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How Tim O’Brien Shows the Negative Side of Vietnam Essay

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In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, O’Brien talks about all the parts of the Vietnam War. It shows all the horrors and negative sides of the war and what it can do to men. Many men lose their lives as well as their best friends and comrades. War also changes the soldiers into something else that’s not themselves, something evil. The Things They Carried shows the negative side of war through the imagery of the shitfield, the mental affects of the war, the hatred that can be shown by each person, the way war changes people, and the loss of companions.

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In the shitfield one sees everything that is bad about the war. It’s dirty and mucky and it’s just depressing all around. While in the field the soldiers are bombarded my artillery fire so they have to sink into the muck to hide themselves. One of the soldiers, Kiowa, gets hit with one of the shells. Norman Bowker tries to pull him out of the muck but he cannot. All the men try to pull him out but they cannot. They lose a friend in Kiowa, who is lost and buried in the field, and it scars all the men for life especially when they try to pull him out of the muck. The loss of a good friend stings for O’Brien.

O’Brien even says that he went down with Kiowa that day and he lost a part of himself in that field. Everyone lost a part of themselves there. O’Brien describes what he saw of Kiowa as he was going down under the muck. “Kiowa was almost completely under. There was a knee. There was an arm and a gold wristwatch and part of a boot…. There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ve been” (O’Brien 168). O’Brien going down with Kiowa shows that there are other negative effects such as mental ones.

The mental effects of the war are also very negative in The Things They Carried. War messes with people’s heads and Tim O’Brien shows it in his book. “I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t lie still” (Chen 77). This is a cause of all the blood and gore the soldier has seen. And this doesn’t just speak for the one soldier who said it, it speaks for all the soldiers. The first stage is not being able to sleep, the next stage is losing your composure.

Then men start to become paranoid during the war and some go crazy. Rat Kiley is a good example of this. He is a medic and he starts to go crazy. He says he hears noises in the night that aren’t there. He says that he hears the voices of the people dying at night. O’Brien thinks its from all the gore and blood he sees day in and day out and its just getting to him but either way he loses it. Rat tells someone he is going to shoot himself so he can get out of there because of an injury. “The next morning he shot himself” (O’Brien 223). Rat Kiley’s plan works and he gets to leave, but he apologizes to all the men for losing it and in turn they don’t rat him out for what he did. Not only does the war mess with people’s heads during the war but also at other times.

The mental effects also extend to after the war. The awful memories of war stick with some of the men long after they return home from the war. The post war stress is too much for Norman Bowker. He finds that when he returns home that it’s not the same to him and he cannot find his place in society. He feels empty inside and ever since the shitfield he feels incomplete. The lingering memory of not being able to pull Kiowa out of the muck sticks with him.

He feels that he died there with Kiowa and this causes him to be depressed. He often talks about it with his dad saying that he wishes he could have pulled harder to get Kiowa out but he just couldn’t because of the smell. Norman wrote Tim O’Brien a letter about his last book. He said it was very good book but that he should have put a chapter in about the shitfield. O’Brien finds out that eight months later Norman killed himself. Normans writes O’Brien a letter saying there was no letter and he hung himself with a jump rope.

Tim O’Brien kills a man while he’s in Vietnam. He still feels the effects of killing the man and the guilt years later. He remembers it very well when his daughter asks him a question. The question was if he had ever killed someone. “O’Brien’s guilt over the man he kills comes from questions his daughter asks him about the war. He feels the sting years later” (Martin 2). O’Brien also revisits the site of the shitfield with his daughter. He starts to remember all the bad things that happened and it hurts him. O’Brien hates the bad memories; he hates a lot of things.

Some of the men start to show hatred toward people who usually aren’t hateful. The men start to turn on each other in stressful situations when they would have never done it before. “Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen got into a fistfight. It was about something stupid, a missing jackknife, but even so the fight was vicious…. Strunk’s nose made a sharp snapping sound, like a firecracker” (O’Brien 62). The men show hatred in the fight and over nothing important at all. “In other circumstances it might’ve ended there. But this was Vietnam, where guys carried guns, and Dave Jensen started to worry. It was mostly in his head” (O’Brien 62-63). Dave Jensen starts to get paranoid and he hates Strunk for it. “One afternoon he began firing his weapon into the air, yelling Strunk’s name…. late that same night he borrowed a pistol, gripped it by the barrel, and used it like a hammer to break his own nose” (O’Brien 63). This just shows how hate is a part of Vietnam. O’Brien also shows hate toward some of his comrades.

In a firefight O’Brien gets shot and needs help from the new medic Bobby Jorgenson, but Jorgenson freezes because he’s too afraid and forgets to treat O’Brien for shock. This causes him much more pain over the months because the wound wasn’t treated right and in time. O’Brien hates Jorgenson for it. “I wanted to hurt Bobby Jorgenson the way he’d hurt me” (O’Brien 200). Months later O’Brien and Jorgenson talk. O’Brien realizes that Jorgenson is really sorry and he can’t bring himself to say how he feels about it and just says its ok. “I hated him for making me stop hating him” (O’Brien 200). This isn’t like O’Brien to be hateful. He has become something he’s not.

The war changes the men into bad things, things that aren’t themselves. O’Brien talk about how the war changes himself and his personality at times. “I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person…. I’d turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times…. It’s a hard thing to admit, even to myself, but I was capable of evil” (O’Brien 200). O’Brien also talks about how one comes over innocent and but one leaves with a different identity. “You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterwards it’s never the same” (O’Brien 114). Other authors talk about how O’Brien shows the physical and mental devastation caused by the war. “Nowhere in The Things They Carried does O’Brien explain more clearly the psychic devastation wrought by wartime trauma” (Neilson 193). One sees the effect of the trauma even if the characters previous personalities aren’t known. The killing also has a big affect on O’Brien.

O’Brien also talks about how the man he kills changes him because it is such a big deal to take a life. The author describes the soldier he kills. He describes everything from his wounds to his figure. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay at the center of the red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His eye was shut, the other eye was a star shaped hole. I killed him. (O’Brien 203). Once O’Brien killed this man he was “broken in” to Vietnam. He no longer was clean, he was now dirty. “His first kill hastens his loss of innocence” (Herzog 133). The soldiers in the war aren’t the only ones who were changed by Vietnam.

One soldier brings his girlfriend from the states to visit him in Vietnam. He has her flown in through cargo planes and brought to his camp. At first she is glad to see her boyfriend and one can tell they are in love because they spend every minute together. She begins to get curious though and wonders off camp many times to explore. Then one night she goes missing and she is gone for a couple of days. She returns with the “Greenies” or Green Berets. She tells him not to ask and not to worry about it and acts like she has done nothing wrong. This happens many other times and the soldier can tell that he is beginning to lose her.

“When she begins disappearing with the ‘greenies’ and taking part in the night ambushes, she melts into ‘a small, soft shadow'” (Chen 90). She becomes something she originally wasn’t. Mary Anne starts to become one with Vietnam and she totally forgets about her boyfriend. In the end she is lost forever to Vietnam. “It becomes impossible to distinguish between Mary Anne and Vietnam” (Chen 91). Her boyfriend loses her and she is lost to Vietnam. Just one of many casualties of the war. “But in his final story O’Brien moves from his concern with moral corruption and war to one even more universally human: death” (O’Gorman 306). O’Brien also loses many things in the war.

The worst part of the Vietnam War that O’Brien shows is his loss of companions and friends. The author talks many times about his comrades throughout the book. He loses many people close to him personally and physically. “There are five deaths in the novel…. Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, Kiowa, Linda, and the slim Vietcong soldier” (Martin 1). The worst is the loss of his good friend.

O’Brien loses his good and best friend there, Kiowa, in the shitfield. This death is the most devastating to him because of how it happened in the muck and because he was a good friend. “Kiowa was gone. He was under the mud and water, folded in with the war: Kiowa’s death actually makes him a part of the shitfield” (Chen 93). It is also very devastating because all of the men feel guilt about it because they couldn’t pull him out in time to possibly save him. Kiowa’s death is also pointless and has no purpose except to cause pain to his friends. “In the story of Kiowa’s death, we find a combination of senselessness of war with the guilt that must be carried by other” (Martin 2). This death affects everyone in the platoon but not all deaths are gruesome and ugly.

An accident kills one of the young men, named Curt Lemon, and it’s described by O’Brien as an almost beautiful death.

They were just goofing. There was a noise, I supposed, which must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight….when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms. (O’Brien 70)

The two soldiers are just playing a simple game and it all ends so suddenly. “He is playing a game with another soldier, a game of toss with a smoke grenade, when he accidentally steps on a landmine” (Martin 2). Lemon and O’Brien weren’t as good as friends as him and Kiowa but it was a bothersome death because Lemon was so young. “O’Brien speaks of him stepping into the light, and then the blast sucks him up into the trees….what bothers O’Brien is that Curt Lemon is just a kid” (Martin 2). The death isn’t all-beautiful. O’Brien describes the mess that is made by the accident. “The white bone of an arm….pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines” (O’Brien 89). Another casualty happens because of bad luck.

Lee Strunk dies in battle during a firefight. O’Brien describes the wound that Strunk gets. “In October Lee Strunk stepped on a rigged mortar round. It took off his right leg at the knee….then he panicked. He tried to get up and run, but there was nothing left to run on” (O’Brien 65). Strunk didn’t die right away but not all death occur right after the accident happens. “Later we heard that Strunk died somewhere over Chu Lai” (O’Brien 66). The last death happens because of carelessness.

Ted Lavender was always doped up and this in the end leads to his death. While going to the bathroom in the woods Lieutenant Cross is daydreaming and not keeping watch for enemy soldiers. While coming back from his bathroom break Lavender is shot in the head and killed on the spot. Cross never forgives himself for his death because he was daydreaming about girls and one of his men was killed. “Several incidents in The Things They Carried reveal moments when the male soldiers cannot communicate with one another” (Vernon 171). Death is only a small part of the whole picture.

Tim O’Brien shows many of the negative sides of the war to the reader in ways that the reader can see how bad war is. He uses the examples of his friends dying, the whole ordeal in the shitfield, how war changes the men including the mental effects, and by showing how hateful one can become because of the stressful situations and the things one sees. O’Brien feels that he has to show all the negative sides of the war because he never wanted to go to war in the first place. Men go to war to fight battle that could be worked out peacefully and they fight and die for no reason. He feels that war is a bad thing and wants to show the reader that it’s a terrible thing and he does this very well. Even today war is a problem. Many young men are dying for no reason and it needs to stop.

Works Cited

Chen, Tina. “Unraveling the Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied poetics of

Displacement in Tim O’Briens The Things They Carried.” Contemporary Literature 29.1 (spring 1998): 77-98.

Herzog, Tobey C. Vietnam War Stories Innocence Lost. London: Routledge, 1992.

Martin, Paul L. 24 March, 2008.


Neilson, Jim. Warring Fictions. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1998

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1990.

O’Gorman, Farrel. “The Things They Carried as a Composite Novel.” War, Lit, and the


Vernon, Alex. “Salvation, Storytelling and Pilgrimage in Tim O’Brien’s the Things They

Carried.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 36.4 (2003): 171+. Questia. 19 Mar. 2008


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