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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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What two important friendships in The Things They Carried relate to the Vietnam experience?

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In Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, the collection of stories often discusses and builds on the motif of friendship for the men serving in Vietnam.

The friendship of Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk is the focus of chapters “Enemies” and “Friends.” The two chapters remind us of how young the men fighting in Vietnam are. At first, they are not friends; instead, they are two young boys fighting over a lost jackknife. The two fight until Jensen hits Strunk so hard he breaks his nose. The fight ends, but Jensen remains vigilant for fear Strunk will retaliate. Eventually, Jensen breaks his own nose in order to even things. Strunk laughs and admits he stole the jackknife.

The fight between Jensen and Strunk demonstrates what happened to many soldiers during the war. They were often left in close quarters, waiting for the next fight with their enemy. The stress and pressure could get to them, causing them to act out. For Jensen and Strunk, the two become friends after the fight, even making a deal to kill the other in case they get seriously wounded. Strunk rethinks this oath when he injures his hip and begs Jensen not to kill him.

In late August, they made a pact that if one of them should ever get totally fucked up—a wheelchair wound—the other guy would automatically find a way to end it. (O’Brien, 71)

Friendship helps the men get through the daily boredom and comforts them by helping them realize that their friend has their back when they are facing the enemy. O’Brien explains the importance of this bond between the men. The men of his company have gone through hard times; they’ve lost friends, been hurt, and killed other people, but they went through all of these events together.

They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. (O’Brien, 8)

In “The Man I Killed,” Kiowa’s friendship with O’Brien helps O’Brien feel a little better about killing the Vietnamese boy. O’Brien builds a backstory about who the boy could have been and imagines reasons the boy joined the war. Instead of looking at him as just an enemy, O’Brien compares himself with the boy and feels immense guilt for his action. Kiowa offers words of comfort to O’Brien reminding him that they are in a war and this is often the result.

"I'll tell you the straight truth," he said. "The guy was dead the second he stepped on the trail. Understand me? We all had him zeroed." (O’Brien, 129)

As O’Brien explains how to tell about war, he explains the importance of the friends he made and the men he lived and worked with during the war.

It’s a hard thing to explain to somebody who hasn’t felt it, but the presence of death and danger has a way of bringing you fully awake. It makes things vivid. When you’re afraid, really afraid, you see things you never saw before, you pay attention to the world. You make close friends. You become part of a tribe and you share the same blood—you give it together, you take it together. (O’Brien, 61)

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The Things They Carried focuses on the Alpha Company and the strong bonds of friendship forged between its members. All the men are friends, caring for each other through the worst experience of their lives. The friendship between the members of Alpha Company is examined in a passage in a chapter titled "The Ghost Soldier":

You know you're about to die. And it's not a movie and you aren't a hero and all you can do is whimper and wait. This, now, was something we shared. I felt close to him. It wasn't compassion, just closeness.

Still, O'Brien highlights certain friendships. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, for example, experiences grief and guilt when Ted Lavender dies. Lavender is killed while Jimmy Cross is daydreaming of Martha. Cross obsesses about his girlfriend back in the United States, and he believes that his own distraction is the cause of Ted Lavender's death. As he reflects on the way Jimmy Cross reacts to Lavender's death, Kiowa says,

The lieutenant's in some deep hurt. I mean that crying jag—the way he was carrying on—it wasn't fake or anything, it was real heavy-duty hurt. The man cares.

Tim and Jorgenson's friendship becomes strained after Jorgenson, a medic, freezes in battle. Tim is shot and suffering, while Jorgenson is unable to react appropriately. For a long time after the incident, Tim hates the medic and indulges in revenge fantasies targeting Jorgenson. When Jorgenson offers Tim a sincere apology, however, their personal connection is restored. Tim wishes he could hold onto the grudge, but he knows that the past cannot be changed. "I hated him for making me stop hating him," Tim admits.

While some of the men's friendships are highlighted, they are used as examples of the way the soldiers feel about each other. O'Brien clearly shows that the crucible of war brings all the men of Alpha Company together. O'Brien writes,

They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.

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Friendship is a relative quality in the wartime situation, as all the men must depend on each other. But the war brings out the worst in many of them, and some are killed, so their relationships constantly shift.

O'Brien's friendships with Jorgensen and Azar offer good examples. His first dealings with Jorgensen, a new medic, cause him to despise the man and brand him as incompetent. He lashes out physically, kicking him, and wants revenge for the mistreatment. But as they get to know each other, their friendship develops into one of the strongest in the novel.

Azar had been an important ally and confidant for O'Brien, but his behavior deteriorates from macho bravado to outright sadism, such as blowing up a puppy. O'Brien realizes he cannot rely on this man, and their friendship ends.

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The first important friendship that O'Brien illustrates and is very important to the Vietnam experience is with Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. In the second story, entitled "Love," O'Brien goes to meet Jimmy at his home in Massachusetts. He discusses the events that took place during the war, and in particular, Jimmy's guilt over the death of Ted Lavender. "Many years after the war... Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he'd never forgiven himself for Lavender's death." This illustrates that the war sticks with a soldier forever. In his books, O'Brien has illustrated that theme throughout. Later on in the book, O'Brien recounts his own experience with killing a man in "The Man I Killed." O'Brien incorporates many versions of the victim's life that he has imagined in the years since the war. That guilt has never left him.

Another friendship that is important to O'Brien is with Kiowa. In "The Man I Killed," Kiowa is constantly trying to get Tim to talk about the man, to say something. He tries to reason with O'Brien saying "All right, let me ask you a question...You want to trade places with him? Turn it all upside down-you want that? I mean, be honest." Kiowa's experience in the war allows him to understand that Tim can't dwell on what is done and can't be undone. He's doing everything he can to get Tim's attention, so that Tim doesn't get himself killed because of the distraction. This is an important friendship that  Tim appreciates throughout the war and beyond.

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What important friendships are lost in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and how do they relate to the Vietnam War?

One example of a friendship lost in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried can be seen in the friendship between Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen, detailed in chapter 5, titled "Enemies."

One morning while on patrol, the two friends became embroiled in a fistfight because Jensen's jackknife had gone missing, and he blamed Strunk for the loss. The fistfight became so intense that Jensen mercilessly hit Strunk's nose repeatedly, breaking it. Strunk had to be sent by helicopter to the medical unit to get his nose treated.

When he returned a couple of days later, Jensen started fearing Strunk would take revenge. Jensen's fear of his former friend's revenge got so bad that he even started having difficulty sleeping. Jensen became so crazed by his obsessive fear of revenge that he one day he started shooting his machine gun into the air, screaming Strunk's name and forcing the rest of his platoon to take cover. He then sat down, holding "his head in his arms," unable to move for three hours. Later that night, he took a pistol, whacked his own nose with it, and broke it. He then went to Strunk and asked if things were now even between the two of them. Strunk agreed they were even but couldn't stop laughing at his friend because, after all, he stole the jackknife. In other words, in Strunk's mind, a severely broken nose was justified punishment for having stolen a jackknife.

This scenario tells of a friendship that was broken all because a jackknife was stolen. But, most importantly, it shows just how much war changes relationships. War makes a person feel like everyone is an enemy. It's due to this feeling that Jensen became fearful of revenge, and we might even be able to attribute the feeling to Strunk's motive for thinking he had to steal the jackknife--he stole it because he felt he had to. Or, even if stealing the jackknife had just been a joke, we can attribute Jensen's excessive response to the feeling that everyone is an enemy. In normal situations, Jensen would probably have laughed off the instance and not have become so enraged.

Hence, the story shows us that war makes friendships very delicate because war makes one feel like everyone is an enemy.

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