Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: An Examination of What They Carried and Why.


    The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a hybrid text of the personal experiences and the intense imagination of the author. The title is a direct reference to the the stealthy travel of the Vietnamese soldiers which carried a rifle and rice during the Vietnam War. This contrasts strikingly with the tools, weapons, and personal objects that were carried by American soldiers.

The book is actually several smaller stories which covers the beginning of the Vietnam War, the process of war, and the re-adjustment of soldiers back into American society.

O’Brien aggressively applies his belief that authors often must employ “lies” and “half truths” to convey the real truth to their audience. Through the use of literary distortion O’Brien accurately portrays the Vietnam War, and the problems which faced Americans during this time while consciously excluding many of the political issues which breathed life into Vietnam crisis.

            O’Brien uses an interesting and unique approach in writing this novel.

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The Things They Carried is essentially a collection of stories which function to together as a novel. O’Brien actively work against the literary belief that truth can only be communicated through realism. While literary realists strive to document events as they actually happen, O’Brien wished to document the emotion experienced by the storyteller. O’Brien as well as a number of postmodern writers believe that realism is actually unable to convey truthful emotion and the “size” of an experience to the reader. It is only through the distortion of the events that the real experience can be conveyed.

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A key component in O’Brien being able to portray the the events and emotion of the Vietnam War is his intentional blurring of truth and fiction. “The Thing They Carried” is subtitled as “a work of fiction” and offers the following disclaimer “all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” However, the stories are written in first person and reads like a personal memoir. The main character is named Tim O’Brien. Tim O’Brien, the real author, is veteran of the Vietnam war.

The intentional blurring of reality with fiction is used by O’Brien to reconstruct the fragmented and unreal experiences of the Vietnam War. The use of distortion can be found in the story “The Man I Killed”. O’Brien, the character, tells the story of how he killed an enemy solider with a grenade. He goes on to describe the consuming and ever present guilt over the incident. Chapters later, O’Brien states that “I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough.”

            The reader feels lied too and wonders what is truth and what is fiction. The emotional manipulation creates an enormous amount of confusion in the reader and mistrust of the author. This mirrors the emotion and betrayal felt by the confused American soldiers who did not understand what they were fighting or who they were fighting. O’Brien continues to explain “every story is made up” and like war there is “no clarity.” The retelling of war tale is “about sorrow” and “absolute occurrence is irrelevant.” O’Brien, of course, has not been the first to remark upon the larger waste that is war. With reference to the Vietnam debacle in particular, Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) sets the tone for the wastage of that “psychotic vaudeville,” as he calls it (Jarraway).

Author’s Background

Born in Austin, Minnesota, Tim O’Brien grew up in Worthington—the “Turkey Capital of the World”—and attended Macalester College. In 1968, a month after graduating summa cum laude in political science, O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped to Vietnam as a foot soldier. During his tour with the 198th Infantry Brigade, he achieved the rank of sergeant and received the Purple Heart. After his return from Vietnam in 1970, O’Brien went on to graduate work in government at Harvard University, taking time off to work as a reporter for the Washington Post. At Harvard, O’Brien began concentrating on writing, and he has worked successfully in a number of genres (Bonn 16).

            Bonn continues that O’Brien’s first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), grew out of a number of magazine and newspaper pieces on his experiences in the war and has been labeled “autofiction,” a narrative that combines autobiography with the techniques of fiction. After his combat memoir, O’Brien produced Northern Lights (1975), an out-of-print novel that the author has described as “a terrible book” (Naparsteck 2). O’Brien’s next work, Going after Cacciato (1978), won the National Book Award and is considered by many critics to be one of the best novels about the Vietnam War. A lesser novel, The Nuclear Age (1985), tells the story of a 1960s radical who becomes consumed with the threat of a nuclear apocalypse (2).

With the highly praised short-story collection The Things They Carried (1990), O’Brien returned to Vietnam fiction. In the Lake of the Woods (1994) tells the story of John Wade, a politician whose career is ruined by revelations of his involvement in the massacre at My Lai in 1968. O’Brien’s latest novel, Tomcat in Love (1998), explores the desires and humiliations of Thomas Chippering, a punning, randy linguistics professor. Throughout his career, O’Brien has published short fiction in popular and literary magazines such as the New Yorker, Esquire, the Massachusetts Review, and the Quarterly, and a number of his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories (1977, 1987), Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (1976, 1978, 1982), and The Pushcart Prize (vols. 2 and 10) (Bonn 3-6).

Things They Carried to Survive

  This novel have many parts – it is a story (it has characters, a setting, and something of a plot), part military training manual, and part hardware list, the story investigates the “weight” of the different “tangibles” and “intangibles” the soldiers “hump,” or carry. At times, depending upon the mission, the soldiers carry a host of tangible objects. They carry a variety of weapons, from M-16s all the way down to a slingshot, “a weapon of last resort” (8), and pounds and pounds of standard gear: flak jackets, dog tags, can openers, toothbrushes, and countless other items.

As O’Brien details these objects and gives their weight—“they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds” (4)—the story reads like lists or excerpts from a survival guide. But among the inventories of concrete things, O’Brien often includes in half a sentence a thing that has no physical mass but that nonetheless weighs heavily on the grunts: “Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (9). The true weight of the things they carry is the purpose for which they were designed: to kill other people.

Things They Chose to Carry

If the tangibles burden the soldiers, the intangibles press down upon them even more (Timmerman 6).: “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (20). Ted Lavender, a soldier who is shot in the head after urinating, carried the standard gear, plus tranquilizers and marijuana to help ease “the unweighed fear” of being maimed or killed. As the narrator remarks, “They all carried ghosts” (10); not only do they remember their comrades who have died, but they carry fear of the elusive Viet Cong who lurk somewhere in the jungle, out of sight, ghostlike (Timmerman 67). Amid all the violence and death, “they carried their own lives” (15).

            O’Brien states “these soldiers chose to carry things like honor, fear, and love” (19).  As in many of his works, O’Brien also examines what keeps soldiers fighting even when—as was often the case in Vietnam—they did not understand the reasons for the war: “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all. … Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (20–21).

According to O’Brien, the weight of family and country, obligation and honor, and the fear of being labeled a coward press down upon the men (Schroeder 4). It is a weight so heavy they risk their own lives and destroy others to ease the strain. By blending long lists with characters and moments of action, O’Brien creates a powerful story that makes present for us the terrible burdens we ask soldiers to carry on our behalf (O’Brien 20).

Things They Carry Without Choice

Tim O’Brien minutely details this in the title story of The Things They Carried ( 1990). Typically, the grunt, who had enough problems maneuvering his own body through impenetrable jungles and knee-deep mud in temperatures above one hundred degrees, carried a field pack weighing sixty to eighty pounds stuffed with technological goodies, plus his own weapon, and sometimes extra belts of M60 machine gun ammunition draped over his shoulders. But that wasn’t the only thing they carried.

Soldiers  were the easy-target Redcoats in Vietnam. Former VC and NVA have said that they not only could see and hear us coming, they could smell soldiers (Schroeder 7). For one thing, as the war wore on, the grunts’ clothing came more and more to reek of marijuana. And because soldiers didn’t eat the indigenous food of Vietnam, and because soldiers used perfumed soaps and lotions (the preeminent weapons against the dirt of the organic inferno)–in short, because soldiers in every conceivable way tried to superimpose America on Vietnam–even our very odor gave us away (Schroeder 55).

            It was not just smell that soldiers carried with them unwillingly it was also guilt over whatthey have done.  O’Brien does an excellent job of dealing with a major American issue surrounding the Vietnam war – it’s collective consciousness. The story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” centers around Rat Kiley who is a medic with a knack for storytelling which included exaggeration and dramatic license. He recounts a story about Medic Fossie who was able to bring the love of his life to Vietnam. Upon her arrival she became so consumed with the war she joined the Green Berret and becomes a savage creature which stalks the jungles in her “pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues.”

While the story is humorous it is also used as an allegory to the effects of war which turned ordinary men into killers. A larger generalization can be made from the story about the dehumanization of humans through war. O’Brien uses Medic Rat to explain the effects of the war on the American consciousness. He comments “What happened to her, Rat said, was what happened to all of them. You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same.” This was true of the men who served in the war. Veterans to this day have never been able to make peace as well as sense out of their activities in Vietnam.

            Similarly, the American society has never been able to make sense of the war because it refused to be accountable for their part in starting war that should have never taken place. The Vietnam War was the first war which was not laterally supported by all members and government officials of the United States. It polarized the nation and the heavy cloud of guilt and inappropriate conduct of the government still haunts the history and soldiers that fought in the Vietnam War. To this day, soldiers still look back at the war and have different opinions about it. One critic even wrote, ”O’Brien’s contradictory depictions of violence produce the thematic assertion of the moral confusions imposed by the war” (Wesley).


            The weakness in The Things They Carried exists in the absence of any reality within the story and O’Brien’s imagination is oddly limited to only his experiences with the war. While truth in emotion and mindset of the American soldier is conveyed little else is. O’Brien offers no solid historical context to these experiences. He does not directly confront any of the causes or long term effects the war has had. By limiting the text of the novel to only the American experience, his experience, he does not accurately portray the pain and long suffering of the Vietnamese people. His unique approach to the the traditional war novel is just that “novel”.

He fails to address many of the important political issues which contributed to the war and in doing so encourages the memory of the Vietnam War as a one sided battle between the good and bad – them and us. O’Brien claims to be politically minded but no where with in the text does he comment on imperialism, systematic murder of the Vietnamese, the devastating environmental effects of the war, or the United States trade embargo that has left Vietnam poor and it’s people starving. He focuses on abstract concepts like courage, justice, and evil. O’Brien, in The Things They Carried screams about the ignorance of the American people and the blind nationalism of the people in Vietnam.

            While at the same time failing to correct or even comment on these issues within his novel. If O’Brien focused equally on his personal experiences as well as the larger political experience, The Things They Carried would be both a true war novel and an important piece of American history.

O’Brien uses content and structure to convey the mindset of American soldiers as well as the collective American consciousness. The structure of the novel is several smaller “fragmented” stories told from various points of view. While many of the stories offer the same events the details and true motivations of these events change the the persona of the story teller changes.

The aesthetic value of O’Brien unorthodox approach is unmistakable but in focusing on the style he ignores the fundamental reasons why the war occurred in the first place. As well as America’s role in the destruction of nation and it’s people. The Vietnam War is steeped in great controversy and myth. It is only through the sharing of real life war stories combined with accurate historical and political reporting that the truth and the true experience of the Vietnam War can be known.

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Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: An Examination of What They Carried and Why.. (2017, Mar 16). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/tim-obriens-the-things-they-carried-an-examination-of-what-they-carried-and-why-essay

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: An Examination of What They Carried and Why.

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