The Things They Carried
by Tim O’Brien
Born and raised in Minnesota, William Timothy O’Brien (1946-) grew up in a middle-class family in the town of Worthington, where his father was a life-insurance salesman and his mother a housewife. After graduating summa cum laude from Macalester College in St. Paul in 1968, O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army. From January 1969 to March 1970, he served in Vietnam, mostly as a combat infantry soldier. O’Brien subsequently pursued graduate studies in government at Harvard University. He also worked as a reporter and began writing about his war experiences, which have continued to inspire his literary output. His novels include If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Going after Cacciato (1978), In the Lake of the Woods (1994), and Tomcat in Love (1998). O’Brien has won numerous prizes for his works, including a National Book Award (1979) for Going After Cacciato. Like that novel, The Things They Carried is heavily autobiographical, with more or less fictionalized characters and episodes closely based on O’Brien’s own war-related memories. Unlike O’Brien’s other books, however, The Things They Carried features a narrator named Tim O’Brien, whose life closely resembles—but is not identical to—that of the author himself. The novel takes on an intensely introspective approach to the author’s mental anguish over the war, an approach that mirrors the larger cultural introspection in America after its traumatizing experience in Vietnam.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
The Cold War and Vietnam
Actual fighting by United States combat forces in Vietnam lasted from 1964 to 1973, but grew out of earlier events and produced effects that continue to be felt in the twenty-first century. In fact the war itself remained undeclared, and U.S. military involvement deepened only gradually over a long period, so that historians have difficulty in fixing a starting point for what Americans know as the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese have another name for it—the American War). The end date too does not parallel U.S. withdrawal. Although U.S. forces left in 1973, the fighting in Vietnam continued until 1975, when America’s former Vietnamese allies were finally conquered by Soviet- and Chinese-backed Vietnamese communists. U.S. relations with communist Vietnam were not normalized until more than two decades later.
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America’s involvement in Vietnam must thus be seen within the context of the larger struggle known as the Cold War, a global conflict that pitted the democratic United States against the communist superpowers of the Soviet Union and (to a lesser degree) China. The Cold War followed the end of World War II in 1945 and lasted until the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, or roughly from Tim O’Brien’s boyhood to the publication of The Things They Carried. Since the novel features Tim O’Brien’s memories and
thoughts ranging from childhood up to 1990, its setting in time can accurately be described as covering nearly the entire period of the Cold War.
While O’Brien was growing up in the comfort and security of 1950s America, events were unfolding in Vietnam that would shatter the sense of innocence and purpose that Americans enjoyed in the post-World War II era. Much of Vietnam had been under French colonial rule since the early nineteenth century, but like other European colonial powers, France lost effective control of its colonies during World War II. Resistance movements against the French had long been active in Vietnam and the World War years saw another power targeted as well. The communist Viet Minh movement, under its leader Ho Chi Minh, spearheaded Vietnamese resistance against Japanese occupation, declaring Vietnam independence at the war’s end. The Viet Minh went on to lead the opposition to France’s attempts to reassert colonial rule in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Meanwhile, in keeping with America’s anti-communist policy in the Cold War, the United States supported France’s fight against the Viet Minh with both money and arms. But in 1954 the Viet Minh inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and France withdrew. Vietnam was afterward divided into southern and northern halves. Ho and the Viet Minh ruled North Vietnam; the U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem held sway in South Vietnam.
Not only was Diem’s rule of South Vietnam corrupt; it was also unpopular. Elections were planned, after which Vietnam was to be united under a single government. Diem refused to hold the elections, and the United States supported his refusal, recognizing how likely it was that Ho and the communists would have won. The United States came to Diem’s aid in another way too. By 1956 it had brought in some 700 military advisors to help his army destroy South Vietnam’s communist remnants, former members of the Viet Minh left in the south who now became a guerrilla network known as the Viet Cong (also called the National Liberation Front, or N.L.F.). By the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy had increased the number of U.S. military advisors to more than 16, 000. Recognizing how ineffective Diem was, in 1963 the United States backed a coup that overthrew him. The coup proved useless. It did not bring to power any more stable leadership in the South, which saw a series of unpopular and shaky U.S. puppet rulers come to power. Meanwhile, from North Vietnam, Ho and the communists stepped up Page 453 | Top of Articletheir efforts to take over the South, supporting the Viet Cong’s guerrilla campaign by sending men and arms along the Vietnamese border of neighboring Laos. This famous network of routes through the Laotian rain forest became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
America steps directly into the quagmire
A major turninge point came in 1964, when North Vietnamese forces fired on a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering ship in the international waters of the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of North Vietnam. Although no damage was done, Congress rapidly passed the so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson broad powers to step up U.S. military involvement. Johnson and his advisors had already planned bombing raids on North Vietnam, which now began in earnest, and the following year the first U.S. ground troops—about 50,000 soldiers—entered the conflict.
By 1968 Johnson’s policy of escalation had gradually but steadily brought the number of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam to nearly 500, 000, yet little progress had been made and the war was stalemated. Another major turning point came early that year, when the Viet Cong targeted the South’s major cities in a broad attack during celebrations for the lunar New Year or Tet. Called the Tet Offensive, this bloody, hard-fought series of battles in the South resulted in a technical victory for South Vietnamese and U.S. forces, but at a steep cost. In the end, an estimated 50, 000 Viet Cong soldiers were killed; some 4, 000 South Vietnamese and 2, 000 American soldiers died. The Tet Offensive’s unexpected strength and violence—the Viet Cong came very close to taking the U.S. embassy in the Southern capital, Saigon—dramatically revealed the shortcomings of U.S. strategy. The U.S. media portrayed the Tet Offensive as a disaster, because it was completely unforeseen and because of the early American casualties. Widely publicized in the United States, the Tet Offensive turned the tide of public opinion against the war, convincing many that it could not be won. A growing number, too, saw the war as simply wrong. Among that number was the young Tim O’Brien, who graduated from Macalester College in the spring of 1968, a few months after Tet, and who was drafted into the U.S. Army that same summer.
The U.S. soldiers’ experience in Vietnam
U.S. soldiers in Vietnam served under conditions that differed significantly from those Americans had encountered in previous wars. Most importantly, where local people had earlier hailed American troops as liberators (as in World War II), the South Vietnamese government’s unpopularity and corruption led many South Vietnamese to view the Americans as hated occupiers. Fighting tactics changed too. Soldiers who had trained for traditional frontline combat against a uniformed enemy found themselves fighting instead against guerrillas who attacked and then disappeared, blending into an often sympathetic surrounding population. On the surface, villagers might seem friendly, but their smiles could conceal deadly intent. Marine Captain E. J. Banks described the resulting uncertainty:
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You never knew who was the enemy and who was a friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike. They were all Vietnamese. Some of them were Vietcong. Here’s a woman of twenty-two or twenty-three. She is pregnant, and she tells an interrogator that her husband
works in Danang [a South Vietnamese city] and isn’t a Vietcong. But she watches your men walk down a trail and get killed or wounded by a booby trap. She knows the booby trap is there, but she doesn’t warn them. Maybe she planted it herself. It wasn’t like the San Francisco Forty-Niners on one side of the field and the Cincinnati Bengals on the other. The enemy was all around you.
(Banks in Karnow, p. 467)
This pervasive hostility meant that all soldiers found themselves under the constant threat of attack, even those who would otherwise have felt secure, such as office personnel or warehouse workers. Adding to the effects of such stress was the extreme youth of the draftees: the average age of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam was only 19 years old, as compared with 26 years old in World War II. Furthermore, the military’s system of rotation
called for each soldier to serve only a one-year tour of duty, which meant that at any one time a significant number were inexperienced. The story “The Ghost Soldiers” in The Things They Carried illustrates how such inexperience could multiply the risks the soldiers already faced. When Tim O’Brien is wounded, despite the wound’s uncritical nature he still nearly dies from shock when a young medic who has just been rotated in freezes in the fear of the moment and fails to give him the simple care he needs.
Platoons like O’Brien’s carried out so-called“search-and-destroy” missions, in which a unit would patrol a given area of countryside seeking to engage the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese enemy. Other missions might include“pacifying” or“sweeping” a village, which in practice could mean facing withering Viet Cong sniper and machine-gun fire for several days while struggling to approach a village. When they finally took the village, the soldiers would commonly find only old men and women there. The enemy would vanish into the jungle. Then the soldiers would leave, and the Viet Cong would return.
By the early 1970s, the stressful, frustrating conditions had caused severe morale and discipline problems. As the novel reflects in several places, drug abuse was common. In 1971 an official report estimated that one-third of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam were addicted to opium or heroin and suggested that virtually all of them smoked marijuana. Corruption and disobedience grew widespread. A number of overzealous officers were murdered by their own men, who rolled fragmentation grenades into the officers’ tents while they slept (a practice called“fragging”). The killings were committed by men unwilling to perform dangerous duties, such as search-and-destroy missions, in hopes that the dead officers’ replacements would be less zealons.
The war’s impact on American culture
The novel skips over the two decades between the end of Tim O’Brien’s tour of duty in 1970 and the setting in 1990 from which he looks back on his war experiences. During that time, the war in Vietnam etched itself deeply into the American psyche, becoming a symbol of national failure and disillusionment. The process took time, however; for several years after the withdrawal of American troops in 1973, Americans seemed inclined to forget about the war completely. Vietnam veterans complained of feeling shunned rather than welcomed home by the society that had sent them to war. In The Things They Carried,
the story“Speaking of Courage” focuses on the difficulties faced by returning veterans. As historian Stanley Karnow suggested in 1983, it was “as if the nation has projected onto them its own sense of guilt or shame or humiliation for the war” (Karnow, p. 25). Only in the late 1970s did the war in Vietnam begin appearing as a subject in popular books and movies. Then, as later, soldiers in Vietnam were often portrayed as drug-crazed, brutalized killers, an image that also attached itself to popular portrayals of returned Vietnam veterans.
The war also had a profound impact on American politics. Noting the public’s growing distrust of politicians since the Vietnam era, historians have attributed much of it to the fact that presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon regularly lied to the public in order to justify their conduct of the war. In addition, the war has overshadowed virtually every overseas American military involvement since. Both political and military leaders, as well as the general public, have commonly used the phrase “No more Vietnams” to invoke caution about committing U.S. armed forces on foreign soil. In the 1980s the U.S. military underwent far-reaching reforms as a result of the war, the most important of which was the end of the draft (1973) and the switch to an all-volunteer force. These reforms were tested the year after the novel’s publication in the Persian Gulf War (1991). America’s rapid victory allowed President George Bush to proclaim, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all”—revealing more than anything else just how powerful a hold Vietnam still had on the public imagination (Neu, p. 31).
The Novel in Focus
Though usually referred to as a novel, The Things They Carried has also been called a collection of short stories. Its 22 stories are indeed unconnected by any overarching plot, but all are linked by reappearing characters from the narrator’s platoon, Alpha Company, and most by the narrator’s first-person voice. A few (including the initial story, “The Things They Carried,” from which the collection takes its title) are told in the third-person. The stories range in length from just over one page to 30 pages.
In general, the pieces can be divided into two categories: narratives (which usually relate a particular episode or episodes) and essay-like commentaries. The five longest pieces are all narratives: “The Things They Carried,” “On the
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Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Speaking of Courage,” and “The Ghost Soldiers.” Shorter pieces include both narratives (such as “Spin,” “Stockings,” and “Enemies”) and reflections (such as “How to Tell a True War Story,”
“Notes,” and the final piece, “Lives of the Dead”). While the narratives may include brief allusions to the narrator’s later vantage point, they are generally set mostly during the war itself (two exceptions are “Speaking of Courage,” set in 1975, and “Field Trip,” set in 1990). Conversely, the essays generally look back in time from a later standpoint, and often qualify or comment on a preceding narrative.
The title story introduces some of the men of Alpha Company who are the novel’s major reappearing characters: the platoon’s commander, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross; the experienced medic Rat Kiley; the part-Native American called Kiowa, who is also a devout Baptist; and Norman Bowker, who is “otherwise a very gentle person,” but who carries a desiccated human thumb “cut from a VC [Viet Cong] corpse” as a good-luck charm (O’Brien, The Things They Carried, p. 13). The story focuses on Jimmy Cross, who is preoccupied by thoughts of Martha, a girl at home, and who consequently blames himself for the death of a soldier named Ted Lavender. Cross’s problems unfold in briefly related episodes interspersed with descriptions of the weapons, gear, and personal items that the soldiers carry—as well as the metaphorical burdens they also bear, such as Cross’s feelings of guilt. A brief reflective essay called “Love” then comments on the story, relating how Jimmy Cross has visited the narrator “many years after the war” and revealed that he still loves Martha, whom he saw at a high school reunion in 1979 but who rejected his advances and became a missionary (The Things They Carried, p. 29).
The next two pieces, “Spin” and “On the Rainy River,” combine episodic fragments from the past with the narrator’s later reflections. The brief and fragmentary “Spin” is set during the war, while the longer “On the Rainy River” relates Tim O’Brien’s reactions in the summer of 1968 after he learns that he has been drafted. Driving north to the Rainy River on the Canadian border, he stays for six days in a motel as he contemplates fleeing across the border. The motel’s perceptive owner, an older man named Elroy Berdahl, asks no questions, but befriends him and takes him fishing on the river, as if aware of the boy’s dilemma and need to make a choice. Although O’Brien’s conscience tells him not to participate in a war he feels is wrong, in the end he decides not to cross the river: “I was a coward. I went to war,” the story ends (The Things They Carried, p. 63). Two shorter linked pieces, “Enemies” and “Friends,” describe how two soldiers fight over a trivial matter but then later become fast friends, until one has his leg blown off and dies.
In one piece, “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien discusses storytelling and the nature of truth. He tells a story about the death of a soldier named Curt Lemon, assuring the reader “it’s all exactly true” but then qualifying that statement by suggesting that truth is not equivalent to factuality: “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth” (The Things They Carried, pp. 77, 89). Later, in the brief essay “Good Form,” he calls mere factuality “happening-truth,” which he distinguishes from the more deeply significant “story-truth” (The Things They Carried, p. 203).
In another narrative, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley tells the platoon a tale he has heard, the story of Mary Anne Bell, the 17-year-old girlfriend of a soldier named Mark Fos-sie. Circumventing army regulations somehow, Fossie daringly arranges for his young high-school sweetheart to travel from America and join his combat unit, encamped on the Song Tra Bong River. Though timid at first, the pretty and athletic girl soon begins to enjoy the routine of army life. Gradually, however, Fossie realizes that she is spending time with a small detachment of six Special Forces men, Green Berets, who have a base nearby from which they conduct their secret missions into the jungle. Though at first he suspects she is having an affair with one of the Green Berets, in fact the girl has been seduced by jungle warfare. She eventually completes her transformation by donning a necklace of human tongues, and the story ends with her simply vanishing into the jungle, where she is thought to have merged with the shadows and darkness.
In two stories, “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush,” Tim O’Brien recounts his feelings after killing a young Vietnamese man he has encountered on a trail. He cannot stop staring at the man’s body:
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He lay at the center of the trail, his right leg bent beneath him, his one eye shut, his other eye a huge star-shaped hole. It was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed by. And it will always be that way. Later, I remember, Kiowa tried to tell me that the man would’ve died anyway. He told me it was a good kill, that I was a soldier and this was a war, that I should shape up and stop staring…. Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t.
(The Things They Carried, p. 149)
“Speaking of Courage” tells the story of another member of Tim O’Brien’s platoon, Norman Bowker, following his return to his hometown in Iowa. Bowker feels responsible for the death of Kiowa, who literally drowned in human excrement during a firefight when the platoon was encamped in what turned out to be a field of sewage. Frozen in panic, Bowker could not bring himself to move and pull the wounded Kiowa out of the stinking sewage. Now, back in Iowa, he simply drives in circles around town, feeling aimless and out of place. In “Notes,” the essay that follows, Tim O’Brien states that he wrote the story in 1975, after getting a letter from Bowker, and that Bowker killed himself three years later. He ends the essay by declaring:
In the interests of truth, however, I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up.… That part of the story is my own.
(The Things They Carried, p. 182)
The next story, “In the Field,” also features Kiowa’s death, as does “Field Trip.” This second story, set “a few months after completing ‘In the Field, ‘” describes Tim O’Brien’s return, 20 years later with his ten-year-old daughter Kathleen, to the place where Kiowa died (The Things They Carried, p. 207).
Another of the longer narratives, “The Ghost Soldiers,” relates how Tim O’Brien was wounded and recounts his revenge on the inexperienced medic who replaced his friend Rat Kiley after the latter suffered a nervous breakdown. The fearstricken youngster neglected to give Tim O’Brien basic treatment for shock after Tim O’Brien was shot in the buttock, with the result that Tim O’Brien nearly died from what should have been a minor wound. Tim O’Brien later takes revenge by terrifying the young medic while the man is on nighttime guard duty. The next narrative, “Night Life,” tells the story of Rat Kiley’s breakdown. A final essay, “The Lives of the Dead,” relates Tim O’Brien’s feelings of loss and guilt over the war to similar feelings he carries from childhood, when a little girl he loved died from a brain tumor. He begins the tale by declaring “this is true: stories can save us” and ends on a similar note, saying that now he is a middle-aged writer trying to save the life of the young boy he once was “with a story” (The Things They Carried, pp. 255, 273).
In interviews Tim O’Brien has maintained the disregard of factual truth that he proclaims in The Things They Carried. He at one moment, for example, asserts that a real person named Norman Bowker existed, then declares a moment later that “there was no Norman Bowker” (Naparsteck, p. 6). Indeed, the novel’s copyright page features a disclaimer describing it as “a work of fiction” and stating that “except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary” (The Things They Carried, copyright page). Facing that page, however, the reader finds that the book is “lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa,” all of whom are named characters in the novel (The Things They Carried, dedication).
Of course, such contradictory statements may amount to no more than purposeful literary ambiguity, and have certainly occurred in other postmodern literary works that have nothing to do with America’s war in Vietnam. Yet it is striking to note that historians have found a similar disregard of factual truth to be the defining feature of the attitude that allowed American politicians to prosecute the war. By 1968 this so-called “credibility gap”—that is, the gap between what the government said was happening in Vietnam and what was actually happening there—had become a major pillar of the growing antiwar movement. The Tonkin Gulf incident serves as an example. In the summer of 1964, U.S. naval destroyers suffered two attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although they did no real damage and U.S. planes retaliated, the incident was used as a pretext to win approval for a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, one that had already been carefully planned by the Johnson administration.
The credibility gap has remained a central part of American public life ever since. As historian Brian Balogh puts it, the willingness of America’s leaders to lie about Vietnam created a situation in which Americans “no longer trusted their public officials” (Balogh in Neu, p. 34).
Another historian, Christopher Lasch, observes that
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It was because prestige and credibility had become the only measure of effectiveness that American policy in Vietnam could be conducted without regard to … the political situation in that country…. The object of American policy in Vietnam was defined from the outset as the preservation of American credibility.
(Lasch, p. 78)
More important than any actual success in the war was the appearance of success, Lasch argues, for the appearance was what maintained the government’s credibility both at home and with its Cold War allies. Indeed, the appearance of success was equated with success itself: if America appeared to have succeeded, then it had succeeded.
Scarred by a war based on a political credibility gap, O’Brien created a novel with a literary credibility gap. This gap makes it impossible for the reader to take the novel’s statements at face value. It also differs strikingly in purpose from the political credibility gap, which manipulated truth to justify the war in Vietnam to the public. O’Brien’s gap, in contrast, dismisses “absolute occurrence” in the interest of exposing deeper truths that underlie the events of the war rather than focusing on the events themselves.
Sources and literary context
Without attempting to pierce Tim O’Brien’s carefully constructed veil of authorial ambiguity, suffice it to say that his personal experiences in the war (and after) provide models and inspiration for characters and events in The Things They Carried. Two apparent exceptions are “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “The Man I Killed.” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” derives its ultimate inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902; also in Literature and Its Times), in which a European named Kurtz descends into moral decay in central Africa. “The Man I Killed,” in which Tim O’Brien briefly imagines details from the life of a young Vietnamese man he kills with a hand grenade, recalls in both its title and subject matter Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed” (1909), about a soldier the speaker has killed in combat.
O’Brien is often compared with Philip Caputo and Ron Kovic, two Vietnam veterans who wrote well-known memoirs of their experiences: Ca-puto’s is entitled A Rumor of War (1977); Kovic’s, Born on the Fourth of July (1976). Both believed in the war at first, taking a stance against it only after having served. As O’Brien has pointed out, he differs from both in that he opposed the war when he was drafted, a fact he sees as increasing his own guilt for having participated.
The Things They Carried won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize in 1990, and was highly praised by a chorus of reviewers. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert R. Harris places the novel not only on “the short list of essential fiction about [the American war in] Vietnam,” but “high up on the list of best fiction about any war” (Harris, Robert, p. 8). Praising the “bleak immediacy” of the novel’s interconnected stories, Julian Loose in the Times (of London) Literary Supplement writes that “O’Brien fully exploits the freedoms offered by the [story] sequence, a form which encourages variety and experimentation” (Loose, p. 705). A few critics have taken issue with O’Brien’s deliberate blurring of fact and fiction, such as the Wall Street Journal’s Brace Bawer, who calls it “disingenuous game playing” (Bawer, p. A13). Others have objected to the stories’ introspective focus, characterizing O’Brien’s treatment of, for example, female and Vietnamese perspectives as superficial or nonexistent. Most, however, would agree with Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times:“The fuller justification for The Things They Carried is the writing itself,” which Eder praises as possessing “the sharp edge of a honed vision” (Eder, p. 3).
For More Information
Bawer, Bruce. “Confession or Fiction? Stories from Vietnam.” Wall Street Journal, 23 March 1990, A13.
Eder, Richard. “Has He Forgotten Anything?” Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1 April 1990, 3, 11.
Harris, David. Our War. New York: Random House, 1996.
Harris, Robert R. “Too Embarrassed Not to Kill.” New York Times Book Review, 11 March 1990, 8.
Herzog, Tobey C Tim O’Brien. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.
Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissm. New York: Norton, 1979.
Loose, Julian. “The Story That Never Ends.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4552 (29 June-5 July 1990): 705.
Naparsteck, Martin. “An Interview.” Contemporary Literature 32, no. 1 (spring 1991): 1-11.
Nash, Gary B., et al. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. Vol 2. New York: Harper& Row, 1990.
Neu, Charles E., ed. After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2000.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990.