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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Why does O'Brien discuss his pig declotter experience in "The Things They Carried"?

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O'Brien discusses his pig declotter experience to draw a parallel between the slaughterhouse and the Vietnam War. He uses the detailed description of his summer job to emphasize his discontent with the political system and the assembly-line nature of war, highlighting how both experiences left an indelible mark on him, symbolized by the persistent "pig-stink" that he couldn't wash away.

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In part, his inclusion of this experience is in keeping with the nature of the book as part memoir. Yes, it reveals some private aspects of his character to help us understand him better, but even more important is its placement in the book. While O’Brien’s bits of backstory may sometimes seem a little random, upon closer analysis we can usually see a parallel between them and his tales of war. In this case, he has just explained the discontent he felt with the entire political system: “it seemed to me that when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause” (p. 38–39). When he received his draft notice, his shock was mixed with plenty of denial and reasoning:

There should be a law, I thought. If you [meaning those in control of the war] support a war . . . you should have to put your own precious fluids on the line. You have to head up for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood (p. 40).

O’Brien felt rage at the cold, emotionless assembly line process of the draft.

From this thought he suddenly jumps into his story of his summer job as a pig declotter where “for eight hours a day I stood on a quarter-mile assembly line—more properly, a disassembly line—removing blood clots from the necks of dead pigs” (p. 40). He describes the process in bloody detail, but the connection is clear. The powers that be who run the wars of this world create assembly-line slaughter houses for the seemingly endless incoming line of young soldiers. Even his memory of not being able to get a date that summer due to his association with that job—“I felt isolated”—is reminiscent of the American soldiers’ rejection by their countrymen upon returning home from the war. For O’Brien, just as the “greasy pig-stink that soaked deep into [his] skin” couldn’t fully be washed away, so the memories of the bloodbath, the horrors, the isolation of the Vietnam War had forever soaked into the skin and psyches of the assembly line soldiers (p. 41).

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In the section of his book The Things They Carried titled “On the Rainy River,” Tim O’Brien describes the period of his life when he was inducted into the army to fight in war the purpose of which he found uncertain and the shedding of blood within which he found nonsensical.  After this discussion of his political opposition to the war and the somewhat ambivalent approach he had taken to express that opposition, O’Brien pauses to relate the story of when he worked at a meatpacking plant in his hometown in Minnesota.  His job was removing blood clots from the necks of the dead pigs, a position for which he labeled himself “Declotter.”  O’Brien provides a detailed description of the process by which the pigs are slaughtered and gutted as part of the process by which their remains are processed into food for human consumption.  In relating this story of a position he held prior to his induction into the armed forces, O’Brien is drawing a parallel between the slaughterhouse and the slaughter to which he would soon become an integral part: the war in Vietnam.  Describing the sensations that accompanied his work in the meatpacking plant, the author writes the following:

 “At night I'd go home smelling of pig. It wouldn't go away. Even after a hot bath, scrubbing hard, the stink was always there—like old bacon, or sausage, a dense greasy pig-stink that soaked deep into my skin and hair. Among other things, I remember, it was tough getting dates that summer. I felt isolated; I spent a lot of time alone. And there was also that draft notice tucked away in my wallet.”

O’Brien is indicating that he is transitioning from one slaughterhouse to another, and that, just as he could never quite cleanse himself of the stench of the meat plant, he will be unable to ever fully rinse from his body and mind the stench of the bloodletting he will witness in Vietnam.

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For one thing, O'Brien describes his job as a pig declotter in the most gory manner possible. This is because he wants the reader to know why he does not want to go to Vietnam. It is not because he is afraid of blood. Blood is something he works with every day. Also, because of his summer job, he comes home every day smelling like a pig. Therefore, his reason for not wanting to go to the war is also not because he is afraid to get his hands dirty, despite the fact that he has described himself as a scholar. This helps to drive home the point that he wants to stay out of the war because of his principles, which is really the point of this chapter.

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