The opening chapter of Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried is an exhaustive list of the items carried by a small group of American soldiers in Vietnam. Amidst a litany of weapons and equipment, each described with their exact weight in ounces, O'Brien states that some soldiers carry items due to "superstition." Norman Bowker, described as "a very gentle person," carries the thumb of a dead Vietcong guerrilla.
A brief anecdote is attached to this item, and O'Brien shows Mitchell Sanders removing the thumb of the dead "fifteen or sixteen" year old boy and presenting it to Bowker as a gift. Interestingly, Sanders says that there is a definite "moral" to this gift. Examine the text as Bowker receives the present to understand the thematic importance of the thumb fully.
Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.
"You know. Moral."
Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy's head, watched the flies scatter, and said, "It's like with that old TV show—Paladin. Have gun, will travel."
Henry Dobbins thought about it.
"Yeah, well," he finally said. "I don't see no moral."
"There it IS, man."
For Sanders, the man who chopped the thumb from the body, his gift of a severed thumb symbolizes the futility of the war. For O'Brien and his characters, there is no nobility or morality to war. There is only death, violence, and suffering—nothing more.
The fact that the otherwise gentle-hearted Bowker continues to carry this grotesque "dark brown, rubbery to the touch" souvenir is fascinating because it reveals how exposure to extreme violence can dramatically change a person and reminds the audience that there is no "moral" to be found in the war as recorded through O'Brien's stories.