O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990.
Summary of Work
This novel is a collection of interconnected short stories about Alpha company’s time in the Vietnam War. The title of the work is indicative of one of the main things discussed throughout the work: the things that soldiers carry with them through and after wartime. Many of these things are considered lucky or are memories of home. Others are memories and scars from the war and experiences before and after the war that these men have to carry for the rest of their lives. In the first story, O’Brien details the death of Ted Lavender, a PFC who is always taking tranquilizers in order to deal with the horrors of war that he sees. He is going to the bathroom when he is shot through the head. The head of the company, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for Lavender’s death because he had been distracted thinking about his girlfriend and her letters and pictures. He burns her letters and pictures in an attempt to never be distracted again. The love he had for her is unreciprocated, and yet he can never get over her or the guilt of Lavender’s death.
The next short story details O’Brien’s experience of receiving his draft notice and running away to the Canadian border, considering skipping out on a war he does not support or want to fight. However, he can’t immediately bring himself to cross, so he helps the owner of a lodge. When they go fishing one evening, the lodge owner lets the boat drift to the Canadian shore, and O’Brien breaks down over the realization that he is not able to leave, too afraid of what other people think and say than even he is of getting injured or dying in the war. He goes back home and then to Vietnam.
In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien indicates that many times the stories that are told are not true, but they are in the fact that the feeling of the war and situations are conveyed in them. He describes several stories that may or may not be true, but says that the real truth of a story depends on if you need to ask that question or not. He also tells of Curt Lemon’s death, who dies, blown into many pieces, as he steps on a rigged landmine. Rat Kiley, Lemon’s closest friend, loses it after having to see him in pieces, and when they find a baby water buffalo, he shoots it time and time again, keeping it alive as long as possible to feel the pain, until it absolutely dies from too many bullet wounds. No one stops him because of that. He also at one point killed Ted Lavender’s puppy he had saved and nurtured back to health; Kiley strapped it to a bomb. Kiley is the medic, and deals with so much death and destruction that it drives him crazy, and he later shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war.
A “True War Story” that Rat Kiley told was the story of a man who brought a woman to the war so he could be with her. She was just out of high school and things went well until she started learning how to be a soldier and went out with the Green Berets. She slowly started going out on missions and then became one with the land and even the Greenies were worried about her or unable to connect. Despite the young soldier’s attempts to reel her in and get her to go home, she would not go. He goes to the tent and finds her with a necklace of human tongues around her neck, and one night not much later she disappears into the bush forever. Since the story ending does not please all the soldiers, he makes up the ending as that she is always living on the land, becoming part of the land, only seen every now and then, but never brought back to civilization.
In another story, two friends in Alpha Company make a pact to kill the other if they are mortally wounded, and when one of them has his foot blown off by a landmine, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die and begs his friend not to kill him. His friend complies to his request, but feels guilty about it and is relieved when he finds out that his friend died in transport to medical help. O’Brien also looks back, forty years after the fact, at the time he killed a man on the road. He had a grenade and threw it before the man could ever see him. He couldn’t leave the body and just stared at the face. Kiowa, the Native American in the company, stays with him to help him process but makes sure he eventually gets up and leaves. When O’Brien’s daughter asks him if he’s ever killed anyone, he lies and says he hasn’t. He hopes he’ll get the chance to set matters right one day and tell her the truth if she ever asks again.
Kiowa’s death is in a shit field. They were camping in the evening and Norman Bowker and Kiowa were looking at a picture of Bowker’s girlfriend when gunfire started. They were already in trouble, sitting in the shit field and the river rising and creating a sinkhole of shit and mud and dirty water, and with the gunfire raining down on them, Kiowa got hit and then his body sunk in the mud and shit and Bowker could not get him out. Bowker, years after the war, still feels guilty about it and he relays the story to himself over and over as he drives around a lake in his hometown. Unable to rid himself of the guilt over Kiowa’s death, Bowker kills himself in a locker room a few years after coming home. The book also describes the process of looking for Kiowa’s body, as Cross refused to let him stay MIA. They found his body eventually, and had to dig it out. Kiowa’s effects were also found, particularly his moccasins and his brand new, ornate Bible his father had given him before he left for the war. O’Brien has the moccasins when he goes back to Vietnam over forty years later, and he places them in the field where Kiowa died to honor him and remember him.
O’Brien also remembers getting shot twice: the first time Kiley was there to clean him up and help him, and there were no problems; the second time, it was a new medic and the guy nearly let him die of shock and the wound got gangrene because of him. While in the hospital and in his new station, he dreamed of getting back at the man. And when he came into the base, O’Brien recruited another man to help him get him back. Even after the medic apologizes, O’Brien can’t get past it and continues on with his revenge plan. They scare him all through the night with sounds and flares, and in the final moments of dawn they raise a flour bag to scare him. O’Brien feels satisfied and then bad about what he’s done about halfway through the plan. After the end, the man calls out his name and the next morning they make peace. While at this base O’Brien also remembers Curt Lemon, who was so afraid of the dentist he fainted and then in order to save face, came to the dentist in the middle of the night and had him pull a perfectly good tooth in order to prove his bravery.
O’Brien also discusses his childhood, saying that the reason he entered the war was the same reason he’s always done what he’s done: he always needed to be loved, and feared being called a coward. He describes his childhood love, Linda, who died of a brain tumor at age 9. He recalls mentioning her hat when they went to the movies, and how he wasn’t brave enough to stop a bully from tearing the hat from her head and revealing her bald head and stitches one day. He walked her home after, but always regretted not doing anything. He discusses how many times men aren’t as brave as they think that they are and that when it comes to life and especially war, people do terrible things and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong. The only way to get through these tragic moments of realization, at least for O’Brien, is to tell stories about them.
Brief Note on Themes
The main theme running throughout this work is the horrors of war, particularly the Vietnam War, and the scars that the immorality of war leave on the men who fight. Truth and morals are discussed, as many of the characters deal with death in uncharacteristic or mocking ways in order to process or deal with the atrocities they see and the atrocities they commit. For instance, Ted Lavender is never considered dead, but on the most mellow trip the war has ever given him. The power of stories is also a large part of this, as it is the stories that these men tell themselves after the war that determine their ability to cope and survive or to die. Personal responsibility for a person’s actions is questioned; if a person is just following orders or trying to save themselves in the war, are their actions immoral or unjust or wrong? The blurring of those boundaries in wartime is a feature of this work, even as O’Brien tries to grapple with the fact that there are moral pillars determining the correctness of their actions during the war. This work is also semi-autobiographical, as Tim O’Brien places himself as a main character in this story and tells the stories of his time as a soldier, simply changing names and some stories as he tells them. He discusses this in a New York Times piece that he wrote in the early 2000s about his return trip to Vietnam and his struggle to deal with the atrocities of the war and the damage it did to the people he left behind in the country as he went home.