The Things They Carried was first published in 1990, twenty years after Tim O’Brien returned home from the Vietnam War. In 2010 a 20-year anniversary edition was published of this now-classic work.
New York Times Reviewer Robert R. Harris considers The Things We Carried an exceptional war narrative because O’Brien is able to move “beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth”
Although these stories are often brutal and graphic, for which the book has been placed on many Banned Book lists, it is the psychological effects of war and its aftermath that are the focus of O’Brien’s writing.
"They carried all they could bear, and then some...."
Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck for good luck. Kiowa carried his grandfather’s feathered hatchet and his grandmother’s distrust of the white man. Rat Kiley carried comic books and M&Ms. Norman Bowker carried the thumb of a VC corpse. Ted Lavender was carrying toilet paper and tranquilizers when he was shot and killed. Lee Strunk carried a slingshot as “a weapon of last resort.”
In addition to the individual things these men carry with them day after day, O’Brien also describes what they carry in common:
“Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.” (p. 14)
And he describes the psychological burden of the “greatest fear” carried by these soldiers wherever they go:
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were the intangible, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. 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, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. (p. 20)
Although these soldiers often dump the tangible things they carry to lighten their loads as they trudge through the bush, the heavier psychological burdens they carry, including witnessing one another's deaths, cannot be cast off.
Several grunts of the Alpha Group appear in later stories in the collection as they hump the boonies or die in combat or struggle to find their way back into the real world and give meaning to their new lives.
The Man He Killed
“The man I killed” reappears in the next story, “Ambush,” as O’Brien imagines telling his daughter about throwing the grenade outside of the village of My Khe that blew the sandals off the young soldier. “Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out,” he confides.
“Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to dwell on it, but now and then, when I’m reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I’ll look up and see the young man step out of the morning fog.” (p. 128)
“For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.
In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” (p. 78)
Telling the truth about war, O’Brien acknowledges, is nearly impossible because war is a contradiction. “War is hell,” he writes, “but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery.” (p. 76). Generalizing about war, according to O’Brien “is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.” (p. 77)
But this much is true, according to O’Brien: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever.” (p. 72)
It’s hard to differentiate O’Brien the fiction writer from O’Brien the 21-year-old narrator who receives his draft notice in this story:
“I remember opening up the letter, scanning the first few lines feeling the blood go thick behind my eyes. I remember a sound in my head. It wasn’t thinking, just a silent howl. A million things all at once—I was too good for this war. Too smart too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen. I was above it. I had the world dicked—Phi beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard. A mistake, maybe—a foul-up in the paperwork. I was no soldier. I hated Boy Scouts. I hated camping out. I hated dirt and tents and mosquitoes. The sight of blood made me queasy, and I couldn’t tolerate authority, and I didn’t know a rifle from a slingshot. I was a liberal, for Christ sake: If they needed fresh bodies, why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age hawk?” (pp. 39-40)
Uncertain whether to flee north or head to Vietnam, the narrator spends six days alone on the American-Canadian border, agonizing over his decision. He comes within 20 yards of the Canadian border and then instantly sweeps readers right into the middle of his emotional quandary (This is Tim O’Brien at his best):
“You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.
What would you do?
Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?” (p. 54)
Although the narrator insists he tried to will himself overboard, he found he could not do it. Not unlike “the man I killed” in Vietnam who reluctantly went to war to defend his land, the narrator could not risk the embarrassment to his family, his town, and himself by deserting his country. “I couldn’t make myself brave,” he confesses. “I would go to the war,” he writes, “I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.” (p. 57)
Discussing "On the Rainy River," O'Brien War explains how it qualifies as a "war story," even though it doesn't fit the traditional mold:
"Stories aren't always about war, per se. They aren't about bombs and bullets and military maneuvers. They aren't about tactics, they aren't about foxholes and canteens. War stories, like any good story, is finally about the human heart. About the choices we make, or fail to make. The forfeitures in our lives. Stories are to console and to inspire and to help us heal. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. And a good war story, in my opinion, is a story that strikes you as important, not for war content, but for its heart content."
Even though O'Brien spent the summer of 1968 working in a pig slaughter factory and has never been near the Rainy River, "in my own heart," he says, "I was certainly on that rainy river, trying to decide what to do, whether to go to the war or not go to it, say no or say yes... That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth."
About Tim O'Brien
At Macalester College in St. Paul O'Brien excelled academically and was elected student body president. There he participated in several protests against the escalating Vietnam War, believing that because he was a good student he would not be drafted—a denial that was short-lived. Shortly after graduating in 1968 with a BA in political science, he received his draft notice. In a 1990 interview with the New York Times O’Brien recalls how the summer he received his draft notice was the beginning of his writing career:
"I went to my room in the basement and started pounding the typewriter. I did it all summer. It was the most terrible summer of my life, worse than being in the war. My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to. That horrible summer made me a writer. I don't know what I wrote. I've still got it, reams of it, but I'm not willing to look at it. It was just stuff—bitter, bitter stuff, and it's probably full of self-pity. But that was the beginning."
O’Brien served his tour of duty the 46th Infantry in Quang Ngai province and received a Purple Heart for an injury sustained when he was hit with shrapnel during a grenade attack. He continued his graduate studies at Harvard and served an internship with the Washington Post. In 1973 O’Brien turned to full time writing with the publication of his war memoir entitled If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.
O’Brien has a passion for storytelling. "My life is storytelling," he said in a 1990 New York Times interview. "I believe in stories, in their incredible power to keep people alive, to keep the living alive, and the dead…Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.”
He currently teaches creative writing at Texas State University-San Marcos.
Tim O'Brien's Writing Style
Although he is the primary narrator of The Things They Carried, he is also a character in many of the stories (and sometimes both).
His approach wavers between that of an objective observer or a painfully involved poet (or a mixture of both). His imagery can be brutal but it can also be beautiful. A Big Read introduction to the book characterizes O’Brien’s writing as “brimming with raw honesty and thoughtful reflection.”
For a war that had a surreal quality to it and was ambiguous at best, O’Brien’s approach to writing about it seems like a very appropriate fit.
Writing stories, for O’Brien, involves blending reality and fantasy. "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience,” he said during a 1995 Pioneer Press interview. “You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not, in fact, occur but that help to clarify and explain. Reality just doesn't matter. You don't stop reading 'Huck Finn' every few pages and tell yourself this didn't happen. A good story feels real."