Mary Anne—The Things They Carried: How She’s Consumed by War

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 Mary Anne in The Things They Carried? What are the defining moments for her character?

Mary Anne is the American girlfriend of a soldier in the U.S. Army, Mark Fossie, during the Vietnam War, in The Things They Carried. Mary Anne comes to Vietnam to be with Fossie, and she becomes more of a natural soldier than any of the actual soldiers in the unit.

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

Mary Anne in The Things They Carried

Mary Anne, in The Things They Carried, is a character featured in one of the stories of soldier Rat Kiley.

Mary Anne Goes Native

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, The Things They Carried‘s 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.

In The Things They Carried, 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 in The Things They Carried, 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.

Mary Anne 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.

Mary Anne—The Things They Carried: How She’s Consumed by War

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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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