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Books Things they CarriedThe last American troops left Vietnam over 40 years ago but the war goes on.  Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless, out of work and family, and out of hope.  Those who found careers and family following the war have sometimes found that age and retirement, instead of ease, have brought eruptions of nightmares and a return to the war zone. As Tim O’Brien says at the beginning of The Things they Carried, his fourth book about the war,

 “If they made it home they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb.”

In 1990, when The Things They Carried was published, O’Brien was still absorbing, by means of telling stories, what he had seen and done 20 years earlier.

It occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths.  You make up others.

 In doing so he almost invents a literary genre — a type of story-memoir in which not only is he telling us stories about the war but he is telling us why he is telling them and laying bare the human experience of ‘memories, dreams and stories.’

He begins with what in other hands is often a sign of lack of imagination —  lists of things: “… p-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags…”  The lists pick up and fall away and return for pages.  Some of the things are familiar to us; all would be familiar to soldiers in Vietnam. It’s a common device, especially for settings unfamiliar to the reader.  WW I novels were filled with lists, such as Elliott Paul’s Impromptu: “… mud, smells, slops, vermin, insects…”  Karl Marlantes gives us lists in his Vietnam era, Matterhorn: ” … letters, magazines, ponchos for shelter from the rain, shovel, claymore mines, bars of C-4 plastic explosive, trip flares, handmade stove, pictures of girlfriends, toilet articles, insect repellent, cigarettes, rifle-cleaning gear…”  Phillip Meyer’ Texas frontier novel The Son is stuffed with lists: “Ornaments for horses, percussion caps and steel knives, hatchets, axes and blankets, ribbons, linens and shrouds, gartering and gun screws, lance- and arrowheads….”

In all of these, the author mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar and draws us into the story, taking us into his confidence as one who ‘knows.’  O’Brien, however, lifts up and beyond the merely material.  He tells us how much the items weighed; he tells who carried what, and why.  “The things they carried varied by mission… by superstition. ” We hear the names of the men who will populate the pages to come, Bowker, Kiowa, Rat Kiley.  One of the names is followed by the subordinate clause “until he was shot in the head,” and we are fully engaged.  Who is this man and when will we find out?

When the lists of “the things they carried” shift from man to mind to metaphor, we realize the full possibilities.

They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried … they all carried ghosts… they carried each other, the carried infections … malaria and dysentery … they carried the land … they carried the sky.

We eventually do find out about Ted Lavender ‘who was scared’ and ‘was shot’ but not in a single set-off story as might have been told by Scheherazade.  Instead O’Brien approaches, like a beast at a watering hole, then retreats, to return when conditions are right. Or like the soldiers themselves, all telling stories,

… passed down like  legends from old timer to new comer. Mostly though we had to make up our own. Often they were exaggerated, or blatant lies but it was a way of bringing body and soul back together, or a way of making new bodies for the souls to inhabit.

The soldiers depend on the stories, and complain if the story teller breaks the rules.  There is little temporal order to what we are hearing.  They are not linked to one another by other than a thought, a glancing reference, or sometimes a deeper, shared core.  The first dead Vietnamese O’Brien sees is mentioned several times, eventually bringing on a story of the first time he ever knew death at all, at nine years old, but this not until the end of the book — as if it took him all the intervening stories to fully carry the burden of the two deaths, and find the association between them.

With this, O’Brien does almost the impossible.  He creates a lyrical language-lifted remembrance of terrible times.  Though the possibility of war and death are hinted at in the opening lines, he chooses first its more mundane reality — ‘the hump:’ 

…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.  They marched for the sake of the march.  The war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage.  The hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.

He describes the tunnels, and the fear –of the rats, of wondering if you screamed would your buddies hear you? And the dark humor — from joking and talking to a dead man as the body is carried to a helicopter, to the bizarre, even obscene names for enemy dead, to an extended practical joke with trip flares, noises, dancing sand-bags meant to scare a man on night watch, to one soldier prying lice off his body and sending them to his draft board.

All this telling is very matter of fact.  O’Brien’s voice is never raised.  There are no emotionally charged invitations to outrage, even in the most terrible scenes — as if he has perfected for a new age the post WW I flight from emotion into fact and object which Hemingway, among others, declared would best recreate the truth of events.

This one wakes me up.  In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways.  He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley.  Then he took a peculiar half-step, moving from shade to bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off.  I remember the white bone of the arm.  I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must have been the intestines.  The gore was horrible, and stays with me.  But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing “Lem0n Tree” as we threw down the parts.


Even when he remembers his own near death he is factual, descriptive:

I smelled myself dying.  The round had entered at a steep angle smashing down through my hip and colon.  The stench made me jerk sideways. I turned and clamped a hand against the wound and tried to plug it up.  Leaking to death, I thought….


Though many of the stories have an approach, retreat, re-approach manner to their telling, several unfold more or less directly.  One of the most memorable, more like a story within a story, as O’Brien is telling us something told him by another who, in the latter parts at least, is repeating what others have told him, is “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong.”  Mary Anne Bell, the high school sweetheart of one of the squad, improbably gets to their jungle camp and more improbably falls in with the Green Berets.  She is good at long distance night patrols and eventually disappears into the jungles, and memory and myth.

For Mary Anne Bell , it seemed, Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug: that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you’re risking something.  The endorphins start to flow, and the adrenaline, and you hold your breath … and you become intimate with danger….


It’s a perfect story for O’Brien, one of those which probably aren’t true but which tell something that is true — which even so we still don’t quite understand – the workings on so many of that grip of danger, that ‘out of body experience’ so many who have been to war have testimony of.

Even more powerful is “On the Rainy River,” a wrenchingly honest telling of ‘why he fought in a war he didn’t believe in.’ It takes him from his high school summer job in a slaughter house to a long drive out along the Canadian border, along the Rainy River to the homestead of an old man who, in ‘his ferocious silence,”  knew what O’Brien was considering.  After several days they go fishing.  He is rowed out into the river. Canada is a few strokes away but O’Brien can not do it.

My conscience told me to run, but some powerful and irrational force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war.  What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame.  Hot stupid shame.  I did not want people to think badly of me.  I would go to war — I would kill and maybe die– because I was embarrassed not to. … I was a coward.  I went to the war.

O’Brien says a “true war story never has a moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”  Maybe not, but he returns again, several times, to his view that men fight and die ‘because they are embarrassed not to.”  Not just himself, as he didn’t go to Canada, but others, during fire fights.

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed and died, because they were embarrassed not to.


I think he’s right.  Many men go to war and throw themselves into terrifying fighting because they are afraid not to.  If he doesn’t want to call this a moral story, it is certainly one about human behavior, one which isn’t often told.  The preferred stories are about courage and patriotism and ‘doing right,’ sometimes about being men and doing what men will do.  Shame and the power of opinion, for all its power, not only in war but in everyday life, is not often acknowledged.  O’Brien is brave for coping to it. 

It’s interesting, however,  what stories he does not tell.  The atrocities to the Vietnamese of Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves, do not make an appearance.  In fact, throughout the book, and especially in the chapter “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien’s human connection is securely in place.  The man I killed is described as ” … a slim, dead dainty young man of about twenty.” An entire life and family is constructed for him, far from the reduction-to-gook attitudes so common in wars.  There are no all day encounters with the enemy, no big-fight scenes, the screaming terror of assault by many, split second decisions, artillery and napalm called in. 

There are no sexual stories to speak of, just a ‘quick story’ as he calls it about a man who after a week of shacking up with a Red Cross nurse can’t wait to get back to the war zone. This is interesting because the sexual experience of American GIs with Asian women was so central to the Vietnam war story.  There were an estimated 200,000 prostitutes in South Vietnam alone, not to mention the tens of thousands in R&R spots like Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Subic Bay.  Perhaps there were no stories to be told; it just seems odd. 

Finally,  despite the brave, bracing account of his own opposition to the war and eventual giving in to shame, there are no stories of how the opposition in the United States, very strong by 1969-70, affected the men he was with.  Some of the new men surely were coming straight from non-stop television coverage in the US, if not street  protests.  Stories, attitudes, resentments and longings must have been common.  One of the men in the squad was a known pill-head, and a very good story is told about his death and his friends’ reaction to it, imitating his drug inflected language, but nothing at all about ‘weed’ or rock and roll or all the other manifestations of the 60s culture.

The effect of leaving out references to such darker wells in the war is to normalize the experience for the reader. Pulling body parts from a tree is terrible stuff but what we learn about the man who did it is different than a story about an American raping a Vietnamese woman or torturing a teenager for information, or for entertainment, all of which happened, none of which appear in the book. 

O’Brien wrote the book in great part, as he tells us, to normalize his own experiences for himself.  How it affects the non-soldier reader might depend on what stories are being compensated for.  If a young man dreams of war glory and high adventure, O’Brien’s normalization might be just the right thing to bring him back to earth, to consider what others have seen and done in a war zone.  If a reader has resisted the shaming that sent men off to fight and chose jail or flight or other escape, then the normalization of those who went, ignoring their consciences, will not be such a good thing.

This isn’t to say the book fails because of what it does or doesn’t talk about, just that every writer is his own first line editor, choosing what to use and what not to out of all he saw; what he never saw will never be reported. It is good to remind ourselves of this when we think of a piece of writing as a world unto itself.

The stories he tells are those that won’t quit swarming in his head: his friends, their deaths and how the others dealt with those deaths, and fear of their own, their jokes, their own hopes and memories.  He tells about bringing his daughter back to a rice field where he had seen a friend go down in the mud to never be found.  He tells of visiting squad mates in the years after the war. He tell of one who committed suicide.

He tells stories “to connect the past to the future.”

Of all the war writings I have read over the years, I put The Things they Carried, among those jostling for the most revelatory, the most real — about war and human emotion — the most worth reading, as a meditation or as counter story for youngsters thinking about military service, especially in wartime, as a way to make their way in life. Here’s an honest record of how a single year stays with a man forever. ” … forty three years old, and I’m still writing war stories.”

With The Things they Carried, after three prior books about the war,  O’Brien may have set down the heaviest part of what he carried.  Going After Cacciato, 1978, was a much more fictionalized treatment of the Americans and the war. His first, If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, was pure memoir — both worth reading. His several novels following, though with moments or passages about the war, take off in different directions with different characters.

And interesting web-site, not recently updated, apparently done by high school readers of his books, is here.  Interviews and talks by O’Brien can be found at various links, here.