Azar—The Things They Carried: Character Summary

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who is Azar in The Things They Carried? What are the defining moments for his character?

Azar is a soldier in Alpha Company, a unit of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, in The Things They Carried. Azar seems to relish the most horrible aspects of Vietnam and takes pleasure in watching the pain and suffering of others.

We’ll cover the most important scenes involving Azar in The Things They Carried.

Azar in The Things They Carried

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, in The Things They Carried, is a soldier particularly given to performative displays of cruelty and callousness. Azar 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.”

Stories of Azar in The Things They Carried

Many of the stories in The Things They Carried are barely stories at all, lacking a narratively clear beginning, middle, and end. Rather, they are memory fragments. Like the time Kiowa (a Native American) taught a rain dance to Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen. Or when Ted Lavender adopted a stray puppy.

But of course, there are also stories of bloodshed and near-sadistic cruelty. Like when, in The Things They Carried, Azar strapped Lavender’s puppy to a landmine and then detonated it. Or when the same Azar mocked the frenzied dancing of a girl whose family had just been killed in a napalm attack on her village (the girl was clearly suffering from some sort of psychotic break).

For some of the men, these were rituals that objectified the horror of war and made it seem less personal—it was easier to cope if it was all just a joke. Others, like Azar, seemed to genuinely relish the most ghoulish aspects of Vietnam and took pleasure in watching the pain and suffering of others.

Azar’s Callousness

Author 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 simply pulled the pin on his grenade and lobbed it at him as a purely automatic function.

Azar, in his typically callous manner, described the body as being like “Shredded fuckin’ Wheat.”

Later, they find soldier Kiowa’s submerged body, which requires several men to dig out from the muck. Finding the body causes the men to reflect on the random nature of life and death in Vietnam. What happened to Kiowa could just as easily have happened to any of them. Even The Things They Carried‘s Azar is driven to a moment of introspection after the incident. While earlier in the day he had been cracking jokes about Kiowa being “buried in shit,” he later tells his comrades, “Those dumb jokes—I didn’t mean anything.”

Revenge with the Help of Azar

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. 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 self. He was now capable of evil.

O’Brien decided to psychologically torment Jorgenson and turned to the darkly cruel Azar for help. They chose a night when they knew Jorgenson had been selected to pull night guard duty as their moment to strike, knowing how ghostly and terrifying nights in Vietnam could be, when one’s mind tended to run wild with the worst fears imaginable. All of the potential horrors of war could be projected onto the blackness of the night. O’Brien and Azar knew that Jorgenson would be at his most psychologically vulnerable when he was alone in the dark.

They hid in the bushes outside the perimeter around the base and set up a series of homemade booby traps and noisemakers designed to make Jorgenson think that the Vietcong was attacking. They filled cans with ammunition and attached them to pulley ropes. When Azar and O’Brien tugged on the ropes, the cans would rattle in a way that completely unnerved Jorgenson. They did this on-and-off at irregular intervals, ratcheting up the psychological tension. Next, they set off trip flares to mimic the visual of an impending enemy attack. 

While he was doing this, O’Brien imagined himself floating above Jorgenson, seeing the young man’s abject terror. In this moment, O’Brien saw himself as the horror of the war embodied. But at this point during the elaborate revenge scheme, O’Brien tells us that he began to feel some kinship with his victim. Jorgenson finally understood what it meant to be scared in war, how the fear robbed you of your humanity and sanity. 

In The Things They Carried, O’Brien asked Azar to stop, feeling that his need to psychologically balance the equation with Jorgenson had been met. But Azar was unable to stop, instead carrying the “prank” to more and more extreme lengths, firing off more flares and even tear gas grenades at Jorgenson. O’Brien himself was cowering in fear and shock and pleading with the sadistic Azar to stop. Jorgenson eventually fired back at the “enemy,” impressing O’Brien with how cool and collected he was. It is only at this moment that Jorgenson realized the whole ordeal was a prank. Azar left, disgusted with O’Brien, labeling him the “sorriest fuckin’ specimen I ever seen.” 

Azar—The Things They Carried: Character Summary

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "The Things They Carried" at Shortform . Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Things They Carried summary :

  • What the Vietnam War was like for soldiers on the ground
  • How Vietnam soldiers dealth with the psychological stress of death around them
  • How fictional stories can be truer than the truth

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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