The sad thing about the Vietnam war is that it took good-old, ordinary, American boys and changed them forever. Tim O’Brien vividly describes in great detail the horrific day to day occurrences of the war, his fellow soldiers and friends’ characters, their deaths, their thoughts, and their actions. He takes us through an emotional journey as the main character and narrator, O’Brien, a member of the Alpha Company, paints a tragic picture of the external and internal battles in the Vietnam war, gradually transforming as a result of these harsh life experiences. As the novel develops, O’Brien must cope with feelings of guilt in light of the events leading up to the deaths of others, the loss of his innocence, and the long-term consequences in the aftermath of the war. In his novel, The Things They Carried, the author, Tim O’Brien, uses repetition to convey the magnitude and the complexity of the severe emotional and psychological damage as a result of the trauma of war, the deaths that the soldiers encounter, the conditions of war, the fear, the darkness, and the silence.
Throughout the novel, O’Brien describes the characters in a repetitive manner. He repeats their full names, the items they carry, the weight of these items, and the events relating to each of these characters. The repetitiveness of their full names emphasizes the importance of these men to O’Brien. These men were his friends and colleagues in war, who depended on each other to survive in matters of life and death. This repetition conveys his love and loyalty for these fellow soldiers. The repetition sheds light on their unique bond of understanding war. For example, Henry Dobbins is always described as a “big man,” who carries extra rations. Ted Lavender “who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in Mid-April.” Kiowa “carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father” (O’Brien, 3).
Mitchell Sanders carries a radio as an RTO (Radio Telephone Operator), that weighs “twenty six pounds with its battery” (O’Brien, 5) Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha. As O’Brien repeats the exact physical weight of the items the characters carry, he gives us a glimpse into the personalities and emotional make-up of these young men. They not only carry objects, they carry the emotional burdens that come with them. Therefore, the repetition of the physical weight is important for the reader to understand the heavy weight that their souls had to carry along the trails of Vietnam. O’Brien specifically tells the reader that “they all carried ghosts” (O’Brien, 9). For Lieutenant Cross, Martha’s letters were not just letters. Often when O’Brien mentions Lieutenant Cross throughout the novel, Cross closes his eyes or drifts away into some place in his imagination, where he is with Martha.
Lieutenant Cross is only twenty four years old, a boy himself, who could not handle the responsibility of leading these men. This emotional burden is represented in the repetition of how Lieutenant Cross’ mind drifts to Martha or back home during difficult war situations. For example, after Kiowa dies, while the men were digging out his body from the sewage of human waste, “Jimmy Cross lay floating. In the clouds to the east there was a sound of a helicopter, but he did not take notice. With his eyes still closed, bobbing in the field, he let himself slip away. He was back home in New Jersey” (O’Brien, 170). O’Brien’s consistent repetition of the fact that Koiwa carries a copy of an illustrated New Testament that his father had mailed to him as a birthday present was fundamental to understanding who Kiowa was. Kiowa is portrayed throughout the book as a good, kind, and optimistic human being. He writes, “And Kiowa had been a splendid human being, the very best, intelligent and gentle and quiet-spoken. Very brave, too. And decent… Kiowa had been raised to believe in the promise of salvation under Jesus Christ, and this conviction had always been present in the boy’s smile, in his posture toward the world, in the way he never went anywhere without an illustrated New Testament…” (O’Brien, 157). Just as the other soldiers’ character is symbolized by the things they carry, Kiowa’s morality and virtue are represented by the bible that he carries.
O’Brien masterfully describes the Vietnam War’s atmosphere using light and darkness repeatedly. This duality has great significance spiritually, physically, and emotionally throughout the story. At times, the men play around, laugh and are just young boys ages nineteen to twenty goofing around. But at night, the young men walking through the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the land in darkness transform from young, innocent boys that they used to be into to dark, at times evil, bitter soldiers. Their faces are dark with dirt. The darkness is when they start to hear strange sounds, voices, and see shadows. O’Brien even tells a story of six soldiers who hear music in the night in the remote mountains. But when they call for an attack on the area, there is no evidence of anyone there. O’Brien hints that the men all become insane in the darkness. “Around midnight, things always got wild. All around you, everywhere, the whole dark countryside came alive…Like the night had its own voice…” (O’Brien, 210). After two weeks of basic routine when the men sleep at daylight and march in the dark, Rat Kiley loses his sanity, imagines a billion killer bigs are after him, and shoots himself in the foot. O’Brien writes, “It was the purest black you could imagine…you could’t even tell you were blinking…” (O’Brien, 209). The war is represented by the darkness as a scary, evil, cold, harsh, brutal, immoral, cruel, and lonely place.
O’Brien repeats the concept of silence and inability of the soldiers to voice their feelings. He describes the soldiers patrolling at night in silence. They were not allowed to talk. Although the characters can communicate about the mundane, daily demands of life, they cannot seem to be able to express the deeper emotions of pain, fear, and grief. By the end of the book, the soldier’s communication skills reduce to a nod, a shrug, and the common phrase “Well, there it is.” For example, at the end if the book, when O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen, he wedged Kiowa’s moccasins into the soft bottom body of sewage where he died. He tried to think of something meaningful to say, but nothing came to his mind except for the words, “Well..there it is” (O’Brien, 178). O’Brien had so many things that he wanted it tell Kiowa, like how he had been a great friend, but all he could do was slap hands with the water. When O’Brien tells about the man he killed, Azar uses humor to communicate rather than his own emotions, as he often did.
Azar made a few jokes about the dead Vietnamese man looking like shredded wheat, “smiling at this, he shrugged and walked up the trail…” (O’Brien, 120). Kiowa shook his head and stood in silence before he asking O’Brien to stop staring. Later, Kiowa asks O’Brien to talk about it, because he knew that O’Brien was traumatized by the young man’s death. O’Brien, however, never speaks of this incident until he pens this novel. The silence of the soldiers represents the horrors they have to endure but cannot bring themselves to talk about. In the chapter, “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker drives around a lake in his hometown after he returns from the war. He wants someone to listen to him, to his war stories, but realizes that no one can understand him unless they were there in Vietnam. He imagines how he would tell his father about the war if he ever asks him. He imagines how he would tell Sally about the war, but then, decides that she would not like his foul language describing the events. Even when the man on the other side of the restaurant intercom asks Norman if he wants to talk, he says nothing. He realizes that there is really no point in speaking of the war. No one can understand anyway “how his friend Kiowa slipped away that night beneath the dark swampy field. He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste” (O’Brien, 147). In O’Brien’s “Notes,” he expresses that he hopes that “Speaking of Courage” makes good on Norman Bowker’s silence (O’Brien, 154).
There is a certain sadness in the repetition itself. O’Brien repeats the same stories, the same descriptions, and the same words, such as the darkness and the silence many times. It is as though he is trying to make sense of it all over and over again by repetition. It does not matter whether the stories are true or a figment of a soldier’s imagination, because there is no difference. The perception of the darkness and silence of war are real. O’Brien and Bowker seem to be in agreement about the fact that no one other then the men who were actually in the Vietnam War can understand the events that took place and the insanity of it all. The more O’Brien repeats the words, the more evident it becomes how words cannot express the full experience of the horrors of Vietnam.