The Things They Carried is a collection of interconnected short stories about the experiences of a company of young American men serving in the Vietnam War. The book blurs the line between fiction and autobiography. It is told mainly from the first-person perspective of a middle-aged writer named Tim O’Brien, who is looking back on his time during the war. Tim O’Brien, however, is also the name of the actual author of The Things They Carried—it is unclear if the main character (and narrator) of the book is meant to be the same person as the author (who is also a Vietnam veteran).
The blending of fact and fiction is further developed as O’Brien tells us throughout the book that many of the tales we have read are not literally true. Rather, they are stories whose embellishments and fantastical qualities convey to the reader the full scale of the horror and emotional trauma of war. Because they produce what he deems to be the appropriate emotional reaction in the reader—one of shock, revulsion, and even disbelief—O’Brien deems this collection of stories to be truer than actual truth. They bring the experience of Vietnam to life in a way that a straight retelling of the facts never could.
The stories do not form a coherent, linear narrative—we jump back and forth through time and space and between the perspectives of different characters. Sometimes, O’Brien takes us inside the minds of characters other than himself, revealing their deepest thoughts and fears—details that would be impossible to recount, of course, if the book were a simple war autobiography. We see O’Brien’s early experiences with grief and loss as he recounts the death of his childhood girlfriend in the 1950s, his reluctance to go to war when he is drafted, the trauma and chaos he experiences when he is in Vietnam, and his attempts to make peace with his past and achieve closure with the war when he revisits the combat scenes of his youth with his daughter.
But we also see how the other men he serves with process the harrowing experience of war. We see these men engage in shocking acts of cruelty toward Vietnamese soldiers, civilians, each other, and even themselves. We see how the high chance of sudden death makes life a cheap commodity for the soldiers. And we see how the men use the power of storytelling to make sense of the ordeal and burden of war. Telling stories enables them to objectify their experiences, to make them seem more distant, third-party, and remote—and thus, more bearable. But creating a narrative around their experiences also brings the war and the people whom they lost to it back to life. Telling their stories makes them immortal.
The Things They Carried explores some key themes:
The men endure harrowing life-and-death experiences fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. There are, of course, the physical threats to one’s safety, as men become sick, lose limbs in combat, and are even killed. Men die suddenly, randomly, and gruesomely, whether from unexpected bursts of sniper fire, stepping on landmines, or even drowning in sewage fields. But there are also the psychological threats to one’s sanity and basic humanity, as the men of Alpha Company succumb to the emotional traumas inflicted by fear, isolation, and grief.
As the men spend more time in Vietnam and become more exposed to life in a war zone, they become hardened and emotionally callous. O’Brien comes to believe that he has lost some essential part of his former self because of the things he has seen and done. The men of Alpha Company burn down villages, terrorize the local Vietnamese population, slaughter animals, and mock the grief of the people they see lamenting the loss of their homes and families. At other times, they desecrate corpses of dead soldiers and civilians—kicking them, cutting off their limbs as trophies, and mockingly “shaking hands” with them.
But they also brutalize and dehumanize with language. The men joke and put on a mask of weary indifference to cope with the threat of death that hangs over their entire existence. When someone dies, they are, “offed,” “lit up,” or “zapped.” Even when some of their own are killed, the reaction is the same—jokes, callous remarks, and outward displays of cold indifference.
O’Brien shares an early, pre-Vietnam experience from his childhood, in which he fails to defend a friend who was suffering from a brain tumor from having her cap yanked off in class by a bully, revealing her bald head. He says that he failed to show moral courage and act on his principles because he didn’t want to look weak or effeminate in defending a vulnerable friend. He felt compelled to socially sanction an act of cruelty.
He faces similar dilemmas as a soldier. When first drafted into the war, O’Brien contemplates fleeing to Canada, but also feels immense pressure from his conservative Minnesota hometown to fight, and fears being seen as a coward. While he believes that the war is morally wrong and politically unjustified, he ultimately succumbs to his fear of how he would be perceived by his peers and goes to Vietnam—a decision which he, ironically, looks back on as having been the cowardly one.
Later, in Vietnam, he sees that the men of Alpha Company disdain outward displays of compassion and celebrate those fellow soldiers who seem to relish the violence of combat. Those who deliberately injure themselves to escape active duty are castigated as dishonorable and shameful “pussies” and “candy-asses.”
A frequent theme throughout the book is how telling fictionalized narrative stories brings true experiences alive. O’Brien discusses the difference between happening-truth and story-truth. Happening-truth is just the literal recounting of events that happened, while story-truth is imbued with fictional or exaggerated elements. Story-truth, however, is more real, because its sensationalized features more fully convey to the reader the emotional power of what happened. Stories can be truer than truth.
O’Brien experiments with this theme throughout the book, by relating emotionally traumatic episodes to us (like his killing of a young Vietnamese soldier), only to reveal to us later in the narrative that they did not actually happen the way he told us. Nevertheless, the stories are “true” because they convey to us what it felt like for O’Brien to be in these situations in a way that the literal truth (or happening-truth) never could.
He notes that true war stories aren’t parables—they’re not meant to instruct, impart morals, serve as examples of good...
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First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, commanding officer in charge of Alpha Company, a unit of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, is reminiscing about a girl named Martha whom he knew back home. He is in love with her, but fears that his love is unrequited—although she signs off her letters to him with the customary “Love,” Cross knows that it is perfunctory and without meaning.
Cross is a reluctant commander, who never wanted the responsibility of leading men in combat. He had joined the officer training program in his sophomore year of college because it seemed preferable to the draft. He has no deep commitment to the war, and, at 24 years of age, feels himself to be entirely unsuited to be making life-or-death decisions for others. The responsibility is too much for him to bear.
To cope with his war burden, he clings to the memory and to the idea of Martha in any way he can, including tasting the envelope flaps of her letters (knowing that her tongue has been there) and keeping a small pebble in his mouth that she sent to him from a beach back home. He also endlessly ponders whether or not she is a virgin. His feelings about Martha are his tether, his connection to a world apart from the horror and mayhem of Vietnam.
Cross recalls going to see Bonnie and Clyde with her and touching Martha’s knee during the final scene of the film. He regrets not going further—carrying her up to her dormitory, tying her to the bed, and touching her knee all night. For him, this act is a symbol of a lost time, of a path in his life not taken.
In military parlance, to “hump” means to walk or march. In the psychologically harrowing context of Vietnam, however, to hump something carried far deeper meaning. All the men must carry the necessary weaponry, rations, and survival gear for operating in the dense jungle warfare of Vietnam. All of them are grimly aware of the terrifying destructive power of the weapons they wield. The brutality of war has transformed all of them, hardened them into new and unrecognizable versions of their former selves.
What each man chooses to carry is a window into who they are and what is most important to them. Some carry extra rations, condoms, comic books, marijuana, or copies of the New Testament. Beyond the physical, the men of Alpha company also carry a great many burdens—including diseases both biological and psychological.
Cross carries two photographs of Martha. Another man, Dave Jensen, carries a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm. Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose, tied around his neck. Disturbingly, Norman Bowker carries a rotting thumb taken from the corpse of a slain Vietcong (VC) soldier, a boy of perhaps 15 or 16.
Much of the war is spent in passive waiting and long spells of boredom. It often seems to be a continual march, without end and without purpose, humping their burdens from one poor village to the next. Of course, it is war—and war still brings the fearsome anticipation and knowledge that, at any moment, death and destruction may descend upon the company.
In moments of combat when the unit is under fire, the boredom drains away and the tough exterior the men put on drops immediately. They fall to the ground in terror and pray to be spared from death. But when the firing stops, the men cover up their fear, almost as if it’s a stain. The shame of being seen to be afraid is a powerful force, more powerful than death itself. Many of them are only in Vietnam because they want to avoid the shame of not going off to fight. They are there out of fear of embarrassment, not out of any patriotic zeal. They castigate soldiers they know who have shot themselves on purpose to get put on medical leave as “pussies” and “candy-asses,” but always with a measure of envy for those who have found a way out of the jungle.
There are jobs that every man dreads. One of the most fearsome tasks is to search out enemy tunnels. The men reveal their cold fatalism when the unlucky soldier is selected to perform this dangerous and possibly deadly service—you win some, you lose some. Lee Strunk draws the short straw and is forced to descend into the subterranean world of rats, spiders, and possible hidden VC. When Strunk emerges back out of the tunnel, Rat Kiley, the company’s medic, remarks that Strunk looks like he is “right out of the grave, fuckin’ zombie.”
One of the men under Cross’s command, Ted Lavender, is shot in the head and killed while the company is stationed outside a small village. His death comes entirely out of the blue, without warning. By this point, the burden of war has hardened the men—death is no longer (at least outwardly) a cause for shock or displays of grief. They coldly and unemotionally observe how Lavender’s body hit the ground. They note that his death was un-dramatic and oddly mundane—in their words, “the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.” Of the 17 men—now 16—only Rat Kiley shows any shock as he repeatedly remarks, as if in shock, “The guy’s dead.”
In lieu of expressing their grief, the men find their emotional outlet by subjecting a local Vietnamese village to an orgy of mayhem and destruction. They burn homes, destroy food stocks, slaughter domestic animals, and then call in artillery to raze the place to the ground while they watch. Azar, a soldier particularly given to performative displays of cruelty and callousness, sees a boy with one leg. His sympathies, however, are not with the boy, but with the soldier who failed to kill him and instead only succeeded in maiming him. He remarks, “War’s a bitch. Some poor fucker ran out of ammo.”
The company desecrates the corpses of soldiers and civilians, kicking them and cutting off their limbs to take as trophies. They also brutalize and dehumanize with language. The men joke and put on a mask of weary indifference to cope with the threat of death that hangs...
Think about the tools and methods you use to handle stress in your life.
Have you ever been in a situation that caused high levels of emotional or physical distress? Describe it in a few sentences.
O’Brien looks back at how he came to be in Vietnam, and how he nearly made the choice not to be there. He grew up in a small, conservative town in Minnesota whose citizens were fiercely pro-war. There was immense social pressure to support the war effort and great disdain for the war protestors and pacifists who decried US involvement in Vietnam. It was a mark of cowardice and shame for a young man to avoid the military if he was called upon to serve.
When O’Brien received his draft notice in June 1968, he was a 21-year-old, self-described liberal who was opposed to the war. He believed that there was no justification of self-defense for the United States, no deeper humanitarian principles at stake, and no clear rationale offered by the government for why American boys were being asked to die in the jungles of southeast Asia in the first place. He’d believed that you couldn’t send boys off to war without being able to explain why.
And, besides, he’d never seen himself as a soldier. He had thought he was too smart, too worldly, too questioning of authority to fall in line with the flag-waving, jingoistic masses. He remembered thinking that there was no shortage of hyper-patriotic young men in his town eager to enlist and fight the Communists (which is what they believed the war was about), so why did O’Brien need to potentially sacrifice his life?
None of this mattered, of course, to the people of his hometown. To them, anyone who shirked his military obligations was a traitor and a coward. There were no moral ambiguities, no gray areas. The war was about fighting and killing Communist aggressors in Vietnam and nothing more. It was a noble cause to fight for, and, if need be, to die for.
O’Brien recalls that he began thinking of fleeing to Canada to escape the draft. He was morally conflicted. He feared the war, but he also feared the ostracism from his community and the shame he knew he would bring on his family if he became a draft-dodger. He knew that he would become an ignominious example in his town, the boy who ran away because he was too afraid to fight. He seethed with resentment at the ignorant masses who were pushing him to sacrifice his life for a cause he didn’t believe in.
Rather impulsively, he one day decided to make a break for the Canadian border, quitting his job at a meatpacking plant, and not even saying goodbye to his parents. Something inside him had snapped under the pressure. He drove his car north, stopping at an old fishing lodge a half-mile from the Canadian border.
It was there that O’Brien met the man who, with hindsight, he says saved his life. Elroy Berdahl, the proprietor of the lodge, was 81 years old and immediately saw that O’Brien was in trouble. As tourist season was over, the two of them were the only people in the lodge. They spent six days together, fishing, eating, listening to records, and hiking through the woods. But never once did Berdahl ask O’Brien why he was there or what was troubling him.
During those six days, O’Brien recalls that he was tempted to steal a boat and row to the other side of the river to freedom in Canada. But, despite being so close, he could never bring himself to leave his life behind. It was not out of a sense of duty—indeed, his conscience is what told him to make a break for Canada. He still believed that avoiding fighting in Vietnam was the morally correct decision. What kept him from acting on his convictions was a fear of shame. He was ashamed, ironically, of his conscience.
He helped Berdahl get the lodge ready for winter, performing chores that kept his mind off the dilemma he faced. Berdahl refused to charge O’Brien for his stay, reasoning that O’Brien had performed chores that more than earned his keep—in fact, he offered the young man wages. One day, the old man took O’Brien fishing out on the Rainy River, which separates the U.S. from Canada. Berdahl navigated the vessel far enough upstream to where they passed into Canadian waters. Without ever saying it, the old man was presenting O’Brien with a choice. He could escape now, swim the twenty yards or so to the Canadian shore, and be free. O’Brien remembers Berdahl not speaking to him in this moment or acknowledging the option he was presenting him with.
O’Brien imagined duelling forces cheering him on and willing him toward one shore or the other—faces from the past and the future. He saw Lyndon Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, his future commanding officer Jimmy Cross, Jane Fonda, Abbie Hoffman, his unborn daughter, and the young Vietnamese man he would eventually kill.
But, in the end, he realized how unrealistic his plans to build a life in Canada were. It was a romantic fantasy—he was not a brave conscientious objector. His service in Vietnam would be an act of capitulation and submission, not self-sacrifice. He was too cowardly not to fight. Seeing the choice O’Brien made, Berdahl turned the boat back toward Minnesota, toward the U.S., and toward Vietnam.
Back in Vietnam—or rather, ahead in Vietnam—Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen get into a fight over a jackknife that one supposedly stole from the other. Jensen, being stronger, overpowers Strunk and breaks the latter’s nose.
This leads to a tense situation between the two men, as Jensen grows increasingly paranoid that Strunk is plotting his revenge. He scrupulously avoids Strunk at all turns. The anxiety causes Jensen to snap—one day, he starts firing his rifle indiscriminately into the air, yelling Strunk’s name.
Later that evening, Jensen takes a pistol and uses the barrel to break his own nose, to preempt Strunk’s feared retaliation. This act of penance brings about a reconciliation between the two men. They begin sharing foxholes and going on patrol and guard duty together.
They also make a solemn pact. If either of them should become seriously maimed in the course of combat, the other man...
Think about how your ideals and beliefs have been put to the test.
Have you ever felt pressured to do something against your beliefs because you feared you would lose your reputation if you acted on your convictions? Describe what happened.
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Madness was baked into the Vietnam experience. Rat Kiley, a keeper of these tales (and also a known braggart and exaggerator), shares another one with O’Brien about an American girl who became consumed by the war.
Kiley tells O’Brien that before he joined Alpha Company, he had been assigned to a separate medical unit embedded with a detachment of Green Berets. Kiley says that the Green Berets, or “Greenies,” were a secretive unit that operated largely outside of the normal command-and-control structure of other military personnel in Vietnam, often going out on clandestine, weeks-long excursions into the jungle.
(Shortform note: The Green Berets are the colloquial name for the U.S. Army Special Forces, a special operations force that focuses on specific missions and tactical responses outside the scope of what the broader Army does. They are subjected to more rigorous training and are considered an elite fighting force even within the Army.)
One of the men in Rat’s unit, Mark Fossie, decided to bring his American girlfriend out to Vietnam. He reasoned that the presence of the Greenies made the outpost safe, a sort of oasis within the war. To the astonishment of the men, he actually managed to pull the logistics of this off, bringing in his girlfriend Mary Anne on one of the daily resupply choppers from Hanoi.
After some time with the unit, Mary Anne became accustomed to life in Vietnam, learning about weaponry and military hardware, coming to understand the intricacies of Army tactics and maneuvers, learning some Vietnamese, and growing more and more curious about what was in the mountains beyond the unit’s base camp.
Mary Anne developed a fascination with the war, especially its most grisly realities. She got an adrenaline rush from treating injured soldiers and seemed to be at her most comfortable and serene when she was surrounded by the chaos and violence of warfare. She had become more of a natural soldier than any of the men in Kiley’s unit, remarking, “Everything I want is right here,” and telling Fossie that she’d never been happier in her whole life.
One night, Mary Anne didn’t come back to the base. At first thinking she was sleeping with one of the other soldiers, Fossie and Kiley searched the entire camp, but found no trace of her. It dawned on them that Mary Anne wasn’t missing or captured—she had gone out on ambush with the Green Berets. Vietnam had consumed her. She had gone native.
She would go off on ambush often after this, sometimes for as long as three weeks, with fewer and fewer return trips to the camp. One night, Kiley claimed to have seen her returning from a mission with the Greenies, like a silhouette, ethereal and mysterious. She had become one with the strangely compelling chaos of Vietnam.
One night, Kiley and Fossie went out to the Special Forces area. From inside the Greenies’ compound, they could hear ghostly, otherworldly, chanting, not unlike what the men on the listening patrol had heard up in the mountains. Inside, they found Mary Anne singing, chanting, and swaying to some sort of tribal music, wearing a necklace made of human tongues. She was flat and indifferent, betraying no emotion and displaying no sign of the person she had once been. She told Fossie that she wanted to consume Vietnam (and, by implication, the war), to imbibe and swallow the filth and death and have it live inside her forever. For her, Vietnam was a powerful drug, a potent mix of terror and pleasure. From there, Kiley says, she slipped forever into the shadows of Vietnam, still out there like a predator, waiting for the kill.
O’Brien recalls another man in Alpha Company, Henry Dobbins, as being highly drawn to sentimentality. Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck, but not out of a sexual predilection. For Dobbins, the pantyhose were a talisman, a good-luck charm, something that made him feel protected. Like Cross’s pebble from Martha, they were a link to a world away from the war.
O’Brien observes how powerful a hold superstition exerted on all the men in circumstances where life and death seemed to hang so precariously and randomly in the balance. Thus, even the other men came to accept the pantyhose’s mysterious protective power, seeing how Dobbins seemed to glide through the mayhem of war without so much as a scratch. Once, he stepped on a landmine that, miraculously, failed to explode. Another time, he was trapped in a gunfire battle with no cover, but simply slipped the pantyhose over his nose and somehow came out unscathed. Even after his girlfriend broke up with him, Dobbins believed that the pantyhose retained their power. “No sweat,” O’Brien recalls him saying, “The magic doesn’t go away.”
One day, the company discovered a pagoda where they met two monks. The deeply religious and (atypically for Alpha Company) scrupulous Kiowa was uneasy about going in, believing that it was sacrilegious for the men to enter such a holy place. Still, the men camped out there for a week, as the monks waited on the soldiers. They took a special liking to Dobbins, dubbing him “Soldier Jesus.” The serenity of the place and the kindness of the monks even inspired Dobbins to consider leading a spiritual life after the war.
O’Brien recalls Dobbins as being more drawn to the idea of being nice to people as a minister rather than grappling with any weighty theological considerations, remembering Dobbins saying, “All you can do is be nice. Treat them decent, you know?”
O’Brien vividly recalls the VC soldier he killed. He describes him as a “dainty young man” who was left with a star-shaped hole in his eye after O’Brien’s grenade tore through him. O’Brien stresses that he did not kill him out of any personal malice, nor out of any moral or political conviction, or even out of a sense of military duty. Seeing the young enemy soldier pass by a few meters away,...
O’Brien now reveals to us that much of the narrative we have been following is invented. He did not, for example, actually kill the young North Vietnamese soldier with the grenade. But he did witness the young man’s death, and for O’Brien, his presence, his witnessing, has been enough to trigger a lifetime of guilt and trauma.
He reminds us that the narrative that makes up a story is often more true than a literal recounting of the events that actually transpired. He defines this as story-truth vs. happening-truth. He notes that the story-truth (like the biography of the young Vietnamese soldier and how O’Brien lobbed the grenade at him as he passed by) brings the emotions of the war into the present in a way that happening-truth never could. He might as well have killed the young man, because that is how he’s experienced the event for all these years—this is why he chooses to tell the story this way.
At the age of 43, O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his ten-year-old daughter, Kathleen. He wishes to bring his war experience alive for his daughter by bringing her to the country that has defined so much of his life. While in Vietnam, Kathleen struggles to understand why the war happened and how her father came to be a part of it. He is unable to coherently explain to her either the political and ideological conflicts that created the conflict or the sequence of events that led to his personal decision to fight in it.
Eventually, O’Brien takes her to the setting of his most harrowing war experience—the field where Kiowa died. Both his daughter and the Vietnamese government interpreter who accompanies them are perplexed as to why he would choose to visit such a place. Kathleen almost immediately notices the stench of the field.
O’Brien notes how ordinary and mundane the field looks today, nothing like the filthy hellscape it was the night Kiowa died. It is hard to imagine that this place has loomed so large in his mind for all these years—this field, after all, had killed his close friend, while transforming O’Brien himself into a different person than who he’d been before. This field was the cornerstone of his Vietnam trauma, the place that embodied all the filth and terror of the war. Now, however, he sees it for what it really is: just a drab and unremarkable patch of dirt in a far-flung corner of rural Vietnam, obscure and unremarkable.
In what he hopes is a final act of closure, O’Brien returns Kiowa’s moccasins to the field, letting them sink into the mud. Although a gifted writer, words fail him in this instant. He is unable to come up with anything poignant or meaningful to say during this moment of remembrance. He simply says, “Well, there it is,” as he looks back at the field one last time. He feels that he has been buried in that field ever since that terrible night, but that now, perhaps, he has finally found his way out.
O’Brien reflects on two separate occasions in which he was hit by gunfire in Vietnam. The first time was when Rat Kiley was still with the company. As a skilled medic, Kiley had been able to successfully apply a compress, stop the bleeding, and get O’Brien to an emergency evacuation helicopter. O’Brien even recalls Rat Kiley almost hugging him as he was being helped into the chopper. After a short hospital stay, O’Brien returned to the company in the field.
When he returned, however, he discovered that Kiley was no longer with the unit, having suffered his own gunshot wound and transferred to a hospital in Japan. What really happened, however, was much more disturbing. Kiley had, in fact, suffered a mental breakdown, believing that the insects in the jungle were personally out to get him. He had begun compulsively scratching himself, eventually covering himself in scabs and open sores. The strain of his job as a medic, having to constantly attend to the dead and dying, had finally pushed him past his limits. In desperation, Kiley shot himself in the foot to get out of active combat duty, although Cross told Kiley that he would present it as an accident to the military authorities.
He was replaced by a new medic named Bobby Jorgenson, who was young, inexperienced, and badly unprepared for when O’Brien was shot on a second occasion, this time in the buttocks. Jorgenson failed to treat for shock and did a shoddy job stitching the wound. As a result, O’Brien became infected and nearly succumbed to gangrene.
O’Brien recovered following a painful hospital stay, after which he was transferred out of active combat into a Headquarters Company battalion supply base. While still in a war zone, he was relatively safe from the day-to-day perils of warfare (although the compound still came under the occasional mortar fire). He recalls his old Alpha Company comrades coming in one week when they were on stand-down (a period of time when they were temporarily out of the field). O’Brien remembers how different he had already become from the rest of them. They were still combat soldiers, while he now felt like a civilian. He was no longer part of the blood fraternity.
In his new assignment, O’Brien had time to reflect on his experience of getting shot and came to hate Bobby Jorgenson for the incompetence which nearly led to his death. He brooded over this and yearned to exact revenge on Jorgenson. While Alpha Company was at the base, Jorgenson and O’Brien accidentally ran into one another. Jorgenson was embarrassed and tried to apologize to O’Brien, explaining that he had been paralyzed by fear when he saw that his fellow soldier had been shot and that it was up to him to save his life. Jorgenson told O’Brien that he had been suffering from recurring nightmares and trauma thinking about what happened to O’Brien. But O’Brien was unable to move on—**his experience in the war and the things he’d seen had turned him into a crueler, meaner version of his former...
Think about the power of storytelling and remembrance.
Is there someone who was important in your life that you lost? Describe this person and what they meant to you.
Think about why storytelling is so powerful.
O’Brien talks about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth. In a few sentences, explain what this means to you.
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