator's friend is buried alive within a communal privy where the platoon has camped at night when it is heavily mortared during a rainstorm. Kiowa's death is variously described and revised in four of the pieces in Things: “Speaking of Courage,” a former comrade's reminiscence of the horror as he drives aimlessly about his hometown's lake on the Fourth of July years after his service in Viet Nam; the appended “Notes,” in which Tim O'Brien explains how he came to write the story; the following account, “In the Field,” which narrates the platoon's recovery of the body from the mud and filth in which it was submerged; and “Field Trip,” a description of the narrator's return to the site of Kiowa's death in Viet Nam twenty years after it occurred. Alternately moving, horrifying, and sardonic, O'Brien's sequence of episodes powerfully examines the persistence of trauma and the attempt to put it to rest.

“Speaking of Courage” is a revision of an earlier, prize-winning story of the same title that O'Brien published in 1976. That first version is an appendage to Cacciato, for the soldier who drives aimlessly around his hometown's lake, regretting his failure to be a hero by rescuing Frenchie Tucker from a VC tunnel, is Paul Berlin. Details of the setting are taken directly from O'Brien's hometown, Worthington, Minnesota; moreover, Berlin's circuit replicates the description in Combat Zone of O'Brien's own desultory drives around town during the summer before his induction into the army (25). Although its counterpart won an O. Henry Prize, its later refabrication in Things is an even stronger work, another of O'Brien's masterpieces. Here, the unhappy veteran is Norman Bowker, traumatized by his failure to rescue Kiowa from his terrible fate, alienated from the town and his previous civilian life, unable to talk with his father about almost winning the Silver Star by saving his friend's life. The first sentence sums up Norman's condition with eloquent understatement that could be applied to countless other traumatized veterans: “The war was over and there was no place in particular to go” (157). The narrative bleakly mirrors the trauma survivor's isolation and anomie as he circles the lake twelve times, recalling his failure to pull Kiowa out of the mud and excrement along the Song Tra Bong while distantly observing the minutiae of small-town life. The persistence of the traumatic memory is captured by the meaningless circularity of his drive, briefly interrupted at an A&W Root Beer stand, before he immerses himself in the lake and watches the town's Independence Day fireworks display. Unable either to let go of Kiowa or to feel at home, Bowker narrates his war story as an experience that he would like to tell his father if the latter were not at home watching a baseball game on TV and if his son did not feel so guilty and ashamed: “[H]e would have talked about the medal he did not win and why he did not win it. … ‘So tell me,’ his father would have said” (161). His untold tale becomes for him an epitome of the true story of Vietnam, a revelation that he feels would fall on deaf ears: “The town could not talk, and would not listen. ‘How'd you like to hear about the war?’ he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. … It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know” (163). The only willing listener is the voice he hears on the A&W squawk box, his only message an order for a Mama Burger and fries. Just before he stops at Sunset Park and stands in the lake, he finally arrives at a dark enlightenment:

There was nothing to say.

He could not talk about it and never would. The evening was smooth and warm.

If it had been possible, which it wasn't, he would have explained how his friend Kiowa slipped away that night beneath the dark swampy field. He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste.


The final personal pronoun is ambiguous, of course, so that the attempt to finally bury Kiowa is not only unredemptive but suggests that Bowker has died in some sense as well.

The “Notes” that follow this haunting portrayal of persistent trauma are the closest O'Brien comes to identifying himself directly with the narrator of The Things They Carried, who extends Bowker's guilt to his own. Identifying himself as the author of Going After Cacciato, Tim O'Brien tells us that the original version of “Speaking of Courage” was written in 1975 “at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa” (177). Like “Love,” it purports to present the materials from which the preceding story was constructed. Thus, Norman Bowker's long letter to the narrator begins with the confession that “there's no place to go. Not just in this lousy little town. In general. My life, I mean. It's almost like I got killed over in Nam … Hard to describe. That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him … Feels like I'm still in deep shit” (177-78) [ellipses in the original]. Written originally to give a voice to his former comrade's traumatization, the story disappointed its author as an unfunctional part of the novel—“Going After Cacciato was a war story; ‘Speaking of Courage’ was a postwar story” (181)—and was published as a short story, we are told. But beyond its formal flaws, the substitution of Paul Berlin for Bowker and the elimination of the terrible night in Viet Nam left it morally flawed as well: “[S]omething about the story had frightened me—I was afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember—and in the end the piece had been ruined by a failure to tell the full and exact truth about our night in the shit field,” the narrator confesses to us. Upon its publication, Bowker's reaction, too, was a reproach: “‘It's not terrible,’ he wrote me, ‘but you left out Vietnam. Where's Kiowa? Where's the shit?’”—and “eight months later he hanged himself” (181).

Unlike “Love,” this account of how a preceding story was written involves the narrator directly in the consequences of traumatization: Unable or unwilling to represent his own experience, he effaces his former comrade's story. “Speaking of Courage” (1976) becomes a “false war story,” and Tim O'Brien's failure to refigure the trauma fictionally so that it may be relieved is at least partly responsible for Norman Bowker's final despair. As a result, the narrator is so implicated in Bowker's agony that he identifies the rewritten story as an act of memorialization and deferred obligation: “Now, a decade after his death, I'm hoping that ‘Speaking of Courage’ makes good on Norman Bowker's silence. And I hope it's a better story” (181).

Noting how strongly he had been moved by Bowker's original letter, Tim O'Brien states that “I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don't” (179). In revising the earlier story, however, the author of Things has represented it as a trebly therapeutic fiction. In finally giving voice to Bowker's repressed trauma, the narrator addresses his feelings of guilt for not doing it originally. But in addition, the end of “Notes” reveals that the new story allowed him to give voice to his own traumatization: “It was hard stuff to write. Kiowa, after all, had been a close friend, and for years I've avoided thinking about his death and my own complicity in it. Even here it's not easy. In the interests of truth, however, I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own” (182). As Kaplan notes (1995: 192), the final sentence is ambiguous because of the narrator's peculiar fictional role as both writer and participant in his own scenarios: Has he simply made Bowker feel guilty for Kiowa's death, or does he feel guilty for Kiowa's death himself? If the former, Bowker would have revealed in the letter his failure to save his friend; if the latter, the narrator failed to pull Kiowa out of the slime. Of course, both Bowker and the narrator Tim O'Brien may feel guilty about Kiowa's death whether or not they could have saved him because soldiers frequently feel guilt and grief if their own survival of a comrade's death seems unfair or incomprehensible (Shay 69). In any case, Tim O'Brien's personal trauma—his “complicity” in Kiowa's fate—has either been refigured through Norman Bowker or remains something that cannot be told.

“In the Field,” the piece that follows “Notes,” raises the issue of responsibility and guilt again only to leave it unresolved. The story follows the platoon of eighteen soldiers on the morning after the mortar attack as they comb their excrement- and mud-infested night position for Kiowa's body. Formally, this narrative resembles “The Things They Carried” and “Speaking of Courage” in that the Tim O'Brien character is absent and the narration is relatively impersonal. But while those works were followed by metafictional accounts of their traumatic origins, “In the Field” simply extends the trauma of “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes.” As with the title story, omniscient narration alternates with an intimate third-person perspective as the point of view alternates from the activities of the platoon as a whole to the private meditations of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and an unnamed younger soldier who are searching the flooded field by themselves. Both feel responsible for Kiowa's death: Although Cross carried out orders in pitching camp atop the communal waste field, he ignored the villagers' warnings and blames himself for the GI's death. The unnamed soldier feels guilty for switching on his flashlight to show Kiowa his girlfriend's picture just before the lethal mortar rounds hit the platoon. But even the normally sadistic Azar feels chastened. Once Kiowa's body has been pulled out of the slime, Azar sees his own jokes about the death (“[e]ating shit” [187], “one more redskin bites the dirt” [188]) as murderous: “[W]hen I saw the guy, it made me feel … sort of guilty almost, like if I'd kept my mouth shut none of it would've ever happened. Like it was my fault” (197).

Norman Bowker's response as he looks “out across the wet field” is closest to the truth, however: “Nobody's fault,” he said. “Everybody's” (197). As a result, trauma is at least temporarily relieved, not least because Kiowa's corpse undergoes a strange resurrection. His body, though hideously disfigured, is recovered by his comrades, a communal ritual that leaves them peculiarly satisfied: “For all of them it was a relief to have it finished. … They felt bad for Kiowa. But they also felt a kind of giddiness, a secret joy, because they were alive, and because even the rain was preferable to being sucked under a shit field, and because it was all a matter of luck and happenstance” (197).

And for the lieutenant and Kiowa's unnamed friend, too, the story ends with ironic absolution. The young soldier is searching for his girlfriend's picture, not his friend's body; after all, “Kiowa's dead” he tells the lieutenant (194), who then watches him continue his search, “as if something might finally be salvaged from all the waste,” and “silently wishe[s] the boy luck” (195). And when the young GI finally tries to confess his own culpability, the lieutenant “wasn't listening,” floating in the muck and meditating on everything that could be blamed “when a man died,” from “the war” to “an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote” (198-99). At the end of the piece, the letter of self-incrimination to Kiowa's father that Jimmy Cross has been revising throughout is replaced by a daydream of going golfing “back home in New Jersey”: “When the war was over, he thought, maybe then he would write a letter to Kiowa's father. Or maybe not. Maybe he would just take a couple of practice swings and knock the ball down the middle and pick up his clubs and walk off into the afternoon” (199). Perhaps it is the shit field itself, a symbolic paradigm of the ghastly enterprise of Vietnam, that is the final cause of Kiowa's death. O'Brien's ironic title, “In the Field,” modulates from a metonym for a battleground to a sense that everyone in the story is “In the Shit,” a morass so all-consuming that staying alive is all that matters.

Yet even after this ironic closure to Kiowa's death, O'Brien's fourth handling of the subject suggests that the narrator's own trauma remains unhealed by his writing. “Field Trip” begins, in fact, by alluding to the earlier episode: “A few months after completing ‘In the Field,’ I returned with my daughter to Vietnam, where we visited the site of Kiowa's death, and where I looked for signs of forgiveness or personal grace or whatever else the land might offer” (207). Although “Notes” hinted at Tim O'Brien's feeling some responsibility for Kiowa's death, his own role has been left unclear: Did he freeze when his friend was pulled beneath the slime, like Norman Bowker in “Speaking of Courage”? Is the young, unnamed soldier in “In the Field” a version of his guilt, as suggested by Mark Taylor (227-28), distorted beyond being recognized by the reader? In any case, the persistence of trauma is explicit in his meditations as he looks at the field of death:

This little field, I thought, had swallowed so much. My best friend. My pride. My belief in myself as a man of some small dignity and courage. Still, it was hard to find any real emotion. It simply wasn't there. After that long night in the rain, I'd seemed to grow cold inside, all the illusions gone, all the old ambitions and hopes for myself sucked away into the mud. Over the years that coldness had never entirely disappeared … somehow I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been. For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.


While a government interpreter waits with his ten-year-old daughter, bemused like Cowling's Melinda by the symptoms of her father's traumatization—“Sometimes you're pretty weird, aren't you?” she has observed earlier (209)—Tim O'Brien wades into the muck of the paddy, squats and then sits down in the slime at the place where “Mitchell Sanders had found Kiowa's rucksack.” There, he offers his friend's old hunting hatchet to the land beneath him.3 As “tiny bubbles broke along the surface” (an image associated with the disappearance of Kiowa's head in “Speaking of Courage” [168] and “In the Field” [193]), his attempt to “think of something decent to say” inevitably settles on the all-purpose GI mantra for the trauma of Vietnam: “‘Well,’ I finally managed, ‘There it is’” (212). This moving scene of expiation and memorialization culminates with the narrator's sense of personal catharsis: “The sun made me squint. Twenty years. A lot like yesterday, a lot like never. In a way, maybe, I'd gone under with Kiowa, and now after two decades I'd finally worked my way out. A hot afternoon, a bright August sun, and the war was over” (212). It also recapitulates but transcends Kiowa's immersion in the field and Norman Bowker's frustrated attempt to cleanse himself—or drown himself—in his hometown lake on the Fourth of July.

This apparent closure of trauma is qualified and decisively undercut by O'Brien, however. The narrator's exact role in Kiowa's death is uncertain, as if that were a story that he can never recount, despite his resolution in “Notes” to tell “the full and exact truth.” Within Things, “Field Trip” is followed by “The Ghost Soldiers” and “Night Life,” two grimly comic accounts of the narrator's wounding and Rat Kiley's self-mutilation in the war, respectively, which is not over for his imagination. And “Field Trip” itself includes an unresolved source of guilt and remorse. Tim O'Brien's personal ritual is witnessed not only by his daughter and his official guide but also by a farmer whose land was once taken over by the Americans but has now been restored to its communal purposes. Although Kiowa's hatchet has been buried, the narrator cannot so easily translate his personal peace into a wider redemption: “The man's face was dark and solemn. As we stared at each other, neither of us moving, I felt something go shut in my heart while something else swung open. Briefly, I wondered if the old man might walk over to exchange a few war stories, but instead he picked up a shovel and raised it over his head and held it there for a time, grimly, like a flag, then he brought the shovel down and said something to his friend and began digging into the hard, dry ground” (212). The narrator, an intruder in peace as in war, reacts immediately: “I stood up and waded out of the water” (212). His ten-year-old daughter responds instinctively to what she has seen, and the story ends with questions about its apparent resolution:

When we reached the jeep, Kathleen turned and glanced out at the field.

“That old man,” she said, “is he mad at you or something?”

“I hope not.”

“He looks mad.”

“No,” I said. “All that's finished.”


This reassurance must depend on the farmer's attitude, of course, which the narrator cannot interpret but would prefer not to think about. Like the barely registered destruction of Than Khe after the death of Ted Lavender or Rat Kiley's enthusiasm about how Curt Lemon “liked testing himself, just man against gook” (75), the trauma of Vietnam involves more than the death of American comrades for the narrator—those are simply the stories he can tell best.

As noted above, “Field Trip” is immediately preceded by “Good Form,” which reveals that “almost everything” (203) in the book has been invented. This reminder also calls into question the apparent personal recovery dramatized in the subsequent piece. Its soul-baring is so convincing that “Field Trip” seems an authentic personal experience rather than the self-confessed fiction of everything that appears before it; yet we can only believe in its authenticity if we believe in the “happening-truth” of the preceding fictions concerning Kiowa. We are left, therefore, with a series of episodes that represents an attempt to write about an experience that never happened as it is described. Yet by inventing a narrator who makes up traumatic experiences and recoveries, O'Brien paradoxically represents the ineffability of such experiences, what Kali Tal (1996) has called “the impossibility of recreating the event for the reader” (121). Whatever the protagonist of The Things They Carried has experienced can never be fully represented through writing—and that is why he can never stop writing about it.


The Things They Carried ends with “The Lives of the Dead,” an account of how the narrator became a professional writer. Although published as an independent story in the January 1989 issue of Esquire, the piece is a deliberate conclusion to the book, incorporating and dramatizing once more what Things has exemplified about true war stories and their relationship to traumatic experiences. Beginning with the simple assertion that “stories can save us,” this final fiction resurrects Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, “an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They're all dead. But in a story,” the narrator's introduction continues, “the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world” (255). Combining the tropes of memory and storytelling, “Lives” [“The Lives of the Dead”] brings back the war dead in brief episodes that alternate with the narrator's account of his love for his grade-school classmate Linda, their first and only date, her death from brain cancer at the age of nine, and his dreaming her alive thereafter. By combining Vietnam and a love story, soldiers and nine-year-olds, “The Lives of the Dead” transcends the war and exemplifies the narrator's earlier insistence that “a true war story is never about war” (91).

The paradox of the title identifies its real subject, a central concern of O'Brien's fifth book as a whole: the ways survivors carry the dead with them through the rest of their lives. “The Lives of the Dead” is filled with descriptions of corpses: an old Vietnamese farmer killed by an American air strike on an unfriendly village; Ted Lavender; The Man Who Never Was, a dead body dropped along the French coast to deceive the Nazis about the D-Day landings in a movie that Timmy and Linda saw on their one date; Linda's body in her funeral home casket, “bloated,” the skin “at her cheeks … stretched out tight like the rubber skin on a balloon just before it pops open” (270); twenty-seven “enemy KIAs” [enemy soldiers killed in action] dumped into a truck by Tim O'Brien and Mitchell Sanders after their battle in the mountains—all “badly bloated … clothing … stretched tight like sausage skins … heavy … feet … bluish green and cold” (271). For Timmy, however, “It didn't seem real. A mistake, I thought. The girl lying in the white casket wasn't Linda. … I knew this was Linda, but even so I couldn't find much to recognize. … She looked dead. She looked heavy and totally dead” (270). And for Mitchell Sanders, gathering the remains of a great victory that he and the narrator have survived brings a comparably banal enlightenment:

At one point [he] looked at me and said, “Hey, man, I just realized something.”


He wiped his eyes and spoke very quietly, as if awed by his own wisdom. “Death sucks,” he said.


The human imagination is unsatisfied with this trite truth, as Timmy's bewilderment and Sanders's tears for the enemy suggest, and O'Brien dramatizes various attempts to supplement or transmute the dead body throughout the story. “The Lives of the Dead” begins with a traumatic experience for the narrator, who cannot look at the decaying corpse of the old man who is “the only confirmed kill” (255) of Jimmy Cross's punitive air strike. A newcomer to the war, he is further appalled as his comrades shake the corpse's hand and then prop it up as the guest of honor at a macabre get-acquainted party that gradually turns “that awesome act of greeting the dead” into a ceremony: “They proposed toasts. They lifted their canteens and drank to the old man's family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death. It was more than mockery. There was a formality to it, like a funeral without the sadness” (256-57). Kiowa comforts him later in the day, praising the courage of the narrator's refusal to participate, wishing that he had done the same but also reassuring him that “you're new here. You'll get used to it,” since he assumes that “this was your first look at a real body” (257). The necrology of the scene is not simply repulsive, however, as the narrator realizes. Underneath the GIs' ghoulish humor and postmortem sadism lies an unconscious awareness of the mortality that they share with the Vietnamese farmer and an attempt to imagine beyond it. In “Night Life,” the previous piece in Things, Rat Kiley has a nervous breakdown when he begins to see himself and his comrades as potential corpses, imagining them as a collection of organic body parts rather than as human beings. By contrast, here the narrator's comrades transform a corpse into a life to be celebrated beyond the “real body.” Their grotesquerie contrasts strikingly with the sterile funeral home where Timmy is left bewildered and unsatisfied by the reality of Linda's preserved body.

The resurrection of the dead pervades O'Brien's final work. Kiowa comes back here, after all, as the comforter at the end of this first episode. Things began with Ted Lavender's death, and it ends with his corpse waiting for a medevac but miraculously reanimated as Mitchell Sanders and the rest of the platoon conduct a dialogue with their comrade before sending him home: “‘There it is, my man, this chopper gonna take you up high and cool. Gonna relax you. Gonna alter your whole perspective on this sorry, sorry shit.’ … ‘Roger that,’ somebody said. ‘I'm ready to fly’” (261). The last we hear and see of Rat Kiley's dearest friend is not the obliteration of his body but the full account of his trick-or-treating in the Vietnamese countryside on Halloween, “almost stark naked, the story went, just boots and balls and an M-16. … To listen to the story, especially as Rat Kiley told it, you'd never know that Curt Lemon was dead. He was still out there in the dark, naked and painted up, trick-or-treating, sliding from hootch to hootch in that crazy white ghost mask” (268).

It is the resurrection of Linda, however, that has made all the others possible. Although Kiowa assumes that the Vietnamese farmer provides Tim O'Brien's first look at a corpse, he is wrong. “It sounds funny,” O'Brien's persona tells him, “but that poor old man, he reminds me of … [ellipsis in the original] I mean, there's this girl I used to know. I took her to the movies once. My first date” (257). “[T]hat's a bad date,” Kiowa understandably responds, ending the first section of “The Lives of the Dead.” Most of the rest is taken up with the narrator's memories of his love for Linda, their going off to see The Man Who Never Was with his parents as chaperones, the exposure of her fatal illness, her death, and his visit to the funeral home. As he recounts it, his life as a storyteller began when he imagined his love alive the day after Linda died, in “a pink dress and shiny black shoes,” all traces of her illness gone, “laughing and running up the empty street, kicking a big aluminum water bucket” (266). Timmy breaks down, knowing that she's dead, but Linda insists that “it doesn't matter” (267) and forces him to stop crying. Thereafter, Linda's death and his grief are replaced by dreaming her back to life and his subsequent career as an author: “She was dead. I understood that. After all, I'd seen her body, and yet even as a nine-year-old I had begun to practice the magic of stories. Some I just dreamed up. Others I wrote down—the scenes and dialogue. And at nighttime I'd slide into sleep knowing that Linda would be there waiting for me. Once, I remember, we went ice skating late at night, tracing loops and circles under yellow floodlights” (272). By asking what it's like to be dead, Timmy initially questions the truth of his own imagination, but Linda sets him straight: “‘Well, right now,’ she said, ‘I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like … [ellipsis in original] I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading’” (273).

According to this account, therefore, writing grows directly out of trauma but refashions it beyond the unreality of death. Like the rest of the dead, Linda comes back to life through the narrator's stories, but so does he as he examines a photograph of himself as a nine-year-old:

[T]here is no doubt that the Timmy smiling at the camera is the Tim I am now. … The human life is all one thing, like a blade tracing loops on ice: a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow.

And as a writer now, I want to save Linda's life. Not her body—her life.


In saving her, therefore, he saves himself. Near the end of “The Lives of the Dead,” however, we are reminded that while stories can save lives, what is saved is itself a fiction: “I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way. She's not the embodied Linda; she's mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name. … Her real name doesn't matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died” (273). The facts are less important than the truth that the story has compelled us to believe. Employing the tropes of memory and storytelling for the last time as the book comes to an end, O'Brien uses them together not to represent the fact of death—even the dead are fictions in a true war story—but to save the lives of Linda and his other characters forever: “And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I'm gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow flood-lights. I'm young and happy. I'll never die” (273). Ultimately, of course, by making us believe in the man who never was, fiction can create people who will never die.

O'Brien's great book has certainly done both, but it is O'Brien's persona, a fictional creation, not necessarily O'Brien himself, who seems to have saved his life through writing by the end of “The Lives of the Dead.” A survivor of trauma who has translated what he could not carry into true war stories, Tim O'Brien resembles the author's other protagonists in passing through fear, guilt, and grief to achieve his own separate peace. The narrator's ability to memorialize a terrible war so masterfully makes The Things They Carried O'Brien's most accomplished fiction, and his persona's ostensible resolution of his personal trauma also makes it the most redemptive. Yet Tim O'Brien's sense of well-being in The Things They Carried is also a function of his narrow characterization. Except for the relationships with his daughter and Linda, he has no life outside of writing; in fact, everything he does, says, or remembers in the book becomes part of its storytelling. Trauma is endlessly recirculated through the tropes of memory and storytelling or explicitly fabricated in multiple versions, never experienced directly by the fictional protagonist as it is in the three previous novels. Like Things, O'Brien's next book will be formidably metafictional, but its hero's inescapable, comprehensive, and endless traumatization will cost him his life, not enable him to save it.


  1. “The Ghost Soldiers” appeared in Esquire in 1981 (March) and was reprinted in the 1982 O. Henry Award Prize Stories volume. “The Things They Carried” first appeared in the August 1986 Esquire and won the 1987 National Magazine Award in Fiction. “How to Tell a True War Story” (October 1987), “The Lives of the Dead” (January 1989), and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” (July 1989) also appeared in Esquire, while four other sections of Things appeared first as short stories: “Speaking of Courage” (Granta, Winter 1989), “In the Field” (Gentleman's Quarterly, December 1989), “On the Rainy River” (Playboy, January 1990), and “Field Trip” (McCall's, August 1990). Six other shorter pieces in Harper's (March 1990) and Mānoa (Spring 1990) were to be slightly altered when they appeared shortly afterward in The Things They Carried. (For bibliographical details, see Calloway 1991 and 1993.)

  2. In turn, O'Brien noted to Martin Naparsteck, “the Tim character” is “transformed again” into the character Norman Bowker (7). Here as elsewhere, O'Brien's self-revisions are at the center of his fiction making. The transformations of O'Brien into Norman Bowker (and Paul Berlin) in “Speaking of Courage” are discussed below.

  3. As Calloway (1995) notes, the hunting hatchet in the original 1990 edition of the story is replaced by moccasins in the 1991 paperback editions (Penguin and Flamingo [U.K.]). Perhaps “burying the hatchet” was too flagrant a symbol for the narrator's attempted therapeutic gesture.

Marilyn Wesley (essay date spring 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Wesley, Marilyn. “Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.College Literature 29, no. 2 (spring 2002): 1-18.

[In the following essay, Wesley contrasts O'Brien's representation of the truth in If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.]

The requirement of truth as a faithful portrayal of unique experience is the standard most consistently applied to the literature of the Vietnam War. In his discussion of memoirs of the war, J. T. Hansen observes that all the writers he studied shared the objective of “authenticity,” an authority based on “knowledge of the war they experienced” (1990, 134-35). Similarly, Donald Ringnalda points out that for the former soldiers, who are the most exacting audience for the Vietnam story, the standard of evaluation is “accuracy, factualness, faithful attention to details” (1990, 65). Nevertheless, as Lorrie Smith argues, verisimilitude has “no inherent value” if the text does not also examine “the cultural assumptions which animate and give meaning to its images” (1990, 90). In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry theorizes a basis for this discrepancy by explaining that narrative rendition is an integral component of war because the story of war is the exposition of a special kind of violence: deliberate violence that in turn provokes narrative deliberation. For war is the calculated action of a society rather than the random accident of an individual, and, although war is aggression against singular mortal bodies, its effect, according to Scarry, depends on collective fictive interpretations. War, she contends, is a violent contest in which each side tries to out-injure the other to effect “perceptual reversal” from the premise that “physical damage” is “acceptable and ideological and territorial sacrifices” are “unacceptable” to the opposed proposition that more physical damage is unacceptable and sacrifices of territory and belief are acceptable (1985, 89). Although fighting a war is a matter of personal experience—the effect of weapons on bodies—winning that war, the alteration of a society's predominant perceptions about its own purposes, is an effect of shared interpretation—the influence of narrative on minds. War, then, inevitably imposes a compromised version on the interpretation of genuine experience, an effect demonstrated by the literary conventions of Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973). In The Things They Carried (1990), however, O'Brien has addressed the divergence of values—the contradiction between a standard of literary authenticity and the project of moral evaluation—inherent in the “truth” of his first work. Resisting the cultural closure imposed by the traditional war narrative, the postmodern form of The Things They Carried identifies Vietnam as a continuing struggle over representation despite the cessation of military combat.

From his earliest writing, O'Brien, to use the words of one of his more recent titles, has been engaged in the effort to “tell a true war story,” but in so doing he has also struggled to evaluate the attitudes that produced and were produced by the Vietnam experience. Although there is no single defining plot for the American war story, there is in works by such writers as Crane, Hemingway, and Mailer an array of typical motifs: the noble example, the test of courage, the battle as initiation, the collective adventure of the platoon, and the disjunctive return to the civilian world. Too often, however, as Lynne Hanley argues in Writing War, traditional tropes have been turned into formulas through which violence is encoded as a desirable course of action that presents war experience as male, agentless intensification—the chief social activity through which “winners” are determined. The incidents in If I Die in a Combat Zone, O'Brien's collection of autobiographical essays on his experience in Vietnam, do not vary significantly from the incidents fictionalized in the stories of The Things They Carried, published seventeen years later. But whereas the first book relies on the standard of the representation of truth, the second, by abandoning literary realism, comes closer to presenting a polemic vision that insists on the problematic nature of the Vietnam experience. While the earlier book clearly intends a criticism of war, that effect is discounted by its reliance on representational codes which annual subversive analysis—especially its characterization of the noble officer, and its preoccupation with the theme of courage—traditional devices which repress the disturbing impact of violence in Vietnam.

The verisimilitude of O'Brien's memoir is a result of his evident eagerness to communicate with his reader through straightforward description of sensations and emotions, thematic self-revelation, translation of the argot of the soldier, and simple organization based on sequential military events: induction, basic training, arrival in Vietnam, experience of battle, term in the rear, and return to the States. This effort to engage the reader is so powerful that O'Brien frequently presents his own experiences in the second person, as in this description of a helicopter-lift into a war zone:

You begin to sweat. Even the rotor blades whipping cold air around like an air-conditioner, you begin to sweat.

You light a cigarette, trying to think of something to say. A good joke would help, something funny. Laughing makes you believe you are resigned if not brave.

(O'Brien 1973, 112)

Through its representation of easily identifiable physical and emotional effects—the chill of apprehension and the desire for laughter to relieve tension—the passage insists that the alien experience of war in Vietnam is directly transferable. In fact, the elision of author and reader, insisted upon by grammatical address in which the perspective of an absent “you” substitutes for direct observation of a participant “I,” is engineered through the presentation of universal and simple correlatives of shared experience. This sense of apprehensible truth is reinforced through the soldier's engaging confession of weakness. Whatever genuine differences may exist between a non-combatant reader and the veteran writer are denied through the narrative production of verisimilitude. And although the insider's language the author uses to introduce the texture of alternative reality might separate his perspective from that of an outsider-reader, O'Brien cancels this effect through careful translation. “Pinkville,” he explains is “GI slang for Song My, parent village of My Lai—the Batangan Peninsula or the Athletic Field, appropriately named for its flat acreage of grass and rice paddy” (1973, 126). And just as the alien geography of Vietnam can be naturalized for American consumption, so too can the chaotic experiences of the soldier be ordered as events in an identifiable succession of incidents from his introduction to the military to his exit, generally presented as historical movement from month to month.

It has long been acknowledged that realism as a literary form does more than record the texture of a setting or set forth believable characters. According to Leo Bersani, mimetic fiction also constructs “a secret complicity between the novelist and his society's illusions about its own order … by providing [society] with strategies for containing (and repressing) its disorder within significantly structured stories about itself” (1992, 247). That is, to present war as literary “truth” is to destroy its capacity to challenge the very social expectations that may have produced it.

The formal institution of easy assimilation in If I Die in a Combat Zone is reinforced thematically through archetypal representation of the heroic officer and the young initiate. Although O'Brien includes a variety of leaders—the insensitive Colonel Daud; the dangerous, bumbling ROTC-trained Captain Smith; a racist first sergeant fragged by black infantrymen; the maniacal Major Callicles; and the war-loving lieutenant, “Mad Mark”—his most extensive account of an officer is an encomium to Captain Johansen, especially fulsome on the occasion of Johansen's rotation out of Vietnam:

Captain Johansen was one of the nation's pride. He was blond, meticulously fair, brave, tall, blue-eyed, and an officer.

Standing bare-headed upon a little hill, Johansen said that we were a good outfit, he was proud of us, he was sad that some of the men were dead or crippled. There was a brief change-of-command ceremony. We all stood at attention, feeling like orphans up for adoption.

(O'Brien 1973, 148)

This portrayal records O'Brien's evident admiration through the characterological codes of superiority—those of breeding and bearing—that do not so much describe an individual as enlist him within the ranks of what Martin Green designates as the “aristo-military caste.”1 Thus Johansen's example extends from personal achievement to public principle. As the generic “officer” of traditional war narrative, he embodies the US military project as a form of fairminded paternal intervention, and the affiliative connection explicit in this passage makes it difficult for the “orphaned” son to write about his valiant father's war as an instance of personal and political moral hypocrisy. Nonetheless, that is exactly what O'Brien is trying to do in If I Die in A Combat Zone.

The trope for this subversive project is the representation of violence. O'Brien resists the repression of the disturbing “disorder” of the war in Vietnam by revealing the barbarism and carelessness of American power. The display of the battle trophy of a Viet Cong ear as well as the destruction of a peaceful fishing village because of mistaken coordinates for defensive mortar fire are examples which contradict the restraint and concern for others modeled by Captain Johansen's military authority. But the subversive representation of a violence out of ideological bounds is weakened by the memoir's preoccupation with the courage war requires. In formula stories of war, violence provides the primary filter, the test of courage, through which masculine character in a war story may be evaluated. Even though O'Brien redefines that quality as Platonic “wise endurance” (1973, 138), his thematic investment repeats the traditional trope of war as the uniquely desirable setting for the ultimate determination of a young man's mettle.

Although O'Brien writes from the perspective of well-grounded ethical and political objections to the Vietnam war, his challenge is discredited by the effect of the formal realism and the traditional narrative tropes of If I Die in a Combat Zone, which transform his memoir into the conventional account of a young soldier within the military tradition. Written almost two decades later, however, The Things They Carried impels radical ethical critique. Through the revision of the devices of realism and the omission of codes of complicity, this cycle of stories exploits conflicting codes of violence to get at the disparate “truths” about Vietnam which involve the depiction of process rather than action.


The title story of The Things They Carried invokes and revises two key devices of generic war fiction: the structure of dramatic action and the focal representation of the officer. Buried within this narrative is a conventional plot. A platoon of infantrymen from Alpha Company, led by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, is on a mission to destroy Viet Cong “villes” and tunnels. The seventeen men—among them, Ted Lavender, Lee Strunk, Rat Kiley, Henry Dobbins, Mitchell Sanders, Dave Jensen, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and Tim O'Brien, characters who recur throughout the collection—are especially uneasy when they discover a tunnel. Standard operating procedure demands that one of their number, chosen by lot, crawl inside and explore before they blow it up, a maneuver literally dangerous and psychologically unnerving. On the day of the story, Lee Strunk is unlucky enough to have to descend. The others, worried for him and uneasily aware of their own mortality, await his eventual reemergence. Although Strunk returns unscathed, Ted Lavender, the most frightened of the group, is later shot while urinating. A helicopter is summoned to remove his body, and the men respond to his death in a variety of ways: relief, humor, hysterical grief, and the destruction of the nearby village of Than Khe.

This imposed dramatic structure of violation and resolution, which makes violent death and chaotic response comprehensible is not adapted by the story, which is, instead, organized as lists of actual and emotional burdens toted by the soldiers. The things they carry include the accounterments of war, such as steel helmets, which, O'Brien carefully notes, weigh 5 pounds; the particular objects of their military duties, the 23-pound M-60 of the machine gunner or the medic's bag of “morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books … for a total weight of almost 20 pounds” (1990, 6-7); and the heavier load of fear and whatever the men rely on to cope with fear, like Ted Lavender's drugs, Kiowa's bible, and Jimmy Cross's love letters.

In Writing War Hanley contends that modern military narratives are suffused with a “‘secret unacknowledged elation’ at the thought of war, with the conviction that war is exciting,”2 and that this style of representation has promoted war as a desirable societal event (1991, 4). But by presenting violence in terms of burden rather than battle through deliberately non-dramatic structure, by stressing the continuous pressure of war rather than the climactic action of combat through the metaphor of weight to be borne, “The Things They Carried” deflates the excitement of traditional portrayal of the violence of the military adventure, and it deflects the ascription of moral purpose to the violent events of war.

Similarly, this story, which foregrounds the reactions of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, obviates his reception as noble example. Jimmy fights the inexpressible fear the men share by obsessing about a girl he wants to love and substituting the banalities of her letters for the reality of Vietnam. After Lavender's death, Cross digs a foxhole and gives in to uncontrolled weeping. Finally, despite the rain, he burns the letters. Accepting the “blame” for his soldier's death, he resolves to be a leader, not a lover, “determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence” (O'Brien 1990, 24). He imagines himself, henceforth, an officer in the manner of John Wayne: “if anyone quarreled or complained, he would simply tighten his lips and arrange his shoulders in the correct command posture. … He might just shrug and say, Carry on, then they would saddle up and form into a column and move on …” (1990, 25). Like the rest of the men, the lieutenant responds to the random violence in largely unproductive ways. He doesn't set any superior standard because, like the others, he can find no relevant standard to set.

Of course, Lavender's death cannot be explained or contained by Cross's pose of heroic responsibility any more than it can be relieved by the unit's destruction of the “chickens and dogs” and hootches of Than Khe (O'Brien 1990, 16). In “The Things They Carried,” the unplottable violence of the Vietnam experience is structurally contrasted to the assimilable violence of war as popular fiction. In the space between these two opposed representations—experiential disorder, the way the events of war feel to the soldiers in the field, and fictive order, the way popular representations suggest they should respond—emerges the “truth” about Vietnam as a constant process of “humping” or carrying the impossible responsibility of power through a violent landscape.

The proper treatment of this truth, O'Brien suggests, is storytelling. Conditioned as we are to the designations of “fiction” and “non-fiction,” it is easy to imagine that truth and stories are opposite categories. “How to Tell a True War Story,” however, dissolves this relation to allow storytelling to emerge as the pursuit of provisional comprehension. Two scenes of graphic violence organize this effect. The first is the death of a young soldier who steps on a mine during a happy moment; the second is the destruction of a baby water buffalo by his best friend:

1. In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half-step, moving from the shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must've been the intestines. The gore was horrible, and stays with me.

(O'Brien 1990, 89)

2. He stepped back and shot it through the front right knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. It wasn't to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there feeling all sorts of things, but there wasn't a great deal of pity for the water buffalo.

(O'Brien 1990, 86)

The passage continues in this vein. Rat shoots off the tail, then wounds the baby water buffalo in the ribs, the belly, the knee, the nose, and the throat. It is still living when one of the men kicks it, and the group finally dumps it into the village well.

It is impossible to read these two passages without placing them in a causal relationship that induces emotional and political interpretation. The juxtaposition of nature and death is especially shocking. In the first scene the sunlit American boy is wastefully decimated by a hidden explosive device. Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon have just been playing catch with a smoke bomb, turning war, for a few moments of pastoral innocence, into a carefree game.3 But the Vietnamese have, evidently, broken the rules. An invisible enemy, they not only kill Curt, but cruelly dismember him. Although presented as a kind of hero, Curt is reduced to a substance to be peeled off and scraped away. A similar ironic reversal, Curt's “wet” and “yellow” intestines are converted from organs of life to signifiers of death.

The second scene is, apparently, a direct result of the first. Rat chooses a symbol of Vietnamese innocence, the ubiquitous water buffalo, which is an emblem of the culture, not an agent of war, and a “baby” at that, to mimic Curt, who has been cast as the momentary emblem of youthful American guilelessness. The horrific attack on the body of the animal mimics his friend's fragmentation and evisceration. The biblical motto of vengeance, “an eye for an eye …,” is literally enacted in a narrative sequence meant to inscribe the sense of just retribution. Revenge, as David Whillock notes, is a common plot device in film treatments of the Vietnam war which attempt to impose the closure “that was not possible” in actuality (1990, 310). This text, however, will not let the imputed causal attributions stand. At the end of the account of Curt Lemon's death, O'Brien appends a narrative interpolation: “But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts” (1990, 89). Dave's humor, probably a means of self-protection, nevertheless deflects an automatic assignment of blame. Similarly, previous details about some of Curt's playful “pranks” disrupt his reception as an innocent character. In the condoling letter Rat writes to Curt's sister he describes a terrifying incident he thinks of as funny: “On Halloween night, this hot spooky night, the dude paints up his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and hikes over to a ville and goes trick-or-treating almost stark naked, just boots and balls and an M-16” (76).

As a conclusion to the description of Rat's actions, O'Brien condenses the general reaction of the men into another gnomic comment by Jensen: “‘Amazing,’ Dave Jensen kept saying. ‘A new wrinkle. I never seen it before’” (1990, 86). The awful humor of Jensen's song and his appreciative acknowledgement of the peculiar novelty of Rat's performance both undercut the causal efficacy of the sequence, which is, in fact, denied sequentiality by its placement within a fiction organized as an essay on writing the war story. And even while reacting with shock and sadness to the extensive catalogue of assaults on the body parts of the baby water buffalo, a reader may respond with irreverence to the exaggeration of the attenuated murder, an unwilling recognition of the kind of overstatement that signals a gag rather than a tragedy. This subversion of narrative causality is further reinforced as O'Brien alternates accounts of action with lectures on the postmodern tests of a “true war story” “How to Tell …” [“How to Tell a True War Story”] exemplifies: it cannot moralize or generalize, it will probably be obscene and most certainly embarrassing, and it will overturn convictions by muddling oppositional categories of truth and fiction, good and evil, and love and war (77, 84, 89, 90). The effect of the true war story will be to replace certainty with confusion.

As parallel scenes of descriptive violence, the deaths of Curt Lemon and the baby water buffalo are meant to suggest opposed explications of guilt and innocence. But the postmodern sabotage of the codes of reception of these scenes confronts the complexity of moral responsibility, which the conventional war story may evade through the narrative attribution of cause and effect. In “The Things They Carried” Mitchell Sanders contends that the events of that story imply “a definite moral.” When another soldier responds that he cannot extrapolate a meaning—” I don't see no moral,” he insists—Sanders counters, “There it is, man” (O'Brien 1990, 13-14). The contrasting presentations of thematic and formal violence in “How to Tell a True War Story”—evocative description set against subversive representation—substitute ethical uncertainty for the accessible “moral” of traditional story-telling.

O'Brien also gives Mitchell Sanders the last word on the slaughter of the water buffalo: “‘Well that's Nam,’ he said. ‘Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin's fresh and original” (1990, 86). For R. W. B. Lewis the quintessential American story begins with a renovated Adam in the “Garden of Innocence” located in the geographic region he imagines is a “new” world, a mythic assumption O'Brien disputes in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Lewis's Adam is the “hero of a new adventure: an individual emancipated from history … standing alone, self-reliant, and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited” (1966, 5). However, O'Brien's protagonists’ participation in the violence of Vietnam serves to undermine such self-serving illusions of originality, confident self-control, as well as innocence.

For Tobey C. Herzog, in Vietnam Stories: Innocence Lost, the traditional theme of the initiation of a military protagonist into the depravity of war dominates central texts of literature on Vietnam, a premise O'Brien's fiction significantly complicates. The narrative of war, according to Paul Fussell's study The Great War and Modern Memory, proceeds in three mythic stages: 1) “preparation” for war, usually based on inappropriate romanticized models; 2) participation in battle, which is “characterized by disenchantment and loss of innocence”; and 3) the resultant “consideration” of the experience of war (1975, 130). O'Brien's representation of the Vietnam War differs from this pattern, first, in that there is never innocence to be lost. In all three of his accounts—the memoir, his novel Going After Cacciato (1978), and in The Things They Carried—the main character cooperates with the government despite his ethical objections to the Vietnamese conflict because of an inability to face social opprobrium if he does not do so. “It's not a happy ending,” the narrator of “On the Rainy River” confides, “I was a coward, I went to the war” (1990, 63). Secondly, O'Brien departs from Fussell's schema in that the dehumanizing preparation for the war in the boot camp in If I Die is coextensive with, not different from, the war itself; for O'Brien the war in Vietnam is the exaggeration of his nation's basic principles.

Certainly The Things They Carried, like the World War I literature Fussell examined, evaluates the experience of war, but O'Brien's evaluation is less decisive and more inclusive. According to Wayne Miller in stories of the Great War the conclusion emerges that it is the social system, not the soldier, that is blameworthy: in “a world in which traditional political and social values have lost meaning … one seeks one's separate peace” (1970, 102). Although outraged by war, the literary doughboy emerges morally intact. The contemplation of violence in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” however, does not allow the soldier the illusions of separation from a morally deficient culture or abdication of personal responsibility. Postmodern in execution, this story is a compendium of references to other stories, especially those reflecting contemporary ideological assumptions about war. The setting, an encampment containing a small field hospital alongside a tentful of Special Forces soldiers, recalls two popular narratives of the Vietnam period, MsAsSsH and The Green Berets,4 which reflect opposite strategies of assimilation of the violence. The first, a movie and a popular television series still re-running, addressed the need to contain the disturbing reality of death and gore, available to stateside civilians in hitherto unknown quantities via television news. The medics of the MsAsSsH unit, whose charge is to repair the bodies of wounded men from the distant front-lines of the Korean Conflict, spend most of their time in eccentric and playful disengagement from the expectations and red-tape of the military establishment. Not only does the medical narrative repeatedly suggest that the physical damage inflicted by war can be repaired by well-intentioned Americans, it asserts through the zany antics of MsAsSsH characters that even participants in war, like Hemingway heroes, can maintain separate positions of moral integrity.

The second reference is to The Green Berets, the 1967 motion picture concocted by Hollywood and Washington in support of the ongoing war in Vietnam. In this update of John Wayne's previous roles, violence was not evaded but embraced. The American soldiers under Wayne, a Special Forces colonel, fight decisively and heroically for democracy, confident that the South Vietnamese support their intervention and that the North Vietnamese deserve technologically sophisticated extermination, certainties not universal among actual soldiers.5 “Missing from this view,” according to Herzog, “are the difficult moral issues involved with war: the moments of self-revelation on the battlefield; the confessions of fear, brutal instincts, and frustrations; and the questions of personal responsibility for violent actions” (1992, 24).

In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” O'Brien inserts an innocent American girl between these twin idylls of denial and endorsement. Scripting an apocryphal military daydream, O'Brien has one of the young medics transport his seventeen-year-old girlfriend from the States to the war. The point of the story is not just that Mary Anne Bell—“this cute blonde just out of high school” (1990, 102)—loses her innocence, but that her loss speaks to the general ethical confusion of the war in Vietnam.6

According to Rat Kiley, who narrates her story, Mary Anne's transformation typifies that of any participant in the war. She begins her visit filled with dreams and goals dictated by American values: “someday they would be married and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together, and no doubt die in each other's arms and be buried in the same walnut casket. That was the plan” (O'Brien 1990, 106). Soon, however, the young woman begins to change. Her immitigable curiosity leads her into contact with the Vietnamese countryside and the practices and procedures of both the camp's medics and its resident green berets. By the end of the second week she has begun to help treat the wounded and later begins to learn the tricks of the military trade. As a result of her new experience, Mary Anne begins to change: “she fell into the habits of the bush. No cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her hair short and wore it in a green bandanna” (109). More important than the physical modification is the girl's characterological transformation. She doesn't laugh as often, her voice seems to deepen as she talks less but more forcefully, and even her face takes on a “new composure, almost serene, the fuzzy blue eyes narrowing into a tight, intelligent focus” (O'Brien 1990, 109). Mary Anne no longer expresses the same expectations for the future with her lover, whom she leaves in order to participate in the Apocalypse Now-type military exploits of the “Greenies.” Finally, she leaves them, too, crossing “to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill” (125).7

Turning the archetypal tale of a young man's initiation into the male mystery of violence into the story of a young girl on a whimsical visit opens it to fresh interpretation. The first explanation supplied by the narrator, follows Fussell's model of the conversion of innocence to experience: “What happened to her … was what happened to all of them. You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it's never the same” (O'Brien 1990, 123). Thus, in a single stroke, O'Brien demolishes the masculine mystique of the violence of war as the litmus test for manhood. But there are deeper implications. Mary Anne's transformation is the consequence of an appeal that varies among Americans in Vietnam in intensity, but not in kind. She is presumably particularly vulnerable because her circumscribed feminine role as the archetypal American girl-next-door has not allowed her any previous access to “the adrenaline buzz” (109) of the operating theater nor the narcotic “high” of the battlefield: “you become intimate with danger; you're in touch with the far side of yourself,” like “the effect of a powerful drug: that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in” (123). In place of the ideological containment of violence suggested by the MsAsSsH allusion or its sentimental celebration in the John Wayne movie, O'Brien offers an analytic depiction of its appeal that functions, as well, as a powerful critique of normative American values. Besides the rejection of war as masculine ritual, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” posits a kind of falseness of national experience, especially true of feminine socialization, that accounts for the addictive appeal of the existential authenticity encountered in the danger and physical extremes imposed by war. Mary Anne's induction into genuine experience is clearly destructive as well as empowering. That she, or any other American, can only encounter personal potential and visionary “truth” in the national practice of institutionalized death is the story's most disturbing implication. When she accuses her boyfriend of insularity, she expresses a key ethical argument of The Things They Carried: “You hide in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don't know what it's all about” (121). The concept of innocence—presented as the absence of the experience of moral complexity—is rejected as a legitimate basis for morality.

In the war stories of The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien represents violence in terms of opposing narrative possibilities: the unplottable experience contrasting the implicit order of “The Things They Carried,” the narrative sequence and the postmodern dislocation of “How to Tell a True War Story,” the containing and exploiting myths invoked in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” What emerges is not another ameliorating instance of the “loss of innocence”—war imagined as something imposed on soldiers rather than enacted by them (and us)—nor even a clarification of what is right and wrong. The first story introduces the moral burden of war; the second insists on the provisional nature of the process of ethical inquiry; and the third deconstructs the categories through which such judgments are conventionally assigned: guilt and innocence, self and other, male and female. O'Brien's contradictory depictions of violence produce the thematic assertion of the moral confusion imposed by the war, and his manipulations of textual conventions violate the comfortable reception of war modeled by its traditional depiction as a test of courage, a mode of heroism, or an assertion of superiority or virtue. Instead, O'Brien's representational divergence demands the possibly impossible ethical interrogation of the violence of Vietnam.

Like Dave Jensen, the soldier amazed by the originality of experience in Vietnam, critics have been astounded by O'Brien's apparent newness. His narratives of war have been variously labeled as postmodern; magic realism; “faction,” a combination of fact and fiction; even “fictive irrealism.”8 But these metafictive labels stress his stunning epistemological effects at the expense of his troubling ethical achievement. In “The Vietnam in Me,” an essay published in 1994 on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his tour of duty, he emphasizes the disturbing moral legacy of the American war in Vietnam. In addition to revealing the painful symptoms of his own continuing confusion—isolation, nightmares, depression, suicidal impulses—O'Brien expresses his outrage at the massacre at My Lai by soldiers of Charlie Company on March 16, 1968, two years before he served in the same region. But he reserves his severest condemnation for the moral abdication of the US in reaction to such incidents:

I despised everything—the soil, the tunnels, the paddies, the poverty and myself. Each step was an act of the purest self-hatred and self-betrayal, yet, in truth, because truth matters, my sympathies were rarely with the Vietnamese. I was mostly terrified. I was lamenting in advance my own pitiful demise. After firefights, after friends died, there was a great deal of anger—black, fierce, hurting anger—the kind you want to take out on whatever presents itself. This is not to justify what occurred. … Justifications are empty and outrageous. Rather, it's to say that I more or less understand what happened on that day in March 1968, how it happened, the wickedness that soaks into your blood and heats up and starts to sizzle. I know the boil that precedes butchery. At the same time, however, the men in Alpha company [the unit in which O'Brien served] did not commit murder. We did not turn our machine guns on civilians; we did not cross that conspicuous line between rage and homicide. I know what occurred here, yes, but I also feel betrayed by a nation that so widely shrugs off barbarity, by a military justice system that treats murderers and common soldiers as one and the same. Apparently we're all innocent—those who exercise moral restraint and those who do not, officers who control their troops and officers who do not. In a way America has declared itself innocent.

(O'Brien 1994, 53)

It is the absolute necessity of moral evaluation that is the central issue of The Things They Carried. The moral certainty that assigns absolute righteousness to “us” and complete culpability to “them”—the object of the war narrative Scarry describes—is precisely what O'Brien's strategic sabotage of textual certainty in The Things They Carried is meant to forestall. For it is only through the unflinching willingness to evade the consoling simplicity built in to the formulaic war narrative process that genuine responsibility can be attempted. And for O'Brien, author of the war stories in If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato, as well as those of The Things They Carried, it is the telling, the retelling of war stories that leads to the possibility of the scrupulous analysis to which he is committed: “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth,” (1990, 91) which is a truth not just of texture but of accountability.


Because it supports the narrative project of war, the generic story of war is defined by its uncritical manipulation of events of military violence, and the pressure towards simplification and closure imposed by the narrative structure of war is also reflected in influential literary criticism of the Vietnam story. Sandra M. Wittman's Writing About Vietnam: A Bibliography of the Vietnam Conflict (1989) has over 1,700 entries, and they are still coming. Yet despite the unprecedented number of texts, which indicate that the question of Vietnam remains vitally open, some important criticism about Vietnam literature promotes the desirability of the military/narrative project of closure. Although Philip Beidler in his 1982 American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam observes the “manic contradiction” and “bizarre juxtaposition” of key works (1982, 4), he evidently distrusts the validity of the resulting characteristic openness these devices introduce. Lamenting the inconclusiveness of American responses to the experience of Vietnam, he demands: “How, then, might one come up with some form of sensemaking for this thing—this experience already cast in the image of some insane metafiction recreating itself in actual life—and in the process find some reason to believe that the effort might be of some literary or cultural significance?” (10). Like Philip H. Melling, and Owen W. Gilman, Jr., he settles the problem by grounding the literature of the American war in Vietnam in similarities to the Puritan and classic literature of early American imperialism in order to locate a “visionary myth” that fixes “memory” of a “Vietnam more real than reality” (85).9 In fact, Ringnalda describes his Fighting and Writing in Vietnam as “atypical” and “dissenting” largely because of his insistence “that the last thing that America needs to do with the experience in Vietnam is to make sense of it” (1994, ix).10

In the literature of past wars, the simplified “sense” of the war narrative has been resisted through literary deployments of the very sense-making apparatus used for wartime propaganda. Hemingway's concrete prose style deflates the literary pretension of political rhetoric of World War I. World War II, the first war subject to official narration by the publicity industry, is countered through the exploitation of public forms—the extended treatment of a joke, the “Catch 22” of Joseph Heller's title, and the alternative fantasy of science fiction in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.11 These operations are ironic in that one code of meaning contradicts another. Because the second code in each case is the alternative source of a truth denied by the dominant code, the use of irony re-introduces the possibility of the complex expression it is the purpose of war to rescind. But because the second code also functions as a site of authorizing definition, irony has not been adequate to the essential confusion of the Vietnam experience. The Things They Carried resists both the pressure of sensemaking and the implicit source of sense irony promises.

Vietnam, mediated by the visual narrative of TV news, as Beidler notes despairingly, was received by its combatants in the narrative formulas of television melodrama: “cartoons, commercials, cowboys, comedians and caped crusaders … child-world dreams of aggression and escape mixed up with moralistic fantasies …” (1982, 11). This mode of reception conforms to postmodernism, the representational practice, which, according to Peter Brooker's provisional definition, “splices high with low culture,” “raids and parodies past art,” “questions absolutes” and “swamps reality in a culture of recycled images” (1992, 3). The spirit of popularized representation Beidler deplores is actually the basis for the productive postmodern treatments of the Vietnam War by O'Brien.

In “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society” Fredric Jameson designates Vietnam as the “first terrible postmodernist war [that] cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or the war movie,” witnessing “the breakdown of any shared language through which the veteran might convey such experience” (1992, 176). Vietnam is for Jameson a signal instance of the outer limit of contemporary economic deficiency and social incapacity that it is the painful burden of postmodern art to convey.

On the other hand, Cornell West maintains that for black writers who have had to “come to terms with state-sponsored terrorism” postmodernism may serve, not as the emblem of exhaustion of moral resources Jameson describes, but as a source of social redefinition: “acknowledgement of the reality one cannot not know” (1992, 218). For West as for Scarry, violence provides access to power. Within the narrative structure of war that power is deflected to the service of ideological limitation, but its deployment as a literature of violence treated through the oblique filter of postmodern practice may generate ethical redefinition. In the Vietnam literature of O'Brien the referential sphere of culture is juxtaposed to the experiential sphere of the suffering and death imposed by war. What emerges from the gap between them is indeed “truth,” not the reflection of reality but an invitation to engage in the effort of revision.


  1. In Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (1979) Green posits that the representation of the feudal British warrior class was modernized in the imperial eras of expansion dominated by merchant classes as the expression of gentlemanly bearing, an ideological middle ground which combined the noble status of inherited privilege with the aspirations of the bourgeoisie at the same time as it obscured military force as the basis of economic colonization.

  2. The quotation Hanley cites comes from Doris Lessing's Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1987), in which Lessing argues for the open acknowledgement of the pleasurable excitement with which many people respond to the activities of war.

  3. Fussell notes the constant trope of the game in World War I. Not only did writers compare battles to football, regiments were encouraged into battle by leaders who supplied balls to kick into enemy territory. “Modern mass wars,” he explains, “require in their early stages a definitive work of popular literature demonstrating how much wholesome fun is to be had at the training camp” (1975, 18). O'Brien's invocation of this war-as-the-play-of-boys metaphor reverses the assumptions that war, like games, is bound by rules, that winning is what is important, and that the uncomplicated companionship of young males is an important result of military experience.

  4. Both of these popular films were adapted from fiction: Robin Moore's best-selling The Green Berets (1966) and Richard Hooker's MASH (1968).

  5. John Wayne's iconic significance in the promotion of male military adventure is widely noted. See Miedzian (1991, 147-48) Gerzon (1992, 30-35).

  6. Herzog argues that the moral ambiguity of the American experience of Vietnam resulted from the special circumstances of the war (1992, 51-59). The isolation of individual soldiers created by the practice of separate assignments to military units, limited tours of duty, and rapid transitions from military to civilian life caused many problems. The every-man-for-himself arrivals and departures to and from field units made difficult adjustments the problem of separate individuals rather than obstacles shared with a supportive group, and the limited tours may have encouraged an emphasis on individual survival at the expense of other goals. Widespread American opposition to the war also contributed to a sense of ethical uncertainty, and the dispersion of the enemy throughout the whole country made observable geographical progress impossible. Similarly, since it was frequently difficult to distinguish between friend and foe in field maneuvers, it was often hard to define what was procedurally correct in many circumstances. The measurement of success in body counts, fired by media coverage and political pressures on commanders, was particularly pernicious. An emphasis on score-board numbers, Herzog argues, “led to inflated claims and, at times, American soldiers' callous disregard for civilian lives” (53). The media image of the crazed and bloodthirsty American soldier may have contributed to its occasional reality, as did the general availability of drugs and alcohol.

  7. Jacqueline Rose's argument in the title essay of Why War? is that war, the paradoxical attempt to arrive at epistemological certainty, is inevitably uncertain. “Death” she explains, “forces us to acknowledge that what belongs to us most intimately is also a stranger or enemy, a type of foreign body in the mind” (1993, 19). Mary Anne's conversion seems to literally enact this confrontation of radical unfamiliarity.

  8. See Slabey (1990, 205-10), Calloway (1990, 213), and Smith (1990, 96). Don Ringnalda provides a comprehensive discussion of O'Brien's metafictional practice in chapter five of Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War (1994).

  9. In Vietnam in American Literature, Melling argues that the “key” to understanding Vietnam is pursuing historical continuity in order to “avoid the dead end of absurdity and the postmodern faith of a surrender to fragments” (1990, xiii, 16). Gilman in “Vietnam and John Winthrop's Vision of Community” urges Americans to discover in the experience of Vietnam something like the affirming “ideal” which “vitalized” the Puritans (1991, 139).

  10. Similarly, Kai Tal rebukes four traditional critics for their attempted “total reduction of the war to a metaphor” (1991, 223), comforting in its conformity to previous mythic and historical ideology.

  11. Citing Catch-22, Fussell comments that irony is the “one dominating form of modern understanding” (1975, 34-35). In Wartime: Understanding Behavior in the Second World War, Fussell describes these two texts as primary examples of a literature dependent on a thematics of “blunders” (1989, 31), the ironic exploitation of the distance between right and wrong.

Works Cited

Bersani, Leo. 1992. “Realism and the Fear of Desire.” In Chapter 2 of A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature. 1976. Reprint. New York: Longman.

Beidler, Philip. 1982. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Brooker, Peter. 1992. “Introduction: Reconstructions.” In Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. Peter Brooker. New York: Longman.

Calloway Catherine. 1990. “Pluralities of Vision: Going after Cacciato and Tim O'Brien's Short Fiction.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland.

Fussell, Paul. 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1989. Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. New York: Oxford.

Gerzan, Mark. 1992. A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Face of American Manhood. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Gilman, Owen W., Jr. 1991. “Vietnam and John Winthrop's Vision of Community.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, ed. Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Green, Martin. 1979. Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire. New York: Basic Books.

Hanley, Lynne. 1991. Writing War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Hansen, J. T. 1990. “Vocabularies of Experience.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland.

Herzog, Tobey C. 1992. Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost. New York: Routledge.

Hooker, Richard. 1968. MASH. New York: William Morrow.

Jameson, Fredric. 1992. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” In Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. Peter Brooker. New York: Longman.

Lewis, R. W. B. 1966. The American Adam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Melling, Philip H. 1990. Vietnam in American Literature. Boston: Twayne.

Myriam Miedzian's Boys Will Be Boys: The Link Between Masculinity and Violence New York: Dougleday.

Miller, Wayne Charles. 1970. An Armed America: A History of the Military Novel. New York: New York University Press.

Moore, Robin. 1966. The Green Berets. New York: Avon.

O'Brien, Tim. 1994. “The Vietnam in Me.” The New York Times Magazine. 2 October, 48-57.

———. 1978. Going After Cacciato. New York: Dell Publishing.

———. 1973. If I Die in a Combat Zone. New York: Dell Publishing.

———. 1990. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin.

Ringnalda, Donald. 1994. Fighting and Writing in Vietnam. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

———. 1990. “Unlearning to Remember Vietnam.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland.

Rose, Jacqueline. 1993. Why War? Cambridge: Blackwell.

Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Slabey, Robert M. 1990. Going After Cacciato: Tim O'Brien'sSeparate Peace.America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland.

Smith, Lorrie. 1990. “Disarming the War Story.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland.

Tal, Kai. 1991. “Speaking the Language of Pain: Vietnam War Literature in the Context of a Literature of Trauma.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, ed. Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

West, Cornell. 1992. “An Interview with Cornell West.” In Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. Peter Brooker. New York: Longman.

Whillock, David Everett. 1990. “The Fictive American Vietnam War Film: A Filmography.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, ed. Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland.

Wittman, Sandra M. 1989. Writing About Vietnam: A Bibliography of the Literature of the Vietnam Conflict. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Additional coverage of O'Brien's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 16; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 40, 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 19, 40, 103; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Module: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 15.


Essays and Criticism