The Things They Carried
In The Things They Carried, it seems that Tim O’Brien tells the stories of soldiers and their experiences during the Vietnam War through the items that they carry with them. At the beginning of the book, Tim O’Brien repeatedly points out how the things each soldier carry differs from one another and how each hides its own purpose. The story starts off with Jimmy Cross who carries a letter from the girl he loves. This letter establishes the link between the war in Vietnam and home and shows how a soldier that long for love during the war can only read this letter each night. The story about Lavender’s death in the introduction bluntly shows the common arbitrariness and suddenness of death during the war. His death also illustrates how harsh and swift death can be like a rock falling, boom, down. Tim O’Brien then portrays the soldiers respond to their fellow member’s death through how Jimmy Cross continue to feel a heavy responsibility for Lavender’s death and how the other soldiers deal with their trauma by doing inhumanity of burning down Than Khe. “The things they carry vary by mission… They drew numbers to decide who would go below ground to search the tunnels. They imagined being trapped below, being blown up, being bitten by rats.” (p. 8-10) shows how death during the war can come just by drawing the chosen number and how each mission carries the fear of potentially dying. The part where Tim O’Brien said that “For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity.” (p. 18) further explains that soldiers’ behaviors and jokes made during the war are made to hide their fear of death.
In “How to Tell a True War Story”, Tim O’Brien emphasizes that a true war story is never moral (p. 65) and insists that a story that appears moral should not be believed fully. He suggests that a true war story can be distinguished when obscenity and evil exist in it. Tim O’ Brien also says that “In many cases, a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It\’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true, and the normal stuff isn\’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” (p. 68). From this passage, it seems that Tim O’Brien wants to tell the readers that what the soldiers have experienced during the war is beyond what civilians can think of. Therefore, what appears to be normal is sometimes not the true story whereas what appears too crazy to believe is the true war story.
The Vietnam War has fostered immense physical and emotional burden to the American soldiers. While they carry the physical loads during the war, they also carried the emotional burden, composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. It appears that each man’s physical loads during war underline his emotional burden. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, for example, carries two photographs of Martha and letters from her which underscores his longing for love. Similarly, Henry Dobbins who carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose which indicates his longing for love and comfort. The war has also caused some men to face the heavy burden of fear like Ted Lavender who carries tranquilizers.
The Things They Carried also shows that the psychological burden that the American soldiers carry during the war continue to haunt them even after the war. Those who survive the war carry guilt, and grief in their after-war life. Some of them even have a hard time to come to terms with their experience. Jimmy Cross, for instance, discloses to Tim O’Brien that he can never forgive himself for the death of Ted Lavender. In “Speaking of Courage” part, Norman Bowker, on the other hand, carries heavy guilt and confusion with him after the war which has forced him to drive aimlessly around the lake. It is also mentioned in “Notes” part that he also writes seventeen handwritten pages where he expresses that he never feels right for everything after the war. “The thing is… there is no place to go… My life. I mean” (p. 149) shows the confusion he carries that finally leads him to hang himself three years later at YMCA.
Ambiguous morality becomes apparent throughout the story. The brutal killing of the innocents from both parties, the American and the Vietnamese have blurred the boundaries between what is right and wrong. After being exposed to the war, it seems that the American soldiers’ conception about what is right and wrong have completely shifted. Jimmy Cross, for example, takes revenge for the death of Ted Lavender by burning the entire village of Than Khe. With a similar situation, Rat Kiley heartlessly kill a baby water buffalo to calm his frustration after knowing his best friend, Curt Lemon’s death. The war has also caused the soldiers to deal with their pain by pointing out the irony. In “The Things They Carried” part, for example, Mitchell Sanders points out the irony of “There is a moral here” (p. 19) and jokes that the moral of Ted Lavender’s death is to stay away from drugs not from the war itself.
Tim O’Brien also argues that in Vietnam, loneliness, and isolation can become one of the destructive forces in the life of many American soldiers. Through The Things They Carried, he repeatedly emphasizes the dangerous impact of having thoughts, worries, and fears during solitude on the American soldiers. For instance, in “How to Tell a True War Story”, Mitchell Sanders’s story regarding soldiers that become so paranoid after their experience on listening patrol that they hear strange noises shows how imagination can instantly take over one’s mind in the lonely silence. After a couple of days of attempting to lie low into the mountain, be in absolute silence and listen for enemy movement, the six-man patrol starts to hear voices that should not have existed in the mountain like at the cocktail party. As they are not able to cope with hearing strange voices, they call the radio and report the enemy movement. Although the whole mountain is burnt and everything has become silent at dawn, the strange sound still remains in the six-man ears. Their thoughts during silence and solitude have caused the six-man patrol to suffer mentally. “They do not talk. Not a word, like they are deaf and dumb” (p. 68) is what the six-man patrol have become after the basic listening post operation.
Even long after the war has ended, it seems that loneliness is still strongly haunting the life of the American soldiers. Jimmy Cross, the lieutenant, for instance, feels empty after the Vietnam war because his hope for happiness with Martha is dashed when she made a clear rejection of his love. Another example of loneliness shown in the American soldier after the war can also be seen from the “Speaking of Courage”. This part of the book emphasizes on how Norman Bowker feels so empty and isolated after the war as he aimlessly drives around the lake in his hometown. Being lonely as having no one to talk to, he wishes that Sally had not been married and also wishes that his father is not such a baseball fan. Just before his tenth turn around the lake, he even attempts to converse with one of the A&W employees just to entertain him although he gets no consolation in the end.
The Vietnam War has indeed changed the life of every soldier involved. Even though they did survive from the threat and death in the war, they will still carry the guilt, grief, and confusion with them in the after-war life.