Why Dave Jensen Broke His Own Nose (The Things They Carried)

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 Dave Jensen in The Things They Carried? What are the defining moments for his character?

Dave Jensen is a soldier in Alpha Company, a unit of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, in The Things They Carried. Jensen breaks fellow soldier Lee Strunk’s nose and then lives in fear that Strunk will retaliate.

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

Dave Jensen (The Things They Carried)

Dave Jensen carries a rabbit’s foot as a good-luck charm.

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. But at least one story involving Dave Jensen in The Things They Carried is clear.

Dave Jensen & Lee Strunk: Brothers-in-Arms

Back in Vietnam—or rather, ahead in Vietnam—Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen (The Things They Carried) 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 Dave 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, as recounted in The Things They Carried, Dave 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 agrees to mercy-kill him. They put this agreement in writing and even have some of their fellow Alpha Company men stand as witnesses. 

This grim covenant is shortly put to the test when Strunk loses his right leg after stepping on a mortar round. When Dave Jensen comes to see his friend’s wound, however, Strunk pleads with him not to kill him. Jensen assures Strunk that he will not kill him, and the company has Strunk airlifted into the chopper to be taken to a field hospital. The men later learn that Strunk dies from his wounds while he’s en route. Dave Jensen in The Things They Carried is relieved to be spared from performing his harsh duty.

Unfortunately, another solider, Lemon, was killed in action when he accidentally stepped on a landmine while he and Rat were goofing off by tossing smoke grenades back and forth. The men even had to retrieve Lemon’s mangled remains out of a tree, during which Dave Jensen sang the song “Lemon Tree,” laughing in the face of death once again.

Why Dave Jensen Broke His Own Nose (The Things They Carried)

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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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