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Truth in the (non-) Details Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 20 March 2017

Truth in the (non-) Details

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of fictional events that happened to him and his platoon during the Vietnam war. He readily admits that his writings are a mixture of fiction and truth and reality from the start, as his work is subtitled A Work of Fiction. In fact, he even writes in the book, “It’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” (O’Brien 82) His purpose in muddling up facts was not to confuse anybody about the war – in fact, his intent was the opposite: “It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite; he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.” (O’Brien 89).

From the last statement we can gather that O’Brien was deliberately being selective in order to focus on what he thought important about the war: the human experience of it, not simply the underlying events or the blow-by-blow accounts of the Vietnam war, or an extensive description of the campaigns during the period. A lot of history books have the facts on the Vietnam war, how it came into existence, and became one of the longest wars in history. These details, however, do nothing to put a human face to the war. It hardly does anything to lend a voice to the real people who experienced the war first hand – soldiers and victims alike.

Despite The Things They Carried being a lot of truth interwoven with a lot of fiction as well, Tim O’Brien was indeed a veteran of the Vietnam war, although he does not have a daughter like his namesake has in the book. However, more important than this, and what Tim O’Brien points out, are the personal experiences in the life of a soldier during a war. These events largely revolve around war – it does not matter which one – and some of O’Brien’s themes can be seen reflected in the works of other soldier-writers. When O’Brien wrote about the beauty of war (O’Brien 80), his thoughts are paralleled by other Vietnam veterans who describe the war as an “awful”, “astonishing” spectacle.  (Chattarji 77)

O’Brien also perceives The Things They Carried as something other than a book strictly about war. “It is a writer’s book on the effects of time on the imagination. It is definitely an antiwar book; I hated the war from the beginning. [The book] is meant to be about man’s yearning for peace. At least I hope it is taken that way.” (Harris) The book is also mentions specific details that would hint at a war in Vietnam sparingly – only once is a specifically Vietnamese character mentioned throughout the book.

In reality, Tim O’Brien was sent to one of the deadliest areas of Vietnam: the Quang Nai province, a region of Central South Vietnam along the China sea. My Lai bears a particular importance for his patrol passed through it often, and it was this village where hundreds of had been massacred by US troops only a year earlier. This must be the inspiration for most of his material in The Things They Carried.

Tim O’Brien also sets some facts straight: “Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried is almost entirely invented. Those are lies I’ve told about the world. I never went to the Rainy River to decide whether or not to go to Vietnam. It’s a lie. If I were to tell you the truth about that summer, I would say I played golf and worried about being drafted. But that wouldn’t be a story — or, if it were, it would be a lousy story.

So I made up the Rainy River story — going to the Canadian border, agonizing over whether to go across it or not-because it’s a way of getting at a truth that’s in my heart but that isn’t in the actual world. It’s the truth of a real dilemma: ‘What should I do? I’m caught up in this terrible bind. I hate the war and I shouldn’t go to it. But at the same time I love my country, and I’m terrified of the embarrassment if I don’t go. So, what should I do?’”(Sawyer)

For all the confusion and the inseparable fact and fiction that The Things They Carried is known for, these are the stories that O’Brien decided to tell. The grim reality of war, whether or not the facts exist – its beauty, its ugly truth, its amorality – has taken place over war’s impersonal facts and figures. “To get at a higher, nobler truth,” O’Brien once said in an interview, “I tell a big lie.”(Sawyer)


Chattarji, Subarno. “Imagining Vietnam: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Over Thirty Years: The United Sates and the Legacy of the Vietnam War. Ed. Jon Roper. London: Palgrace McMillan, 2007. 72-88.

Harris, Robert P. “Too Embarrassed Not To Kill.” New York Times 11 March 1990.

Hillstrom, Kevin and Lauren Collier Hillstrom. Vietnam War: Biographies. Ed. Diane Sawinsky. UXL, an imprint of the Gale Group, 2001.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. London: Collins, 1990.

Sawyer, Scott. “In the Name of Love: An Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Mars Hill Review Winter/Spring 1996: 117-126.

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