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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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The Things They Carried Analysis

  • Originally, Vietnam War veteran O'Brien did not intend to devote his career to writing about the war, but after the success of The Things They Carried O'Brien found that the material had an inexorable pull on him.
  • O’Brien writes in both the first- and third-person perspectives throughout the collection. Because of this, the reader views the war in a broad sense but also through the experiences of individuals. 
  • O’Brien demonstrates his literary versatility by varying his language. Some chapters include slang and jargon, and others are more lyrical in nature.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

The style of O’Brien’s book is often described as journalistic. His integration of military jargon and observational details certainly supports this claim—but there is much more to the text.

O’Brien’s vignette-like chapters alternate perspectives from the third person to the first person, giving the reader a glimpse—both detached and personal—at the wartime events of the book. Each chapter has a different thematic significance, and many of them contain repetitions of facts or events discussed previously. The circular, repetitive organization of the book underscores O’Brien’s desire for verisimilitude and authentic truth.

The language of the text also varies. For instance, the first chapter juxtaposes lists of practical objects and colorful slang. Other chapters favor a more lyrical style. Over the course of the book, the reader receives a comprehensive picture of O’Brien’s literary talent.

In addition to these stylistic variations, O’Brien includes various symbols throughout the story. One of these is the baby water buffalo from “How to Tell a True War Story.” In this story, Rat Kiley, in despair over the recent death of Lemon, at first shows affection toward the young animal. However, after the calf refuses to eat some of Kiley’s food rations, Kiley reflexively begins shooting it over and over in various non-fatal areas until he has utterly mutilated its body. The men are stunned into awe after witnessing this; one even remarks that sins are “real fresh and original” in Vietnam. O’Brien, however, views the buffalo’s death more sympathetically, understanding that its demise was an expression of Kiley’s anguish. The mixed reactions to the buffalo suggest that it represents the sublime aspect of war. Depending on the spectator, war can be both beautiful and horrifying, peaceful and violent, melancholy and angry. The graphic descriptions of the buffalo and the confounded feelings of the men who witness its death combine to reflect the experience of the sublime.


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Last Updated on March 2, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2462

Early in The Things They Carried—Tim O’Brien’s third book about American soldiers in Vietnam, and his fifth overall—early, that is in all the shuffling back and forth between past and present, between Quang Ngai Province in 1968 and the time of the telling in 1990, ten- year-old Kathleen asks her forty-three-year-old father, “Tim O’Brien,” why he continues to write war stories. She wants to know why he is so “obsessed.” The cynical reader—and many American readers are cynical in the aftermath of American involvement in Vietnam—may believe that he or she already knows the answer. Following the critical success of Going After Cacciato (1978), winner of the National Book Award, O’Brien had claimed that he was not a writer of Vietnam War fiction. After his second non-Vietnam novel, The Nuclear Age (1985), was panned by reviewers and he saw the popular interest in the war increase with each new commercial film and television series, however, that is exactly what he became. The same cynical reader may find the author’s record of a visit paid by a former lieutenant—one of the recurring characters in The Things They Carried and also one of the members of Alpha Company singled out in the book’s dedication—as well as the printing of a letter from another character, Norman Bowker, not so much sincere as self-serving.

The cynical reader would be wrong. The Things They Carried is not self-serving; it is self-examining in ways and to the extent that no work on the same subject has been. The praise and prizes bestowed on Going After Cacciato  notwithstanding, O’Brien’s latest book may well be his best. Neither polemical nor sentimental...

(This entire section contains 2462 words.)

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(the twin pitfalls of films and fiction about what has come to be known synecdochically and rather imperialistically as “Vietnam”), it is a brilliantly and disturbingly obsessive work whose actual subject is not the war but the difficulty of writing about it. “Things happened, things came to an end. There was no sense of developing drama. All that remained was debris” and “all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth,” O’Brien reports in If! Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), a book whose structure is as fragmentary and discontinuous as its genre is uncertain (fiction or memoir). The discontinuity of the war experience and of the narrative situation increases in Going After Cacciato, as Paul Berlin’s memory and imagination spin separately on, the one chronologically jumbled, the other chronologically and geographically straightforward. Neither work, however, quite prepares the reader for the displacements of The Things They Carried; the “simple, unprofound scraps of truth” now seem less apparent and the “debris” more pervasive, reaching beyond the characters, the men of Alpha Company, to include the narrator-writer and the reader as well.

In Anything Can Happen, a book of interviews edited by Tom Le Clair and Larry McCaffery (1983), O’Brien explained that “the true core of fiction” is “the exploration of substantive, important human values.” Yet when the narrator returns to Vietnam to affirm one of them by stripping off his clothes, immersing himself in the foul waters of a rice paddy/village latrine, and placing Kiowa’s hatchet-talisman at what he hopes is the very spot where his friend died, neither of the two people who witness his strangely sacramental act of remembrance seems able to approve of or even understand what he has done. His daughter is incredulous, and the old Vietnamese farmer who stands some distance away appears to be angry. The isolation and uncertainty evident in this scene typify the entire book; they extend out into every narrative action and every act of narration and, therefore, into the reader’s experience of both. The first of the book’s nineteen chapters (if it is a novel) or stories (if it is a collection) or, simply, parts (if it is something generically “other”) is made in the image of the larger text (or perhaps vice versa). Either origin or offspring, The Things They Carried takes the form of a list struggling to become a litany, a secular enumeration yearning for wholeness and spiritual redemption. Artfully contrived yet following no clearly discernible pattern, it catalogs the “things” the men of Alpha Company carried, everything from flak jackets to fear; above all they carried the knowledge “that they would never be at a loss for things to carry and the opposing dream of “lightness,” of being “purely borne” (a punning condensation of their twin desires of being carried and being reborn).

Like O’Brien’s act of remembrance, the dream stands apart. Instead of either fulfillment or even a “sense of developing drama,” the reader finds what the characters do, chapters/stories/parts oscillating back and forth in time and space. The repetition of information from one section to another creates a sense of stalled action and Sisyphean doom or, more optimistically, the need to go over the same ground again and again in the faint hope of finding the missing link that will allow the action to develop dramatically, to imagine a different end. Lacking this sense of developing drama, individual stories tend to dissolve, leaving the reader with an apparently random collection of individual images: Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon playing catch with a smoke grenade, until the latter steps on a booby- trapped artillery round; or Azar detonating the Claymore mine to which he had strapped a puppy and then responding to the others’ horror with a line that rings all too true: “I’m just a boy.” There is Norman Bowker, mustered out and back home, driving around and around a lake, the village they burn because Ted Lavender has been shot, the dancing of the fourteen-year-old girl whose entire family has been killed in an air attack, and the triple-canopied jungle, mist-filled and ominously silent. The starkness of these and other images parallels the simple fact that as the stories progress and the number of casualties increases, the sense of causality declines.

As O’Brien wrote in If! Die in a Combat Zone, “things happen,” and even in the narratively more complex Going After Cacciato, the reader can take a certain comfort in being able to distinguish recollections from imaginings. In The Things They Carried, the very nature of these things, their ontological status as well as their ethical value and thematic meaning, are in doubt, strangely so given O’Brien’s choice of epigraph, a passage from John L. Ransom’s Andersonville Diary (1881):

This book is essentially different from any other that has been published conceming the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.

The passage makes plain what most readers of war fiction assume: that such fiction is not only essentially realistic, and referential, but that it is as well autobiographically revealing, whether the text be Leo Tolstoy’s realistic Sebastopol (1887), Stephen Crane’s impressionist The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Ernest Hemingway’s modernist A Farewell to Arms (1929), Norman Mailer’s epic The Naked and the Dead (1948), or Joseph Heller’s absurdist Catch-22 (1961). While it was possible forAndersonville Diary to claim to be different from other books about the Civil War by virtue of its greater truthfulness, meaning its factual accuracy and historical verifiability, however, The Things They Carrieddiffers from other books about Vietnam by laying claim to a very different “greater truthfulness” by insisting upon its status as fiction, O’Brien problematizes the connection between word and world and, indeed connections of all kinds. Both essay and fiction, “How to Tell a War Story” insists: “This is true,” and another generically ambiguous chapter, “Good Form,” begins:

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. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief I blamed myself And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

Teasingly ambiguous and indeterminate, the words “almost everything” transform this war fiction into a Borgesian garden of forking paths, a funhouse of distorting mirrors. It is a rather odd narrative turn for a writer who has spoken against experimental writing—odd but nevertheless appropriate to his aim of distinguishing between “happening-truth” and “story- truth” and forcing the reader to carry a measure of that burden of uncertainty and self-doubt which the men of Alpha Company had to carry and, in these pages, continue to carry.

It is also unsettling to find a writer who has dismissed films such asApocalypse Now (1979) as “Simplistic and stupid” and “garishly overdrawn rhetorical statements” now writing his own equally fantastic version of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (1902). One of the collection’s longest stories, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” is also one of its most effective and, in its premise, certainly the most ludicrous: a soldier at a remote medical station smuggles in his girlfriend from Cleveland Heights. Mary Anne Bell is seventeen, pretty, and innocent, but also vulnerable, drawn to the seductiveness not of sex but of the violence within. She goes on ambush with six Green Berets, is later seen wearing a necklace of human tongues, and eventually disappears into the jungle, another Colonel Kurtz: “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.” The ending is frightening but also strangely, melodramatically comic, and trying to gauge the story’s authentic register is difficult, perhaps impossible. Is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” a retelling of Heart of Darkness or a parody of Apocalypse Now?Is it even about Mary Anne and all she represents (America’s loss of innocence in Vietnam, for example) or, even more than in Conrad or Francis Ford Coppola’s film, is it about its own telling? “O’Brien” narrates the story through Rat Kiley, who claims to have been a witness to all but the end, which he learned (as a story) from still another narrator. This narrator also claims to have been a witness, but learned of Mary Anne’s final fate (the lines quoted above) from the Green Berets, whose own. version depends as much on imagination as it does on observation.

The strangeness does not end there:

Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit, Mitchell Sanders said, because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. That just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic. What you have to do, Sanders said, is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself

But Rat Kiley couldn’t help it. He wanted to bracket the full range of meaning.

Curiously, it is precisely this kind of commentary which O’Brien deleted from If I Die in a Combat Zone for its republication in 1979 and that he has said he will remove from Northern Lights (1975) should it ever be reissued. In The Things They Carried, this and similar passages seem at once intrusive and integral. Even as they serve “to bracket the full range of meaning,” the commentaries fail to satisfy; they are explanations which do not explain. They do not so much “bracket” (explore and clarify) meaning as defer it.

This deferral process becomes especially apparent in the sequence of five sections beginning with “Speaking of Courage,” whose main character, Norman Bowker, is representative of all the members of Alpha Company in his need to speak and thus to share his burden of guilt and uncertainty. Back home, however, his girlfriend is married, his best friend has drowned, and his father has withdrawn into the world of televised baseball. The only person interested in listening to him is the voice which comes over the intercom at the local A & W drive-in restaurant. Embarrassed, Norman leaves, spending the rest of his ironic Fourth of July driving around and around the lake, telling himself what he would have said to his father, had his father been willing to listen. “Notes” immediately follows, adding a number of biographical details, including his letter to O’Brien and news of his suicide. The suicide in a sense completes, or “brackets,” the previous story, which in turn explains Norman’s suicide. “Notes” ends, however, with O’Brien claiming that it was he, not Norman, who watched as Kiowa died. “Good Form” puts this autobiographical disclosure in question, as well as the events depicted in the sections which immediately precede (“In the Field”) and follow it (“Field Trip”). The reader must proceed—as the narrator-writer does and as the men of Alpha Company did—without the consolation that Hemingway believed his writing could provide in an earlier age of disillusionment, that of “getting things right.”

The Things They Carried does not offer the quick fix provided by the Vietnam War Memorial; it offers, instead, the most thorough examination yet to appear of the failure not simply to understand but even to find an appropriate means for depicting what has been insufficiently described as the American experience in Vietnam—that burden of guilt, confusion, and silence carried then, carried still.

Sources for Further Study

Bookust. LXXXVI, March 15, 1990, p.1395.

Chicago Thibune. March 11, 1990, XIV, p.5.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 1, 1990, p. 132.

Libraty Journal. CXV, February 15, 1990, p.212.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 1, 1990, p.3.

New Statesman and Society. III, May 18, 1990, p.38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p.8.

The New Yorker. LXVI, June 4, 1990, p.102.

Newsweek. CXV, April 2, 1990, p.57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 26, 1990, p.404.

Time. CXXXV, March 19, 1990, p.84.

The Wall Street Journal. March 23, 1990, p. A13.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

This story is not told in chronological sequence. Rather, the random observation of one character after another alternates with a deliberate litany of weights and masses, the things they carry. Tim O’Brien’s style here is fragmentary, close at times to pure stream of consciousness. His language is largely flat and understated, except where it is salted with slang, military jargon, and obscene black humor. The men’s conversations are brief, punctuated by dashes rather than quotation marks, so that their spoken words are not easily distinguished from narrative.

Lavender’s death is announced matter-of-factly in the second paragraph. Again and again the story returns to this event, each time revealing a little more detail, a new perspective, almost as if in a dream. The story spirals away from, circles around, focuses momentarily on this death.

The style is the story—a plodding, monotonous narrative punctuated by brief flashes of action. The catalog of objects carried, the accumulating weight of things, extends in steady, numbing procession. Gradually the repetition of weights and measures acquires meaning. This is what their lives have become, step after step, ounce after ounce.

Even the names seem symbolic. Jimmy, a boy’s name, is paired with a man’s title, lieutenant; these two qualities meet or cross in the protagonist. The boy inside the man’s body is forced to become an adult and shoulder the burdens of an adult. Kiowa is also one in whom past and present views of race, war, and religion collide. His Indian grandmother remained an enemy of white people during her lifetime, yet his father now teaches Baptist Sunday school in Oklahoma City. Although Kiowa still carries his moccasins and an ancestral hatchet, he also carries boots and modern weapons. Finally, the delicacy of lavender, both scent and hue, suggests Lavender, the fragile youth who cannot bear to meet war face to face, and who quite literally loses his mind when he is shot in the head.

O’Brien’s story is heavy with irony. Lavender, weighted down by extra ammunition and sheer panic, is the only American to die. Jimmy Cross leaves behind his love for Martha, choosing instead to bear responsibility and guilt for a death that could not have been foreseen. The story’s emphasis on their innocence and vulnerability, coupled with the repeated date of Lavender’s death, suggests poet T. S. Eliot’s opening lines from The Waste Land (1922):

April is the cruellest month, breedingLilacs out of the dead land, mixingMemory and desire, stirringDull roots with spring rain.

In this cruel month, in this cruel war, all these young men carry in their hands and on their backs their damaged, terrified, desperate lives.

Historical Context

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The War in Vietnam Historians often refer to the Vietnam War as America's longest war because it can be dated from President Harry Truman's commitment of $15 million to aid the French forces in Indochina in 1950 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The reasons the U.S. became involved in Vietnam are complex. Briefly, American policy makers beginning with the Truman administration believed that the spread of Chinese Communism in Southeast Asia threatened the world balance of power as construed by the cold war. The socalled ''domino theory'' held that the entire region would "fall" to communism if the U.S. did not support South Vietnam against incursions from the north.

For several years the U.S. aided the south Vietnamese with technology, material, and military advisors. Intensive American involvement in Vietnam began in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson sent U.S. Marines to defend Danang airfield. More than 15,000 American military advisors were already in Vietnam. By the beginning of 1968, there were nearly a half million American troops in Vietnam, and bombing raids were heavy and frequent. Communist troops altered the course of the war early in 1968 when they launched a series of attacks on the eve of Tet, the Asian New Year holidays. Americans knew then that victory would come neither soon nor easily.

The years 1969-70, when ‘‘The Things They Carried'' is set, mark the phase of the war called "Vietnamization." In 1969, President Nixon began secretly bombing Cambodia, a strategy that inflamed antiwar protesters in the United States. American troops were steadily withdrawn while heavy bombing continued. Frustrations with the war escalated both at home and among the troops themselves. Though it was not revealed until a year later, in March of 1968 American troops burned the village of Mylai to the ground and killed ''everything that breathed.’’ In the words of journalist and author Stanley Karnow: ''In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war that nobody won—a struggle between victims. Its origins complex, its lessons disputed, its legacy still to be assessed by future generations. But whether a valid venture or a misguided endeavor, it was a tragedy of epic dimensions.’’

The War at Home The years 1968 and 1970 were especially turbulent on the domestic front. As opposition to the war grew, protests became larger and more highly charged. In response to the threat of violence, authorities increased police presence on college campuses and at demonstrations. Within two months in the spring of 1968, both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. There were riots and arrests outside the Democratic convention in Chicago. Television viewers watched as heavy-handed police and national guardsmen beat and tear-gassed protesters.

Early in 1969, Nixon began withdrawing troops but also began secretly bombing Cambodia. Massive anti-war demonstrations took place in Washington in October and November. Also in November, Americans were shocked by the revelation of the massacre at Mylai. By 1970 the antiwar movement had spread cross the country and clashes between protesters and law enforcement were more frequent and highly-charged. In May, national guardsmen killed four students protesting the war at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

By 1970, as Stanley Karnow explains, resistance to the war at home began to affect the troops in the field. ‘‘Antiwar protests at home had by now spread to the men in the field, many of whom wore peace symbols and refused to go into combat. Race relations, which were good when blacks and whites had earlier shared a sense of purpose, became increasingly brittle.’’ Similarly, the image of the American GI began to suffer in the eye of the American public as more tales of brutality and drug use emerged from the battlefield

Aided to a great extent by the erection of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and a greater public understanding of the causes and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the image of the Vietnam veteran has improved in the past twenty years. In the 1970s, however, returning soldiers faced unprecedented difficulties reintegrating into their communities and families. Veteran John Kerry, later elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, recalls his own experience on a cross country flight: ''I fell asleep and woke up yelling, probably a nightmare. The other passengers moved away from me—a reaction I noticed more and more in the months ahead. The country didn't give a shit about the guys coming back, or what they'd gone through. The feeling toward them was 'Stay away—don't contaminate us with whatever you've brought back from Vietnam.'’’

Literary Style

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Point of View and Narration The identity of the narrator in all the stories in The Things They Carried is of interest to critics and readers. In the title story, the narrator is unidentified, but in other stories he is a ''fictional character named Tim O'Brien,’’ explains the author, Tim O'Brien. The third-person narrator in ‘‘The Things They Carried'' is unnamed, but since the stories are interrelated, he may be the fictional Tim O'Brien. The narrator's job in this story is to describe the soldiers and the things that happen to them in the Quang Ngai province, particularly on and around the day that Ted Lavender dies. The narrator is technically omniscient, or all-knowing, since he is privy to the interior thoughts and feelings of the characters, especially Lt. Jimmy Cross. But O'Brien's narrator also behaves like a limited third-person narrator in that he only reveals partial, fragmented, or incomplete information about the characters and events of the story.

Realism One of the stylistic features of O'Brien's story is its precise rendering of the physical realities of war. This style falls under the general literary category known as realism, one of the most elastic terms critics have to work with. The term applies both to the method of accurately describing the details of ordinary life as well as a general attitude, or philosophy, that favors confronting the realities of life instead of escaping or idealizing them. An example of realism in both senses is the way O'Brien portrays Ted Lavender's death. He includes considerable and precise detail (how much and what he was carrying, and that he had not even zipped up his pants, for example). O'Brien also goes to great lengths to characterize Lavender's death as a random and stupid accident, not as a heroic act.

Because realism is such a large term, it includes several varieties. The two variants of realism most often associated with O'Brien's work are hyper-realism and magic realism. The story can be considered hyper-realism because O'Brien draws attention to the minutiae of the soldiers' lives in Vietnam, lingering over details smaller than an ordinary observer could perceive. The story also contains elements of magic realism. Magic realism is a kind of modern fiction that weaves fantastic or imaginary elements into a narrative that otherwise has all the features of an objective realistic account.

Literary Techniques

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The theme of illusion versus reality continues in the technique of the story itself. Throughout the story, the reader is led through a series of dreamlike musings by Lieutenant Cross, passing seamlessly from the endless hump through Vietnam to visions of kissing Martha and touching her knee. Then, when Lee Strunk disappears into the tunnel to investigate a VC hiding place, images of Martha and Cross making love cause two worlds to merge and then separate, just as Martha imagines as she finds the pebble she eventually sends to Cross. This technique, labeled by some as magic realism, aids readers in their suspension of belief, allowing them to relate more to the confusion of the soldiers themselves.

Another technique O'Brien uses to confer the sense of banality and endless sameness is by repeating, in excruciating detail, all of the objects that the soldiers must carry. O'Brien does not distinguish between important and seemingly insignificant items. Items of great importance to the American spirit are intermixed with things of no importance whatsoever: "they carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct." This technique reduces the reader to the level of the solder, who no longer takes any particular pride or pleasure in great things or small. To him, all things are burdens, varying only in their relative weight on his soul.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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1. To what extent might it be argued that Tim O'Brien's works are largely autobiographical?

2. What significance can be seen in Martha's picture and in the pebble she sends? How might it be argued that these items are different from the other things the soldiers carry?

3. Regarding the soldiers' frame of mind, what conclusions can you draw based on the soldiers' reactions to Ted Lavender's death?

4. Do you feel that the soldiers in The Things They Carried are heroes? What do you consider heroic? Does your reading of this story change your definition? How might it be argued that the story works toward redefining readers' sense of what constitutes heroic action?

Social Concerns

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"The Things They Carried" is set in wartime Vietnam, yet the main thrust of the story is that of an inner, moral void that occurs within each soldier and is reflective of an American misperception of war and morality. The classic myth of war and the American soldier creates a grand struggle of morality amid personal spiritual growth. War, while brutal, is made less so by the brave soldier who undergoes a metamorphosis triggered by the morality of the cause. Yet in "The Things They Carried", the myth of war is replaced by the reality of a pointless endeavor in which the American soldier is inexplicably caught. The soldiers are not described so much in and of themselves as they are in terms of the enormous burdens they carry—both physical and emotional. There are the typical necessities such as "P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, [and] dog tags. . . ." Each of which has empirical weight. Yet in addition to these items, there are emotional or psychological burdens, such as Jimmy Cross' unrequited love for Martha or Ted Lavender's fear.

One of the most notable symbolic items is carried by Norman Bowker: a thumb that is cut from a VC corpse and given to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb, more than anything else, is reflective of the moral vacuum in which the soldiers are caught. When Mitchell Sanders finds the VC corpse, he indicates that there is a moral to this boy's death. Yet when Henry Dobbins asks what the moral is, Sanders appears to have no answer. Finally, after Sanders cuts off the VC corpse's thumb, even Dobbins admits that he does not see any moral to it either. "There it is man" Sanders' replies, indicating that the lack of morality is itself the moral.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: All young men are required to register for the selective service and face being drafted into the armed forces to serve in Vietnam. While some young men of wealth and privilege escape the draft by enrolling in college, other objectors who are less fortunate flee to Canada to avoid service, or openly defy the draft and face criminal charges. Former heavy weight champion Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, is among those conscientious objectors who choose jail over military service.

1990s: Though all young men are still required to register with the selective service when they turn eighteen, the United States armed forces have been strictly voluntary since Nixon ended the draft in 1972.

1960s: With the Cold War at its peak, America's foreign policy is aimed at stopping the spread of communism in every far-flung corner of the world. Military and political leaders use the domino theory to justify the enormous financial and human costs of involvement in Vietnam.

1990s: With the Cold War finally thawed and the break-up of the once formidable communist foe, the Soviet Union, American citizens and their leaders are more reluctant to become involved in foreign wars in developing nations.

1960s: Beyond the exotic sounding names they read about in newspapers or see on television, Americans know nothing of Vietnamese culture. Even major U.S. cities have few if any Vietnamese restaurants.

1990s: Due to the influx of the so-called ''boat people’’ in the 1970s, and the constant stream of immigration since, Vietnamese culture has made a permanent impact on America.

Literary Precedents

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Tim O'Brien's work has largely been compared to that of Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey. While providing both stylistic and thematic differences, O'Brien's work resonates with Homer's epics in its melding of fiction and fantasy. Yet while Homer's work eulogizes the valor of the soldier, O'Brien provides a different view of the American soldier, in which typical myths of valor and perseverance towards a single goal are replaced with the endless hump. The Iliad and The Odyssey portray war as a journey of personal growth, in which each encounter provides the hero with another challenge and another opportunity for growth. The Homeric epics also, by contrast, present gods and demi-gods engaged in a conflict which is presented as the historical proof of the ancient Greeks' nobility.

Many challenges have an almost dreamlike quality about them and provide a platform for personal growth and change. In contrast, O'Brien's endless hump portrays war as dull, meaningless, and tiresome, in which insignificant items are indistinguishable from significant ones and where there is no growth or change. While O'Brien's world shares a Homeric dreamlike quality, there is no meaning behind each encounter. O'Brien writes:

their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological. 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, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same.


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There are few adaptations of Tim O'Brien's work. One such adaptation, A Soldier's Sweetheart (1998), a movie starring Kiefer Sutherland, is about an army medic who brings his girlfriend to a military outpost. When his girlfriend disappears, the medic must find her. In the Lake of the Woods has also been made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame Production.

Media Adaptations

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The Things They Carried was recorded in an abridged version with music added in 1991. It is narrated by Anthony Heald and is available from Harper Audio.


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Sources for Further Study

Bookust. LXXXVI, March 15, 1990, p.1395.

Chicago Thibune. March 11, 1990, XIV, p.5.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 1, 1990, p. 132.

Libraty Journal. CXV, February 15, 1990, p.212.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 1, 1990, p.3.

New Statesman and Society. III, May 18, 1990, p.38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p.8.

The New Yorker. LXVI, June 4, 1990, p.102.

Newsweek. CXV, April 2, 1990, p.57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, January 26, 1990, p.404.

Time. CXXXV, March 19, 1990, p.84.

The Wall Street Journal. March 23, 1990, p. A13.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bonn, Maria S., ''Can Stories Save Us? Tim O'Brien and the Efficacy of the Text,’’ in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 36, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 2-14.

Coffey, Michael, An Interview with Tim O'Brien in Publishers Weekly, February 16, 1990.

Harris, Robert R., ''Too Embarrassed Not to Kill: A review of The Things They Carried,'' in New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, p. 8.

Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History, New York: Viking Press, 1983.

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

O'Brien, Tim, ‘‘The Vietnam in Me,’’ in New York Times Magazine, October 2, 1994, p. 48.

Weber, Bruce, ''A Novelist Wrestles With War and Love,’’ in New York Times, September 2, 1998.

Further Reading Herring, George, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975, 2nd edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. This brief but comprehensive book is divided into clear sections that can be read separately and contains an extensive and invaluable bibliographic essay.

Lee, Don,A Profile of Tim O'Brien in Ploughshares, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1995, p. 196. A useful overview of O'Brien's career. Includes biographical information.