"The Things They Carried"
Tim O'Brien wrote the short story "The Things They Carried" in 1985. It was published in the August 1986 issue of Esquire and again the following year in The Best American Short Stories of 1987. In 1990, it was the first story in the collection The Things They Carried. O'Brien had already won the National Book Award for an earlier book, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried stirred the same praise. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and won several other awards.
This story of a company of young U.S. army infantrymen who, in essence, are carrying the Vietnam War on their backs, is read and appreciated today as much as when it was first published. Veterans from World War II to the war in Iraq find that it captures the realities of war, while probing the unrealities that frontline soldiers are forced to live out in order to survive—on both physical and psychological levels. These unreal, even surreal, demands on men are related to morality, courage, and fear. O'Brien leaves the reader unpeeling the truth, which like the proverbial onion has many layers.
Another important aspect to the story is that it speaks in what the author has termed story-truth. O'Brien makes the case that the stories people tell and retell can sometimes yield a deeper understanding than cold hard facts. In its very structure, "The Things They Carried" Page 508 | Top of Articlemimics the theme of hard facts versus ampler truths about war. The soldiers of Alpha Company carry heavy loads of supplies through the countryside of Vietnam. What they bear is meant to allow them to carry out missions against the enemy and stay alive. In his narrative, O'Brien returns again and again to add more information on the mounting list of things the men carry. He details specific names and functions of weapons, equipment, and personal belongings, citing the weight of each, down to the ounce. But these lists are sprinkled with a tally of the things each man carries in war that are heavy in a different sense: memory, longing, superstition, love, and fear. In addition, O'Brien presents anecdotes that in contrast to the precise and factual lists, demonstrate how individuals really cope in lethal situations and how group dynamics can force soldiers into behaviors that are neither human nor humane.
The story begins and ends inside the mind of twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Alpha Company's commanding officer. Cross is carrying letters from Martha, the college girl back home whom he loves, though he knows that the love is unrequited. These letters weigh only ten measurable ounces; their real heaviness is as the object that allows Cross to constantly hope, daydream, and fantasize. This is his technique for propelling himself away from the war into an imaginary world where love dominates.
After Cross, the narrator presents the entire company, listing what the characters consider "necessities or near-necessities" to carry in war. Some of these items are personal choices; others are required due to standard operating procedure, or SOP. Along with his weapons, Dave Jensen carries toothpaste and brush, dental floss, and three pairs of socks and foot powder to ward off trench foot. Mitchell Sanders, the company's radio telephone operator, carries condoms, brass knuckles, and "a set of starched Page 509
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tiger fatigues for special occasions." Rat Kiley is Alpha Company's emergency medical technician (EMT), and he carries medical supplies, brandy, comic books, and also M&M's, for "especially bad wounds." Kiowa is a Baptist Native American, and he carries his father's Bible and his grandfather's hatchet. Henry Dobbins, the company machine gunner, carries extra rations, especially sweets. Lee Strunk carries a slingshot—"a weapon of last resort, he call[s] it"—and suntan lotion. Norman Bowker carries a diary and the thumb of a dead Vietcong soldier.
The infantrymen are known as legs or grunts; legs because they march from battle to battle, and grunts as a term derived from the sound a soldier makes when lifting his heavy backpack. Their job is to hump: to carry a burdensome load is to "hump it." One can consider the central character of the story as the collective dehumanized they that is carried by individual legs. All that matters to them is "the endless march, village to village." The legs plod along without thinking, with no purpose or will to their actions: "the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility." They are no longer individual human beings, but a giant pack animal carrying out the directions of its master's will. This witless beast is carrying the war, braying, but resigned to obedience. When, now and then, this mule finds itself in danger, it panics. At such moments, the legs lose their dignified pose. The animal squeals, twitches, moans, covers its heads, and flops around on the ground. When, finally, the lethal danger has passed, "they blink and peek up." Then they are ashamed of showing their animal terror. They joke to cover their shame at being "afraid of dying," for they are "even more afraid to show it."
The next section reveals more about Jimmy Cross. He carries those letters and also two photos of Martha. In one, she stands against a brick wall and the photographer's shadow can also be seen. Jimmy feels jealous of a possible rival back home, while he is fighting in Vietnam. In the second snapshot, cut from her 1968 yearbook, Martha plays volleyball with an expression that is "frank and competitive;" she shows "no visible sweat." Cross extols Martha's virtue because she is "almost certainly a virgin," yet he regrets that after their date to the movies he had not dared be more aggressive. Jimmy thinks that he "should've risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should've done." But even jealousy and regret are more pleasant to dwell on than the war, and this is why is Cross is so often daydreaming instead of focusing on the safety of his men.
In the story's next section, O'Brien directs his reader's attention back to the entire company. He explains in technical detail the names and weights of the weaponry the soldiers bear. In part, they carry weapons and equipment according to rank and expertise. Sometimes they carry less, as when items such as maintenance gear for their standard-issue rifles are not available. And sometimes they carry more, either because their tasks call for it or in hopes that the extra items will save their lives. For example, Ted Lavender, because he "was scared," is carrying "more than 20 pounds of ammunition" when he is shot dead. After the author lists and explains the tangible burdens of rank, "The Things They Carried" briefly describes for the first time the events of Lavender's death. He is shot by a sniper when returning after he "went off to pee." From the time Lavender is killed, Cross's mental state begins to change. He blames Martha for the incident "because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her." This action of transforming his love for Martha into blame Page 510 | Top of Articlebecomes a central step in the story's plot progression.
The narrator moves again to the company as a whole. He reveals that beyond the weapons and equipment all soldiers are issued, each soldier carries some personal item to make him feel safer in combat. Since the beginning of April, Lieutenant Cross has been carrying a pebble, a good-luck charm that represents Martha's feelings for him. When he conjures the fantasy of poetic Martha at the beach where she found the pebble, her toes bare, "eyes chilly and somber like the ocean in March," he feels jealous of her imagined beach companion. He is also unclear about what her truest feelings for him might be. But he pushes away his confusion, for the pebble refuels his fantasies of a radiant future with her. The dynamic of this fantasy leaves him "carrying nothing." He has the sensation of "rising. Sun and waves and gentle winds, all love and lightness."
After this, O'Brien brings the reader back to the war, where seventeen grunts are humping huge loads over the Vietnamese landscape—a landscape often full of sniper's bullets. This time the narrator itemizes the things the members of Alpha Company carry according to mission. Specific weapons and weights are added to those listed before. The company is on a mission outside Than Khe. They must blow up every enemy tunnel after searching them, "which was considered bad news." This dangerous task is assigned by drawing lots. On that still, bright April morning, Lee Strunk draws the losing lot. Cross, lost in daydreams, bends over the entry hole to the tunnel to cover Strunk, but he is thinking of Martha. He fantasizes that he and Martha are caught in the collapse of a tunnel of "[d]ense, crushing love." He longs to crawl inside Martha and be cocooned, wanting "to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered." He remembers the time he kissed her and told her he loved her. She had looked back at him, "her eyes wide open, not afraid, not a virgin's eyes, just flat and uninvolved." About this time, Lee Strunk emerges. Cross's men begin to joke and banter in nervous relief, but Cross does not banter with them, though he closes his eyes for a moment. Then—"Boom. Down."—Ted Lavender is shot in the head.
The reader hardly has a chance to soak in the sudden nature of Lavender's death when the story returns to the things the men carry, this time including things that weigh them down and may threaten their lives. They carry the possessions of fallen companions, and at times, the fallen companions themselves. They carry diseases, parasites, and infections. They carry their own fragile lives. Sometimes, the men jettison unneeded things because the Army flies in regularly with more supplies. But one thing is certain; whether tangible items or invisible burdens, there is "the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry."
In contrast to precise detail concerning things the soldiers carried into war, a terse paragraph, of just over six lines, with no description, comes next. In retaliation for Lavender's death, Lieutenant Cross orders his men to burn the village of Than Khe—and everything in it—to the ground. "They burned everything. They shot the chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage."
The soldiers use grunt lingo—terms like burn, grease, zap, as slang for kill during the Vietnam War. The company marches until dusk. Cross begins trembling when Kiowa gives another description of Lavender's death. That night, he mourns the passing of Lavender, but more profoundly, he mourns the passing of his own pretensions about Martha.
The narrator returns to the company at large. He looks at what it costs the men to carry their macho poses and tough-guy lingo, when they really long to escape into a buoyant world where all "[t]he weights f[a]ll off" and they might be "purely borne." They put on macho acts and poses for only one reason: "They were too frightened to be cowards." From this allusion to the group dynamic, there is a final return to Jimmy Cross. It is the following morning, and Cros's first waking actions are to burn Martha's letters and photos. He decides to face the realities of war and give up his fantasies; if he had been responsible "in a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity," perhaps Lavender would still be alive. Martha, because she is "not involved" with the war, belongs elsewhere than in his heart and mind. Now, "[h]e hated her. Yes, he did. He hated her. Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love." He plans to use "that new hardness in his stomach" to save lives.
With Martha exorcised from his thoughts, he now fantasizes himself as an ironhanded Page 511 | Top of Articlecommander. He will admit blame like a man, he will "look them in the eyes … chin level, and he [will] issue the new SOPs in … a lieutenant's voice, leaving no room for argument or discussion." For Jimmy Cross realizes that "his obligation [is] not to be loved [by] but to lead" the men whose lives he is responsible for, as they hump on to more villages like Than Khe.
Heroes and Leaders
The theme of leadership in "The Things They Carried" is examined through Lieutenant Cross. A young man thrust into war, he starts out as a dreamer and matures through hardship to become a leader. The hardship that shapes him is his own failure to be fully responsible for those whose very lives are under his command. While daydreaming about Martha, a girl from home, Cross's mind leaves the battlefield and as a result, one of his men is killed by a sniper. But First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross learns from his lethal mistake. By the story's end, he has moved, or is planning to move, from hoping, imagining, daydreaming, and pretending about romance, to disposing, insisting, accepting, showing strength, dispensing with, and not tolerating. He determines that "his obligation was not to be loved but to lead," and that in order to be an effective leader he must be stern and inflexible.
This model of leadership is in keeping with a stereotypical image of heroic commanders, based on Hollywood roles played by stars such as John Wayne and George C. Scott. These film heroes saved their men through tough-guy valor and stoic discipline. But at the same time, O'Brien seems to present a classic theme of war stories—war is hell, but a youth's journey through its nightmare is a rite of passage to manhood. The story, however, challenges the truth of such a theme. It leaves readers wondering if Lieutenant Cross can become a competent officer just by setting his jaw or carrying his body "in the correct command posture." A competent leader may not emerge from a sensitive young man thrown into the bowels of war. Flipping from obsessive fantasies to hard hatred of Martha and distancing himself from his men rather than moving toward them shows that Cross is as overwhelmed by the war and its requirements as the least of his soldiers. In this manner, O'Brien's treatment of the classic theme of war as a rite of passage to manhood interrogates itself.
Violence and Brutality
Violence and brutality bombard the men of Alpha Company. The land itself attacks their bodies: they are invaded by diseases, parasites, fungi, algae, and infections. In addition, the countryside is mined and booby-trapped so heavily that the heavy mine detector they carry in hopes of not being blown to bits is "often useless because of the shrapnel in the earth." And as well as hiding illnesses and landmines, the land hides snipers. The enemy troops, the Vietcong (VC), know their own country well. The soldiers know it only via maps and instructions.
The lists of weapons, instruments, and protective clothing the men carry to try to stay alive suggest how much their presence is hated in Vietnam. The awareness of this constant lethal hatred, directed at the life of self and friends, is a tremendous load to hump around. It leads the men to try to deaden their emotional load of fear. In order to do so, they must suppress their hopes and dreams to shut out "the terrible softness" of human life. Through the jokes of Sanders, Kiley, and Strunk, the author demonstrates how people manipulate language to distance feelings of pain and horror. The soldiers use a lingo full of euphemisms, substituting words that have no negative charge, such as greased, offed, or zapped, rather than killed, shot in the head, or massacred. Lavender seems to be the only one who admits he is scared. Even when reduced by combat panic to groveling on the ground and begging God to save them, the soldiers roll to their feet, joking profanely once again.
O'Brien also writes about the shocking violence the men are forced to observe. Seeing the rotting body of the unknown VC teenage soldier—who was also carrying things in an attempt to stay alive—and witnessing their comrade's exploded face are traumatic occurrences. The readers see, in four tense lines, what the young grunts see before their buddy Lavender is taken away by helicopter: "He lay with his mouth open. The teeth were broken. There was a swollen black bruise under his left eye. The cheekbone was gone." The suddenness and Page 512 | Top of Articlerandomness of death presses on each member of the company in different ways.
Lieutenant Cross orders the village of Than Khe to be burned, shot, trashed, and blown into wreckage in retaliation for Lavender's death. It is a violent reaction beyond the convention of legal warfare and echoes the massacre at My Lai, which horrified the world. On March 16, 1968, American soldiers opened fire on the village of My Lai and tortured and killed hundreds of Vietnamese elderly, women, children, and babies. After an attempted cover-up, the commanding officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted of several counts of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, but he served only three and a half years of house arrest. The effect of such brutality on witnesses, and even perpetrators, is often the source of long-lasting trauma. O'Brien ends his story with Lieutenant Cross ready to "saddle up" like a cavalryman of the Wild West and to shoulder more routine violence, as the company moves "out to the villages west of Than Khe."
Survival and Recovery
O'Brien wrote this story twelve years after the Vietnam conflict ended. The war in Vietnam had transformed American military life. For the first time, some soldiers openly criticized the war in which they had fought, describing it as deceptive, wrong, and morally indefensible. In "The Things They Carried," the members of Alpha Company depict what soldiers in Vietnam found themselves compelled to do in order to survive the war's physical and psychological carnage, and yet avoid dishonor. Nothing was worse than being called a coward.
In "The Lives of the Dead," the last story in the collection The Things They Carried, O'Brien writes, "But this too is true: stories can save us." The process of unloading the burdens of shame, horror, and terror that soldiers carried would become the foundation of the rap session model of recovery created by returning Vietnam vets and concerned health workers. In "The Things They Carried," Norman Bowker prophetically expresses this desire for speaking, in opposition to his initial instinct to remain silent. Ultimately, Kiowa's incessant repetition of the way Lavender went down is actually less jarring than his empty silence and so Bowker eventually urges him: "'What the hell,' he said. 'You want to talk, talk. Tell it to me.'"
The Vietnam Conflict
"The Things They Carried" is set in Vietnam in the spring of 1969. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy had sent one hundred special forces troops to Vietnam; within a year, over five thousand troops were stationed there. American forces were sent to help prevent the South Vietnamese government from being overrun by the pro-communist North Vietnamese government. After the Cuban missile crisis in 1962—when the cold war had almost exploded into nuclear war—the U.S. government became determined to quash the spread of communism in the world. Although war with Vietnam was never officially declared, this conflict became the longest in American history. In "Casualties," an article in The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, John F. Guilmartin Jr. and Kelly Evans-Pfeifer supply figures that suggest that over the war's eleven-year span, an estimated three million people died and approximately one million more were wounded—although exact figures are almost impossible to ascertain since official government records are sealed: "Estimates of Page 513 | Top of Articleguerrilla casualties are notoriously unreliable because the distinction between combatant, civilian porter, and innocent bystander was rarely clear; and the numbers were manipulated by both sides."
Department of Defense statistics show that of the 2.6 million Americans who were exposed to enemy attacks in South Vietnam, 58,209 were killed. Guilmartin and Evans-Pfeifer estimate that at least "70 percent of all American enlisted casualties were twenty-one years of age or younger." Young men of adequate health were drafted into the war as soon as their education was completed. In November 1969, the government created the draft lottery, a system that conscripted young men between nineteen and twenty years of age in preference to older or married males. National Archive and Records Administration (NARA) numbers show that 17,215 married men died in the war. In addition to those Americans who were killed outright, approximately 153,303 were left wounded as a result of the conflict. A report by Robert Longley about the Canadian government's plan to build a monument in honor of Vietnam draft-dodgers lists the number of those that fled to Canada to evade the draft as 125,000. Additionally, many thousands of men who could not qualify for conscientious objector (CO) status were sent to federal penitentiaries for draft evasion or desertion.
The Vietnam War began under President Kennedy, accelerated under President Lyndon Johnson, and was expanded to Cambodia and Laos by President Richard Nixon. Congress initially approved bill after bill for funding and troop deployment (the total war cost is estimated at $200 billion) in order to pursue the conflict. But by the Nixon administration, with increasing public protest and revelations of abuse of public trust, some members of Congress began to lessen their support.
By the late 1960s, the antiwar movement, which O'Brien had taken part in before he was drafted, had become vocal and mainstream. At first concentrated on college campuses, the movement spread to other segments of society such as women's groups, religious organizations, ethnic communities, and labor unions. Students and other youth remained involved in large numbers, and extremist groups also formed. On October 15, 1969, more than one million Americans across the nation participated peacefully in the first Vietnam Moratorium. One month later on November 15, between 300,000 and 500,000 Americans from all walks of life converged on Washington for a second moratorium protest. However, the bombings of North Vietnam continued, and on April 30, 1970, Nixon sent troops into Cambodia to wipe out Vietnamese military groups that were established there.
The result at home was a furor of protest, especially on college campuses. On May 3, 1970, the governor of Ohio summoned the National Guard to Kent State University, where a demonstration was underway. The following day, the National Guard shot and killed four Kent State students and wounded several others. On May 14 and 15, a protest at Jackson State University in Mississippi, which also demanded the end to discrimination against black students, ended with two men dead at the hands of the National Guard. The protests against the war and the president's policies toward it increased. The organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and its myriad supporters were gaining voice. Objections from politicians concerned about Nixon's assumption of war powers that constitutionally belonged to Congress began pouring forth. In response, government surveillance of citizen's activities increased, and on March 30, 1971, a secret army directive authorized inspection and confiscation of soldier's incoming and outgoing mail, if it were deemed to contain antiwar material.
The Vietnam conflict officially ended on January 27, 1973. The American embassy in Saigon was evacuated, along with remaining U.S. troops, when Saigon—the capital of South Vietnam—fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. The U.S. government did not restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam until July 1995, more than twenty-two years after the conflict officially ended.
Upon returning from battle, members of VVAW noticed that their war experiences seemed somehow different from those of their elders in World War II. In the late 1960s, a VVAW group invited a young psychologist, Dr. Chaim Shatan, to meet with them. Together, they instigated the model of the rap session, in which vets, in the Page 514
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security of a small group, could examine the discrepancies between the official version of the war and what their experiences had really been. Hundreds of mental health professionals volunteered their services to returning vets, and many hundreds of rap groups met across the United States. The findings of these groups resulted in the first diagnosis of an affliction that today is recognized internationally aspost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a coping response to extremely violent shock. Psychologist Dr. Richard Lifton testified in 1970, before a Congressional committee, that it was "the brutalization of GIs in Vietnam … [that] 'made massacres like My ai inevitable.'"
After the War
When O'Brien returned from the war, he found an America that had been polarized to the extreme. By the time O'Brien published The Things They Carried in 1986, the Nixon administration was long over. The streets were empty of antiwar marchers. The civil rights movement, through the sacrifices of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, had succeeded in ending lynching, overt segregation, and voter intimidation, though many race issues still festered. Even though the Reagan administration was pushing for the Star Wars defense initiative, the cold war was almost over. Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, was in office, and in four years, the Berlin Wall would literally tumble down. New interests in things like cyberscience, and new fears, like those surrounding the emerging AIDS epidemic, were pulling attention away from Vietnam veterans who struggled with trauma disorders, physical disablement, and the disease legacies of agent orange. Less than five years after The Things They Carried was published, America would find itself involved in the first of two wars in Iraq. By 2005, America's involvement in the second war in Iraq began to garner comparisons to the Vietnam War for everything from the elusive nature of the enemy to allegations of governmental dishonesty.
"The Things They Carried" was first published in Esquire in August 1986. The following year, it Page 515 | Top of Articlewon a place in the prestigious anthology Best American Short Stories of 1987. It was published as the title piece of the book by the same name in 1990. Shortly thereafter, Robert R. Harris wrote in the New York Times that this work of "essential fiction about Vietnam … [goes] beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear." The book's long reach places it "high up on the list of best fiction about any war." It received extraordinary accolades, with critics such as Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times Book Review attesting, "The most extraordinary piece in the collection [the short story " The Things They Carried"] is the first." The Things They Carried was named one of the ten best books of 1990 by the New York Times and received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for fiction. Unusual for a book of short stories, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Critics Award. In 1993, the French edition won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger.
Acclaim for the story "The Things They Carried" has come from many directions: Vietnam veterans, their families, and communities; veterans of other wars; students and teachers (it won the YALSA award for Best Books for Young Adults); civilians; and critics. Richard Harris of the New York Times Book Review writes that O'Brien "makes sense of the unreality of the war," probing over and over what really happened in Vietnam until "he not only crystallizes the Vietnam experience for us, he exposes the nature of all war stories." O'Brien's dogged yet artful quest to exhume the truths about war from the load of political propaganda led Eder to write in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "The Things They Carried" is "an ultimate, indelible image of war in our time and in time to come."
In recent years, critics have taken to labeling O'Brien a Vietnam writer to the exclusion of other subject matter. Don Lee's article, "About Tim O'Brien," explores this tendency by critics. Lee points out that "[a]ny close examination of his books reveals there is something much more universal about them." O'Brien responds to his own critics, perhaps, when at the end of "How to Tell a War Story," the narrator ends with the assertion that "a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight…. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow." These topics extend beyond Vietnam. Yet, O'Brien does not apologize for his use of Vietnam in telling his stories. In Lee's article, O'Brien remarks that Vietnam is a part of his life, and "is there the way childhood is." It colors his storytelling as a setting to which he returns in order to make sense of things. He explains in the same article, "Shakespeare did it with kings, Conrad did it with the ocean, and Faulkner did it with the South," as such O'Brien does it with Vietnam.
For veterans in general and for their families, war is a load that cannot easily be put down. Such people, prompted by "The Things They Carried," have reported the occurrence of important reconsiderations. In "War Stories," an article by Philadelphia native Trey Popp, a veteran of World War II, Popp confides, "The stories this man writes, they trigger memories for me. And war is hell, but it's not enough to say that. Sometimes it's also a shambles." Similarly, U.S. Marine and founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War Michael Hoffman, wrote an article for the Guardian entitled "The Civilians We Killed." In it, he refers to the truth found in war stories rather than in reported facts, reminding his readership that O'Brien said, "a true war story [has] absolute and uncompromised allegiance to obscenity and evil."
In the following excerpt, Popp writes about how "The Things They Carried" has touched many Philadelphians affected by war—from WWII to Iraq—including soldiers, veterans, and their families and friends.
Over the past two months, the city of Philadelphia has tried everything short of a judicial decree to get its denizens to read a 15-year-old book. This year's "One Book, One Philadelphia" program, a joint endeavor of the mayor's office and the Free Library, is centered on Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a novel about the Vietnam War that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1990.
There's been a special-edition print run of 5,000 paperbacks, most of which have been given away, a calendar of over a hundred promotional events from panel discussions to theatrical interpretations to free screenings of The Fog of War and Platoon, and next week, O'Brien will be in town to headline three literary happenings.
Philadelphia isn't the first burg to get behind The Things They Carried. Chicago chose the novel for its own program two years ago, and smaller towns including Richmond, Va., and Valparaiso, Ind., have tapped it as well.
For John Grant and Frank Corcoran, members of the Philadelphia chapter of Veterans for Peace who have been sharing their Vietnam experiences with high school classrooms for a decade, the selection was a godsend. "We were thrilled when we found out about it," Grant said. "Frank's been carrying around a dog-eared copy of that book for 10 years."
There is something uncanny about the way the book facilitates conversation, and not only among Vietnam vets. Some of the most interesting speakers have been men who fought in World War II, a generation notorious for its reticence.
"When I started reading this book, I asked myself, 'What am I doing reading another war story?'" said John Alexander, an infantryman in the European theater, at a recent panel. "I guess I'm like most men. We try to put everything out of our minds. We want to forget it. But the stories this man writes, they trigger memories for me. And war is hell, but it's not enough to say that. Sometimes it's also a shambles."
Speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, O'Brien recalled his father, a Navy veteran of the Pacific theater, having a similar reaction to the book. "He said something to the effect that that's how it felt. No matter the circumstance of a war—how unpopular it is or isn't—you don't think about politics and so on. You're just thinking about your own mortality, the lives of your friends, and how did God get me into this fix?" said O'Brien. "I remember him saying that some things just don't change.
There's this perception that Vietnam was so radically different from other American wars. And his reaction was pretty right on, that yeah, there were differences, but not many for the person on the ground, fighting. Orphans and widows and dead children and dead friends. All that."
It's no coincidence that O'Brien's book is enjoying another wave of attention at the same moment a vast new generation of war veterans is being created in Iraq. Marie Field, chairwoman of the One Book program, says the selection committee set its sights on war literature from the get-go. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was shelved for another year while the committee debated over books that could speak to Philadelphia's large and growing population of veterans. With the biggest National Guard contingent of any state in the union, Pennsylvania is disproportionately bearing the consequences of an administration whose appetite for war exceeds the Army's capacity to wage it.
"Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front was considered," Field says. "Which is also a wonderful book. But the reason we thought The Things They Carried was so important is because Philadelphia has so many veterans and people who were affected by that war. Soldiers who were there, families who lost people, whose lives were very much impacted by that war. And of course what's going on today."
The crux of O'Brien's book is contained in his advice on how to tell a true war story, in a chapter of the same name:
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.
Source: Trey Popp, "War Stories," in Philadelphia City Paper.net, March 10-16, 2005, pp. 1-2.
In the following excerpt, Kaplan examines the fictional form O'Brien uses in the book's title story. It is this "pattern of stating facts and then quickly calling them into question" which allows reader and writer to probe for truths underlying the United States military and government's "wild and terrible … fiction[s]" about the Vietnam war.
Before the United States became militarily involved in defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, it had to, as one historian recently put it, "invent" the country and the political issues at stake there.
The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening storytellers. First the United States decided what constituted good and evil, right and wrong, civilized and uncivilized, freedom and oppression for Vietnam, according to American standards; then it traveled the long physical distance to Vietnam and attempted to make its own notions about these things clear to the Vietnamese people—ultimately by brute, technological force. For the U.S. military and government, the Vietnam that they had in effect invented became fact. For the soldiers that the government then sent there, however, the facts that their government had created about who was the enemy, what were the issues, and how the war was to be won were quickly overshadowed by a world of uncertainty. Ultimately, trying to stay alive long enough to return home in one piece was the only thing that made any sense to them. Philip Beidler has pointed out in an impressive study of the literature of that war that "most of the time in Vietnam, there were some things that seemed just too terrible and strange to be true and others that were just too terrible and true to be strange."
The main question that Beidler's study raises is how, in light of the overwhelming ambiguity that characterized the Vietnam experience, could any sense or meaning be derived from what happened and, above all, how could this meaning, if it were found, be conveyed to those who had not experienced the war? If the experience of Vietnam and its accompanying sense of chaos and confusion can be shown at all, then for Tim O'Brien it will not be in the fictions created by politicians but in the stories told by writers of fiction.
In his most recent work of fiction, "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien takes the act of trying to reveal and understand the uncertainties about the war one step further, by looking at it through the imagination. He completely destroys the fine line dividing fact from fiction and tries to show, even more so than in Cacciato, that fiction (or the imagined world) can often be truer, especially in the case of Vietnam, than fact. In the first chapter, an almost documentary account of the items referred to in the book's title, O'Brien introduces the reader to some of the things, both imaginary and concrete, emotional and physical, that the average foot soldier had to carry through the jungles of Vietnam. All of the "things" are depicted in a style that is almost scientific in its precision. We are told how much each subject weighs, either psychologically or physically, and, in the case of artillery, we are even told how many ounces each round weighed.
Even the most insignificant details seem worth mentioning. One main character is not just from Oklahoma City but from "Oklahoma City, Oklahoma," as if mentioning the state somehow makes the location more factual, more certain.
More striking than this obsession with even the minutest detail, however, is the academic tone that at times makes the narrative sound like a government report. We find such transitional phrases as "for instance" and "in addition," and whole paragraphs are dominated by sentences that begin with "because." These strengthen our impression that the narrator is striving, above all else, to convince us of the reality, of the concrete certainty, of the things they carried.
In the midst of this factuality and certainty, however, are signals that all the information in this opening chapter will not amount to much: that the certainties are merely there to conceal uncertainties and that the words following the frequent "becauses" do not provide an explanation of anything.
We are told in the opening page that the most important thing that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carded were some letters from a girl he loved. The narrator, one of Cross's friends in the war and now a forty-three-year-old writer named Tim O'Brien, tells us that the girl did not love Cross, but that he constantly indulged in "hoping" and "pretending" in an Page 518 | Top of Articleeffort to turn her love into fact. We are also told "she was a virgin," but this is immediately qualified by the statement that "he was almost sure" of this.
On the next page, Cross becomes increasingly uncertain as he sits at "night and wonder(s) if Martha was a virgin." At the end of the chapter, after one of Cross's men has died because Cross was too busy thinking of Martha, Cross sits at the bottom of his foxhole crying, not so much for the member of his platoon who has been killed "but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, and because she was … a poet and a virgin and uninvolved."
This pattern of stating facts and then quickly calling them into question that is typical of Jimmy Cross's thoughts in these opening pages characterizes how the narrator portrays events throughout this book: the facts about an event are given; they then are quickly qualified or called into question; from this uncertainty emerges a new set of facts about the same subject that are again called into question-on and on, without end. O'Brien catalogues the weapons that the soldiers carried, down to their weight, thus making them seem important and their protective power real. However, several of these passages are introduced by the statement that some of these same weapons were also carried by the character Ted Lavender: "Until he was shot …"
Conveying the average soldier's sense of uncertainty about what actually happened in Vietnam by presenting the what-ifs and maybes as if they were facts, and then calling these facts back into question again, can be seen as a variation of the haunting phrase used so often by American soldiers to convey their own uncertainty about what happened in Vietnam: "there it is." They used it to make the unspeakable and indescribable and the uncertain real and present for a fleeting moment.
Storytelling in this book is something in which "the whole world is rearranged" in an effort to get at the "full truth" about events that themselves deny the possibility of arriving at something called the "full," meaning certain and fixed, "truth."
Source: Steven Kaplan, "The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried," in Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 35, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 43-53.
Bruckner, D. J. R., "Storyteller for a War that Won't End," in the New York Times, April 3, 1990, pp. C15-17.
Department of Defense, Directorate for Information and Reports: Statistical Analysis Division, "U.S. Military Casualties in Southeast Asia—Vietnam Conflict: Casualty Summary," (June 15, 2004), web1.whs.osd.mil/ (July 12, 2005).
Eder, Richard, "Has He Forgotten Anything?" in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 1, 1990, pp. 3, 11.
Guilmartin, John F., Jr., and Kelly Evans-Pfeifer, "Casualties," in Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996. Reproduced in History Resource Center, Thomson Gale.
Harris, Robert R., "Too Embarrassed Not to Kill," in the New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, p. 8.
Herman, Judith Lewis, Trauma and Recovery, Pandora, 1994, pp. 20-28.
Hoffman, Michael, "The Civilians We Killed," in the Guardian Unlimited, "Comment" Section, www.guardian.co.uk (December 2, 2004).
Kaplan, Steven, "The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried,'" in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 35, n. l, Fall 1993, pp. 43-52
Lee, Don, "AboutTim O'Brien:AProfile," in Ploughshares, Issue 68, Vol. 21/4, Winter 1995–1996, pp. 196-201.
Longley, Robert, "Canadian Vietnam Draft-dodger Memorial Angers VFW," About.com, usgovinfo.about.-com/od/defenseandsecurity/a/canadadodgers.htm (July 12, 2005).
National Archive and Records Administration (NARA), "Statistical Information about Casualties of the Vietnam Conflict," www.archives.gov/research_room/research_topics/vietnam_war_casualty_lists/statistics.html (July 12, 2005).
O'Brien, Tim, "The Things They Carried," in The Things They Carried, Flamingo Books, 1991, pp. title page, 1-21.
Popp, Trey, "War Stories," in Philadelphia City Paper, Issue 1034, March 10-16, 2005, p. 38.