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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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How do Kiowa's concerns unify the story in "The Things They Carried?"

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Kiowa is a unifying character because he provides details of the actual incidents in the story and his presence, as well as his concerns, pull the various segments of the story together.

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In Tim O'Brien's story, "The Things They Carried," Kiowa in a unifying character based on his concerns.

Kiowa is a Native American and carries his grandfather's hatchet, and mocassins which are a part of his heritage, but these things make him believable. His commentary  through the tale makes it much more human-centered, which I believe is the author's intent in telling us personal information about the men in this unit. They are so much more than the things they carried, and so much more than a number or a statistic.

(In terms of the statistics, there were almost 57,000 American service men killed between 1965 and 1973, with approximately 1,700 men missing in action, fates unknown. In 1968, 16,592 members of the armed forces were killed, the most casualties in one year during this war.)

Tim O'Brien, who served in the war, wanted people to know the men who faced death, and hear the stories of some of the many who gave their lives.

(Despite being awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received, O'Brien loathed the war and everything about it, but it would become the catalyst and continuing inspiration for his literary career.)

Kiowa's presence, and the things around which he centers his attention pull the various segments of the story together. When Ted Lavender is killed, Kiowa is the one that continues to speak of the incident which affects all of them strongly—especially the infantry unit's leader, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross.

The morning was...very still. Not good, Kiowa said. He looked at the tunnel opening...Nothing moved. ...Ted Lavender popped a tranquilizer and went off to pee. After five minutes, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross moved to the tunnel, leaned down, and examined the darkness...

A few moments later Lee Strunk crawled out of the tunnel...grinning, filthy but alive. Lieutenant Cross nodded and closed his eyes while the others clapped Strunk on the back and made jokes about rising from the dead.

...Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then...Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing...Rat Kiley said, the guy's dead. The guy's dead, he kept saying...

Kiowa describes Lavender's death several times, serving perhaps to try to deal with the reality of death and his (our?) realization that "it was not like the movies."

...Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something—just boom, then down—not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle—not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just...fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.

Lieutenant Cross takes it very hard.

...then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling....He tried not to cry...

...he sat at the bottom of his foxhole and wept...

Here Kiowa speaks of Cross' grief:

Kiowa shook his head sadly and glanced over at the hole where Lieutenant Jimmy Cross sat...After a time Kiowa sighed.

One thing for sure, he said. The lieutenant...cares.

Kiowa's voice repeats the details of Lavender's death; he emphasizes its suddenness. This speaks to another aspect of war—death can strike at any time. He further humanizes it by showing how all the men are affected. There are no statistics here, only the dull realization of a death among them. Kiowa's constant descriptions and commentary keeps the thread of the loss of life moving through the list of "the things they carried."

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