Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: An Examination of What They Carried and Why. Essay


The Important Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a hybrid text of the individual experiences and the intense creativity of the author. The title is a direct referral to the stealthy travel of the Vietnamese soldiers which brought a rifle and rice throughout the Vietnam War. This contrasts strikingly with the tools, weapons, and personal things that were brought by American soldiers.

The book is actually numerous smaller stories which covers the beginning of the Vietnam War, the process of war, and the re-adjustment of soldiers back into American society.

O’Brien strongly uses his belief that authors frequently should employ “lies” and “half truths” to convey the real reality to their audience. Through using literary distortion O’Brien precisely depicts the Vietnam War, and the issues which faced Americans throughout this time while knowingly leaving out a lot of the political concerns which breathed life into Vietnam crisis.

O’Brien utilizes an interesting and special technique in writing this book.

The Things They Brought is essentially a collection of stories which work to together as a novel. O’Brien actively work versus the literary belief that fact can only be interacted through realism. While literary realists strive to document events as they in fact take place, O’Brien wanted to record the feeling experienced by the storyteller. O’Brien in addition to a number of postmodern writers believe that realism is in fact not able to communicate genuine emotion and the “size” of an experience to the reader. It is just through the distortion of the events that the genuine experience can be communicated.

A crucial component in O’Brien being able to depict the occasions and feeling of the Vietnam War is his deliberate blurring of truth and fiction. “The Important Things They Carried” is subtitled as “a work of fiction” and provides the following disclaimer “all the events, names, and characters are imaginary.” Nevertheless, the stories are written in very first individual and reads like an individual memoir. The primary character is named Tim O’Brien. Tim O’Brien, the genuine author, is veteran of the Vietnam war.

The intentional blurring of reality with fiction is used by O’Brien to reconstruct the fragmented and unbelievable experiences of the Vietnam War. Making use of distortion can be discovered in the story “The Man I Eliminated”. O’Brien, the character, informs the story of how he eliminated an opponent solider with a grenade. He goes on to describe the consuming and ever present guilt over the event. Chapters later, O’Brien mentions that “I did not eliminate him. But I existed, you see, and my existence was guilt enough.”

The reader feels lied too and wonders what is fact and what is fiction. The psychological adjustment creates a huge quantity of confusion in the reader and skepticism of the author. This mirrors the feeling and betrayal felt by the baffled American soldiers who did not comprehend what they were battling or who they were combating. O’Brien continues to explain “every story is comprised” and like war there is “no clearness.” The retelling of war tale is “about sorrow” and “outright occurrence is irrelevant.” O’Brien, naturally, has not been the first to remark upon the larger waste that is war. With referral to the Vietnam fiasco in specific, Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) sets the tone for the wastage of that “psychotic vaudeville,” as he calls it (Jarraway).

Author’s Background

Born in Austin, Minnesota, Tim O’Brien grew up in Worthington– the “Turkey Capital of the World”– and participated in Macalester College. In 1968, a month after finishing summa cum laude in political science, O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army and delivered to Vietnam as a foot soldier. During his tour with the 198th Infantry Brigade, he accomplished the rank of sergeant and received the Purple Heart. After his return from Vietnam in 1970, O’Brien went on to finish work in federal government at Harvard University, taking time off to work as a press reporter for the Washington Post. At Harvard, O’Brien began concentrating on writing, and he has worked effectively in a number of genres (Bonn 16).

Bonn continues that O’Brien’s very first book, If I Die in a Battle Zone (1973 ), grew out of a variety of magazine and paper pieces on his experiences in the war and has been identified “autofiction,” a story that combines autobiography with the methods of fiction. After his battle narrative, O’Brien produced Northern Lights (1975 ), an out-of-print novel that the author has actually described as “a horrible book” (Naparsteck 2). O’Brien’s next work, Pursuing Cacciato (1978 ), won the National Book Award and is considered by numerous critics to be among the very best novels about the Vietnam War. A lower book, The Nuclear Age (1985 ), informs the story of a 1960s radical who becomes taken in with the risk of a nuclear apocalypse (2 ).

With the highly praised short-story collection The Things They Carried (1990 ), O’Brien went back to Vietnam fiction. In the Lake of the Woods (1994) tells the story of John Wade, a political leader whose profession is ruined by revelations of his participation in the massacre at My Lai in 1968. O’Brien’s latest book, Tomcat in Love (1998 ), checks out the desires and embarrassments of Thomas Chippering, a punning, randy linguistics teacher. Throughout his career, O’Brien has released brief fiction in popular and literary magazines such as the New Yorker, Esquire, the Massachusetts Evaluation, and the Quarterly, and a variety of his stories have actually been included in The Best American Short Stories (1977, 1987), Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (1976, 1978, 1982), and The Pushcart Prize (vols. 2 and 10) (Bonn 3-6).

Things They Reached Endure

This book have lots of parts– it is a story (it has characters, a setting, and something of a plot), part basic training manual, and part hardware list, the story examines the “weight” of the different “tangibles” and “intangibles” the soldiers “bulge,” or carry. At times, relying on the objective, the soldiers bring a host of tangible objects. They carry a variety of weapons, from M-16s all the way to a slingshot, “a weapon of last hope” (8 ), and pounds and pounds of basic gear: flak coats, pet dog tags, can openers, tooth brushes, and many other products.

As O’Brien information these things and offers their weight–“they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds” (4 )– the story reads like lists or excerpts from a survival guide. However among the stocks of concrete things, O’Brien often consists of in half a sentence a thing that has no physical mass however that however weighs heavily on the grunts: “Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and after that some, including a silent awe for the dreadful power of the things they carried” (9 ). The true weight of the important things they carry is the purpose for which they were developed: to eliminate other individuals.

Things They Selected to Carry

If the tangibles burden the soldiers, the intangibles push down upon them much more (Timmerman 6).: “They carried all the emotional luggage of men who might die. Grief, fear, love, longing– these were intangibles, however the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had concrete weight” (20 ). Ted Lavender, a soldier who is shot in the head after urinating, carried the basic equipment, plus tranquilizers and marijuana to help alleviate “the unweighed fear” of being maimed or killed. As the storyteller remarks, “They all brought ghosts” (10 ); not only do they remember their associates who have passed away, however they carry fear of the elusive Viet Cong who hide someplace in the jungle, out of sight, ghostlike (Timmerman 67). In the middle of all the violence and death, “they carried their own lives” (15 ).

O’Brien specifies “these soldiers chose to carry things like honor, fear, and love” (19 ). As in many of his works, O’Brien also analyzes what keeps soldiers combating even when– as was frequently the case in Vietnam– they did not comprehend the reasons for the war: “They carried the typical secret of cowardice hardly restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or conceal, and in numerous aspects this was the heaviest concern of all. … Male eliminated, and died, due to the fact that they were humiliated not to” (20– 21).

According to O’Brien, the weight of family and nation, obligation and honor, and the worry of being identified a coward press down upon the men (Schroeder 4). It is a weight so heavy they risk their own lives and damage others to reduce the stress. By blending long lists with characters and minutes of action, O’Brien produces a powerful story that makes present for us the dreadful problems we ask soldiers to carry on our behalf (O’Brien 20).

Things They Bring Without Option

Tim O’Brien minutely details this in the title story of The important things They Brought (1990 ). Normally, the grunt, who had sufficient issues navigating his own body through impenetrable jungles and knee-deep mud in temperature levels above one hundred degrees, brought a field pack weighing sixty to eighty pounds stuffed with technological goodies, plus his own weapon, and sometimes additional belts of M60 gatling gun ammunition draped over his shoulders. However that wasn’t the only thing they carried.

Soldiers were the easy-target Redcoats in Vietnam. Previous VC and NVA have said that they not just might see and hear us coming, they could smell soldiers (Schroeder 7). For something, as the war wore on, the grunts’ clothing came a growing number of to reek of marijuana. And because soldiers didn’t consume the native food of Vietnam, and due to the fact that soldiers used scented soaps and lotions (the preeminent weapons against the dirt of the organic inferno)– in other words, because soldiers in every possible method attempted to superimpose America on Vietnam– even our very odor gave us away (Schroeder 55).

It was not just odor that soldiers brought with them unwillingly it was likewise regret over whatthey have done. O’Brien does an exceptional job of dealing with a significant American issue surrounding the Vietnam war– it’s collective consciousness. The story “Sweetie of the Song Tra Bong” centers around Rat Kiley who is a medic with a flair for storytelling which included exaggeration and significant license. He recounts a story about Medic Fossie who was able to bring the love of his life to Vietnam. Upon her arrival she became so consumed with the war she signed up with the Green Berret and becomes a savage animal which stalks the jungles in her “pink sweatshirt, and a necklace of human tongues.”

While the story is funny it is also utilized as an allegory to the effects of war which turned common guys into killers. A bigger generalization can be made from the story about the dehumanization of human beings through war. O’Brien uses Medic Rat to describe the results of the war on the American awareness. He comments “What happened to her, Rat stated, was what took place to all of them. You come over tidy and you get dirty and then later it’s never the same.” This held true of the men who served in the war. Veterans to this day have never had the ability to make peace along with sense out of their activities in Vietnam.

Likewise, the American society has never had the ability to make sense of the war since it declined to be accountable for their part in starting war that must have never ever taken place. The Vietnam War was the very first war which was not laterally supported by all members and government officials of the United States. It polarized the country and the heavy cloud of guilt and unsuitable conduct of the federal government still haunts the history and soldiers that battled in the Vietnam War. To this day, soldiers still look back at the war and have different opinions about it. One critic even composed, “O’Brien’s contradictory representations of violence produce the thematic assertion of the moral confusions enforced by the war” (Wesley).


The weak point in The Things They Brought exists in the lack of any reality within the story and O’Brien’s creativity is oddly restricted to just his experiences with the war. While reality in emotion and mindset of the American soldier is conveyed little else is. O’Brien offers no strong historic context to these experiences. He does not directly face any of the causes or long term impacts the war has actually had. By limiting the text of the unique to just the American experience, his experience, he does not accurately portray the pain and long suffering of the Vietnamese people. His special method to the traditional war novel is simply that “novel”.

He fails to deal with a number of the important political issues which contributed to the war and in doing so motivates the memory of the Vietnam War as a one sided fight between the great and bad– them and us. O’Brien declares to be politically minded but no where with in the text does he talk about imperialism, systematic murder of the Vietnamese, the disastrous environmental impacts of the war, or the United States trade embargo that has left Vietnam bad and it’s people starving. He focuses on abstract principles like guts, justice, and evil. O’Brien, in The Important Things They Carried screams about the ignorance of the American individuals and the blind nationalism of the people in Vietnam.

While at the very same time stopping working to fix and even talk about these concerns within his novel. If O’Brien focused similarly on his personal experiences in addition to the larger political experience, The Things They Brought would be both a real war book and an essential piece of American history.

O’Brien utilizes content and structure to convey the frame of mind of American soldiers as well as the cumulative American awareness. The structure of the novel is numerous smaller sized “fragmented” stories told from different points of view. While a lot of the stories provide the same events the details and true motivations of these events alter the persona of the story teller changes.

The visual value of O’Brien unorthodox approach is apparent however in concentrating on the design he ignores the fundamental reasons why the war happened in the very first location. Along with America’s function in the damage of country and it’s people. The Vietnam War is soaked in terrific debate and misconception. It is only through the sharing of real life war stories combined with precise historical and political reporting that the truth and the true experience of the Vietnam War can be known.

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