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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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In "The Things They Carried," what actions did the platoon take in the village of Than Khe?

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According to the text, the platoon is scheduled to blow up an elaborate system of tunnels the Viet Cong utilizes in the Than Khe area. For the mission, each man in the platoon carries four blocks of pentrite high explosives. Before any system of tunnels are blown up, the platoon is always required to search them.

During the mission at the outskirts of Than Khe, Lee Strunk is chosen to search the tunnels. When he comes up empty-handed, his peers are relieved. However, the sense of relief does not last long: almost immediately, Ted Lavender is shot in the head by a Viet Cong bullet. Lavender's death is a devastating loss. Fellow soldiers have to repress their grief, fear, and pain in order to prepare Lavender's body for an official tagging.

They have to ignore Lavender's almost-blown-off face in order to empty the dead soldier's pockets and strip him of his personal belongings. None of the soldiers have gloves, so they have to do their best to avoid getting blood and gore on themselves. To detach themselves from the difficult experience, the soldiers talk to Lavender as if he is still alive.

After an American helicopter takes Lavender's body away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross leads his men into the village of Than Khe.

Grieved by the death of their colleague, the soldiers burn everything in sight. They shoot all the animals, rain artillery fire on the village, and trash the village well. Basically, the men destroy the entire village of Than Khe.

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Tim O'Brien, author of "The Things They Carried," is very explicit about what the platoon did when it entered the village of Than Khe.  The exact description is below:

"They burned everthing.  They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon..."

"The Things They Carried" is a work of fiction, but it reflects O'Brien's experiences in the war in Vietnam, and is considered one of the finer historical novels about that divisive conflict.  The destruction of the village of Than Khe, similar to the destruction of the village believed to harbor Viet Cong sympathizers in Oliver Stone's film based on his own experiences in the war, "Platoon," illuminates the tragedy of the Vietnam War.  Unable to identify the enemy, and driven by fear and vengeance following the deaths of comrades, American soldiers lose what little sense of humanity had survived to that point and carry out crimes against civilians.

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