In the novel The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien reveals the binaries of human immorality and war itself. Morals can be defined as one’s perception of right and wrong. Therefore, immorals are the opposite, someone who does not follow their rules of good and bad. War is an inhumane and a disturbing thing that changes the people who go through it. War brings out people’s immorality. War is nothing but organized murder created by humans. War brings nothing but loss and suffering on all involved.
War can never be made humanized. Lois Tyson describes binary oppositions as “two ideas, directly opposed, each of which we understand by means of its opposition to the other” (Tyson 202). The idea of peace and war would be an example of binary oppositions. There can be no peace as long as there is war. Tim shows how war overtook him and his fellow soldiers morals by telling the story of how he killed another man revealing the untrained and scared soldiers in Vietnam along with sharing Curt Lemon’s suicide and Kiowa’s death showing how the people in war are really in a separate world and all the heavy personal blame they carry back home for life.
Tim was immediately negatively affected by the war the moment it started. The second he received the letter that he was officially drafted for the war he knew he was incapable, that this was not proper way of life or job for him. He had just graduated from college with his whole life ahead of him, before the war had taken every possibility away. He was faced with many conflictions and fears about the war so he decides to run away.
During his time gone he finds that he believes that if someone personally support the war then they must be the man to be on the front lines of it. “If you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line” (O’Brien 40). Tim cannot fathom how is is okay for the war rip people away from there paths in lives to fight for a cause they may not even believe in. How is it moral for countries to start a fight with another and then bring their unwilling and unprepared civilians in to die for their cause? Finally, after some time of consultation he decides, “I would go to the war- I would kill and maybe die- because I was embarrassed not to” (O’Brien 57).
Embarrassment and fear can be interchangeable words and feelings. It should be considered unacceptable and unethical to force humans to fight and kill other humans, but if they decide not to fight they will be looked down upon socially. Tim did not want his family to be looked down upon. He knew that if he ran away from the war, people would not forgive him. It was easier for him to go to war and die rather than to stay home and be looked down at. Not only is the war corrupt from the inside but it is also reflected by the civilians on the outside too. Next, Tim is haunted of the memory of killing the man walking down the the trail during the war. War is immoral because it trains men to act as if they were beasts in the forest rather than fellow human earthlings.
Tim killed this young man even though he says, “I did not hate the young man, I did not see him as the enemy” (O’Brien 126). He did not kill this man for safety because he was under no threat, but because the war trained him to kill. He goes on with his details talking about how, “I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it” (O’brien 127). His body reacted to this situation before his brain could even allow it.
Tim even goes as far to admit that he “did not ponder issues of morality” (O’Brien 126) before committing his first murder. War has taken this man’s good and humane morals and then manipulated him to kill another man. Due to the fact that war produces fear, that is what these men were reacting to, fear. Moments of fear got really intense when “there were times of panic…[causing them to] fire their weapons blindly and cringe and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop” (O’Brien 18).
These men were constantly surrounded by death and fear. Most humans cannot make clear and moral decisions when they are placed in a state of fear and that is all the circumstances war creates. These men saw and went through unimaginable things. Tim said, “together we understood what terror was: you’re not human anymore” (O’Brien 200). They felt the feeling of fear beyond themselves and their own lives. They know what the overall and overwhelming feeling of fear in the soul feels like. How can appropriate actions take place when soldier cannot think beyond the triggering feeling of fear. Fear has power.
Curt Lemon did not play a big role in this story, however his death is very symbolic. Throughout the story, carelessness and a lack of proper training are shown by the soldiers. Tim says that “a moment of carelessness or bad judgement or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever” (O’Brien 170) and Curts death perfectly exemplifies that. Casually, “Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley were playing catch with smoke grenades” (O’Brien 67). This is what caused the death of Curt Lemon. These young men were carelessly playing with a grenade as if it were a hacky sack. They are what feels like a million planets away from their homes so they treat the war just as casually as if they were in their own home street. The war is so warped and twisted that in order to have fun it is at the cost of an individual’s life.
Another example of how these men were transported to a world filled with unlawful immorality is when Mark Fossie had his girlfriend come “in by helicopter along with the daily resupply shipment” (O’Brien 89). She was dropped off assuming that her and Mark would resume their normal relationship. As if they were back home in their little town pursuing a normal relationship. However, this was war world, where there were no rules and it was very easy to lose yourself and your morals. Eventually, as time goes on Mary Anne, Mark’s girlfriend, fleds and joins a group out in the new world. The soldiers described it as if “it seemed Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug” (O’Brien 109) on Mary Anne, she was addicted. The war, though on earth soil, goes by different rules than the rest of civilized earth. These lack or rules and gain of danger hypnotize people into wars reigns and those who fall for the trap will ultimately end in death.
Kiowa is one of the few characters that actually holds onto this faith and morals strongly It is easily to become attached to Kiowa because it is easy to relate to his humane morals. Kiowa’s death hit every troop member in the heart. Something that each of them will have to take back home and live with forever. All of the men could tell the story of how suddenly “The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into slime” (O’Brien 142). This is a horrific yet normal scene for these soldiers in war.
Norman Bunker was the soldier who saw sweet Kiowa get stuck and go under sinking in all the muck. He raced over to save his war brother and “He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too.” (O’Brien 143). Norman has to carry this moment in time filled with pure despair and pain for life, which “later he hanged himself” (O’Brien 154) because of what the war put him through and this trama. In addition, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross even went on to take blame for Kiowa’s tragic death. He believes that if he had ordered the men to set up their camp out on higher ground away from a river then all the men would have been safe. Due to the rise of the river, caused the extreme muck that took Kiowa’s life. He has to deal with the struggle of going over in his head how to tell Kiowa’s father about his tragic loss.
Finally, another unnamed soldier has a hysteric moment over Kiowa’s death as he “bent forward at the waist, groping with both hands, he seemed to be chasing some creature just beyond reach” (O’Brien 162). He was with Kiowa just moments before the bombs came. The soldier turned his flashlight on to show a picture to Kiowa which gave away their location. “Like murder, the boy thought. The flashlight made it happen” (O’Brien 163). Guilt is not an easy thing to shake off.
When Tim says things like his “presences [in the war] was guilt enough” (O’Brien 171), this can be tied back to Tyson. It is explained that, “our language mediates our experience of our world and ourselves: it determines what we see when we look around us and when we look at ourselves” (Tyson 203). All these men took on the blame of the death that was truly caused by war. It is hard to go back to living a normal life when the soldiers cannot unsee or undo what has been done. They live their lives and decide their choices based off all the guilt that they carry with them. This is immoral to place somebody’s blood on the hands of his brethren when it was really at the cost of immoral decisions by humans caused by war.
In conclusion, war is an evil and immoral thing that has been on earth for many years now and still does not seem to be going anywhere. Tim, Curt, and Kiowa were all men that faced unimagine things unwillingly from the war. If war is really the answer, then the wrong questions are being asked. War creates an umbrella of fear causing the illusion that the soldiers are worlds away living around death and bringing back home blame and pain. The human morals and the concept of war can never be binary together causing any benefit. War is immoral and causes immorality.
- O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Chelsea House, 2011.
- Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: a User-Friendly Guide. Routledge, 2015.