Rat Kiley—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 Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried? What are the defining moments for his character?

Rat Kiley is a soldier in Alpha Company, a unit of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, in The Things They Carried. Rat Kiley is the company’s first medic, who shoots himself in the foot to get out of active combat duty.

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

Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried

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. 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.”

Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried isn’t always sensitive. He tortured a baby water buffalo with a submachine gun, methodically blowing away its limbs and body with surgical precision (he was a medic, after all) while the company watched the animal bleed to death, fascinated by how long it took to die.

O’Brien notes that the coarseness of Rat’s language is what makes the story true, because it reflects the harshness of Vietnam. It is important that Rat says the vulgar “cooze,” and not “woman,” “girl,” or even “bitch.” He also observes that it is nearly impossible to arrive at literal truth in the fog of war. Memory is unreliable (especially after time) and every witness remembers things differently. Often, the wildest elements of the story are true and the most banal aspects are false.

Rat Kiley in The Field

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.

Going Native

Rat 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.

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.

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 Rat Kiley’s unit, remarking, “Everything I want is right here,” and telling Fossie that she’d never been happier in her whole life.

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, Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried 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. 

Rat Kiley, the Medic

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, Rat 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 Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried 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. Rat 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, Rat 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.

Rat Kiley—The Things They Carried: Character Summary

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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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