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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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What happened to the six-man patrol at the listening post in Chapter 7 of The Things They Carried?

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It is impossible to determine what really happened to the six-man patrol in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, but there are several possible explanations for the music the men hear in the mountains.

One possibility is that the men are hallucinating. They probably do hear sounds in the mountains and believe the sounds are music. It is possible that they are subconsciously experiencing the natural sounds as music as their minds seek to find patterns in the random echoes in the mountains. Mitchell Sanders, the soldier who tells the story, says the men have been silent, waiting, and listening for days. After all this time, they certainly want to hear something. Yet why would all the men experience the same hallucination?

As Mitchell Sanders tells the story, it seems possible at first that the sound could be real. It could come from a nearby village or outpost, and the unusual combination of fog and rocks could be transporting the sound from a great distance. After the men call in the air strike and blast the mountain away, yet they still hear the sounds. If the sound had been real, it seems likely that the destruction of the mountain would have destroyed it as well.

Neither of these explanations fully account for the sounds heard by the six-man patrol, but there is a clue in the chapter’s title: "How to Tell a True War Story.” One of the concerns O’Brien explores in this chapter and others is how to express the truth about war to those who have not experienced it. It is likely that the six-man patrol story did not happen at all; instead, the story is a way to allow the listener to experience the fear and isolation felt by soldiers. O'Brien writes,

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can't believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside. It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

Perhaps Mitchell Sanders is simply telling a story about fear, but to make “the stomach believe," he invents the six-man patrol story. If that is the case, then the men do not hear anything at the listening post because they themselves are merely characters in a war story.

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In Chapter 7 "How to Tell a True War Story," Mitchell Sanders tells O'Brien about a six-man patrol that was sent into the mountains to listen for enemy activity.  When the men get to the listening post, they remain absolutely silent for an entire week.  Then, Sanders says that the men start to hear music coming from the mountains even though no one is there.  Then they hear voices like a cocktail party is happening.  The men originally hesitate to call in the music, but then they cannot take the sounds and radio in for firepower.  The army blows up the mountain, but afterwards, the men claim that they can still hear the party.  They leave the listening post and are confronted by their superior officer.  The men only have silence for the officer, and Sanders says that in their stare is the story of the entire war.  I think that the men hallucinated the music and the voices after being at the listening post for so long.  The war had terrible effects on the soldiers, and this is one of those effects.  Sanders says that the mountains were even spookier than the jungle, so it would seem plausible that the mens fears were internalized and processed as the sound of music and voices.  The men have no answer for their superior officer because, according to the novel, there are no reasons for any of the missions on which the men are sent. 

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