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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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What emotional burdens does Rat Kiley carry in "The Things They Carried"?

Quick answer:

In The Things They Carried, Rat Kiley emotionally carries stories about the war, the responsibility for the lives of the men in the platoon, and the burden of witnessing violence and death.

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Bob "Rat" Kiley is the medic of Alpha Company, the platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War in Tim O'Brien's 1990 short story collection, The Things They Carried.

The narrator—a fictional version of the author, Tim O'Brien—notes that in addition to the fifteen or twenty pounds of standard issue equipment and other "necessities" that the members of the platoon carry on their backs, Rat carries comic books. As the medic of the platoon, Rat also carries a satchel containing medical supplies, including morphine, plasma, malaria tablets, and surgical tape, as well as brandy and "M&M’s for especially bad wounds."

In additional to the physical objects that Rat carries, he also carries stories related to nearly every experience that the men of the platoon encounter and endure. Rat has "a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement," but he nevertheless commands the attention of the other men when he tells his stories, and he is highly regarded by them as a medic and as a storyteller. Rat's storytelling serves him well as a medic, since the stories sometimes help to take away the hurt, emotionally and physically. At other times, Rat tells his stories simply to be heard and understood and to remind himself and the other men that their lives have meaning and purpose beyond the war. Rat's stories also help to keep alive the memory of men who died in the war.

Among all of "the things a medic must carry" to help preserve life, Rat also carries death on his shoulders. No matter where Rat and the other men go in the war and no matter what they do, they can never escape death.

Rat is always willing to risk his own life to save the life of one of his fellow soldiers. Eventually, however, Rat succumbs to the never-ending stress of his duty as medic, and so he "took off his boots and socks, laid out his medical kit, doped himself up, and put a round through his foot" to avoid further active duty and to relieve himself of the constant presence of death.

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