The Things They Carried is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O’Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. His third book about the war, it is based upon his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division. O’Brien prefers to refrain from political debate and discourse regarding the Vietnam War, but has become jaded regarding the ignorance he perceives from the denizens of his home town toward the world. It is in part this ignorance that drove O’Brien to author The Things They Carried. It was initially published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990. Many of the characters are semi-autobiographical, sharing similarities with characters from his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. The book works heavily with metafiction, employing a writing tactic called verisimilitude. The use of real names and inclusion of himself as the protagonist within the book creates a style that meshes and blurs the fiction and non-fiction. The Things They Carried is dedicated to the fictional men of the Alpha Company in order to make the novel feel like a war memoir.
The reader is introduced to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the leader of a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam. He carries physical reminders of Martha, the object of his unrequited love. A death in the squad causes Cross to reconsider his priorities, and, heartbroken, he burns all reminders of his life outside the war in order to stave off dangerous distractions.
We are privy to a conversation between Cross and O’Brien, reminiscing about the war and about Martha. O’Brien asks if he can write a story about Cross, detailing his memories and hopes for the future; Cross agrees, thinking that perhaps Martha will read it and come find him.
A series of unrelated memories from the war narrated from O’Brien’s point of view, Spin showcases the fact that wartime is not necessarily a steady onslaught of violence, but also includes moments of camaraderie and beauty: a joke of a hate letter to the Draft Board; learning a rain dance between battles.
O’Brien gets drafted straight out of college. He is reluctant to go to war and considers fleeing the draft; he even goes so far as to make his way toward the Canada–US border. Near the border, he encounters an elderly stranger who allows him to work through his internal struggle. O’Brien is given the opportunity to escape; however, the societal pressures are too much for him. He then goes to war ashamed with his inability to face the consequences of leaving.
Told in two sections, we see the developing relationship between soldiers Jensen and Strunk. At first regularly antagonized by one another, the two are drawn toward respect and friendship by the stress and horrors of wartime existence how to tenderize roast. Ultimately, they agree that if one should be wounded, the other must deal the fatal blow as a form of mercy.
O’Brien uses examples of tales from his fellow soldiers to illustrate the fact that truth is a delicate and malleable thing when it comes to telling war stories. After all, anything can be faked… but generally, only the worst events can be proven real. He concludes that in the end, the truth of a story doesn’t matter so much as what the story is trying to say.
In order to mourn Curt Lemon, a man O’Brien did not know well, he shares a brief recollection about a bizarre interaction between Lemon and an army dentist. Lemon, who is afraid of dentists, faints before the dentist can examine him. Later that night, however, he complains of a phantom tooth ache so severe a tooth is pulled – even though it’s perfectly healthy.
O’Brien passes on the legendary (and almost certainly exaggerated) tale of Rat Kiley’s first assignment, near a river called the Song Tra Bong. The area being so isolated, the story goes, one of the soldiers flies his hometown girlfriend in by helicopter. At first, she cooks, cleans, and tends to the soldiers’ wounds… but gradually sports direct football socks, she assimilates into Vietnamese guerrilla culture and disappears into the jungle.
Regarding superstitions at wartime, O’Brien explains how Henry Dobbins wore the stockings of his girlfriend around his neck to bed, and sometimes to battle. Even when the girlfriend breaks things off, he keeps the stockings around his neck, as their powers have been demonstrated.
The platoon discovers an abandoned building being used as a sort of church, inhabited by monks who bring them food and supplies. The men discuss their relationships with churches, and for the most part, appreciate the interaction with other people and the peace of the building. Henry Dobbins wants to become a priest, but decides otherwise.
O’Brien describes a man he killed in My Khe, as well as the manner in which he killed him. He makes up a life story for the man, torturing himself with the idea that he’d been a gentle soul.
O’Brien’s daughter asks if he killed anyone in the war; he lies to her that he did not. After noting this interaction, he goes on to tell the story of an ambush outside My Khe, in which O’Brien kills a young man who may or may not have wanted to harm him.
The platoon witnesses a young Vietnamese girl dancing through the burned remains of her village, and argue over whether it’s a ritual or simply what she likes to do. Later, Azar mocks the girl, and Dobbins rebukes him.
This follows post-war Norman Bowker, who finds himself at a loss: his girlfriend is married, his friends are dead. He reflects on the medals he won in Vietnam, and imagines telling his father about both these and the medals he did not win. Ultimately, despite the fact that he has no one to share these memories with, he finds catharsis in imagined conversations.
O’Brien confesses that Norman Bowker asked him to write the previous story, and that he hanged himself three years later after being unable to find any meaning in life after the war. O’Brien muses over the suspicion that, without Harvard and writing, he too might have lost the will to live after returning from Vietnam.
When Kiowa is killed on the banks of a river, during a mission led by Jimmy Cross, Cross takes responsibility for his death and writes to Kiowa’s father while the others search for the body – as usual, Azar jokes around at first. Another soldier also feels responsible for the death, as he did not save Kiowa; the story ends with the body being found in the mud and both soldiers left to their guilt.
O’Brien reiterates that the real truth does not have to be the same as the story truth, and that it is the emotions evoked by the story that matter. He admits that the story about killing a man on the trail outside My Khe was false; he merely saw the man die, but wanted to instill the same feelings in the reader that he felt on the trail.
After finishing the story, “In the Field,” O’Brien says, he and his ten-year-old daughter visit the site of Kiowa’s death with an interpreter. The field looks different from his memory of it, but he leaves a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins in the spot where he believes Kiowa sank. In this way, he comes to terms with his friend’s death.
O’Brien recounts the two times he took a bullet. The first time, he is treated by Rat Kiley, and is impressed with the man’s courage and skill. The second time, he is treated by Kiley’s replacement, Bobby Jorgenson; Jorgenson is incompetent, and nearly kills O’Brien. Furious, O’Brien promises revenge 18k Rose Bracelet, but can only recruit Azar. They scare Jorgenson by pretending to be enemy soldiers, but when Jorgenson proves that he is no longer a coward, O’Brien lets go of his resentment.
O’Brien tells the second-hand account of Rat Kiley’s injury: warned of a possible attack, the platoon is on edge. Kiley reacts by distancing himself, the stress causing him to first be silent for days on end, and then talk constantly. He has a breakdown about the pressure of being a medic, and shoots himself in the toe to be sent away. No one questions his bravery.
O’Brien remembers his very first encounter with a dead body, that of his childhood sweetheart Linda. Suffering from a brain tumor, Linda dies at the age of nine and O’Brien is deeply affected by her funeral. In Vietnam, O’Brien explains, the soldiers keep the dead alive by telling stories about them; in this way, he keeps Linda alive by telling her story.
In the short story „Good Form,“ the narrator makes a distinction between „story truth“ and „happening truth.“ O’Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers. Critics often cite this distinction when commenting on O’Brien’s artistic aims in The Things They Carried and, in general, all of his fiction about Vietnam, claiming that O’Brien feels that the realities of the Vietnam War are best explored in fictional form rather than the presentation of precise facts. O’Brien’s fluid and elliptical negotiation of truth in this context finds echoes in works labeled as ’non-fiction novels‘. The fine line of what constitutes fiction versus non-fiction is blurred throughout the book, for though Tim O’Brien claims this book to be fiction, the author and the protagonist share the same name and same profession as writers. Additionally, the character Tim references writing the book Going After Cacciato which the author Tim had written and published previously. The theme of believing in the people around you and having reliable people with you comes from the time period being filled with people who are opposed to the action of war. This causes the people who are drafted into the mutual hate to band together to live.
The story „Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong“ was made into a film in 1998, titled A Soldier’s Sweetheart starring Kiefer Sutherland.
The stories „The Things They Carried,“ „On the Rainy River,“ „How to Tell a True War Story,“ „Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,“ „The Man I Killed,“ and „Lives of the Dead“ were adapted for the theatre in March 2011 by the Eastern Washington University Theatre Department as part of the universities‘ Get Lit! Literary Festival in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts The Big Read 2011, of which The Things They Carried was the featured novel. The same department remounted the production in December 2011 for inclusion as a Participating Entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The production was selected as an alternate for KCACTF Region VII, as well as receiving other KCACTF honors for the production’s director, actors, and production staff.
Before the book’s publication in 1990, five of the stories: „The Things They Carried,“ „How to Tell a True War Story,“ „Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,“ „The Ghost Soldiers,“ and „The Lives of the Dead“ had been published in Esquire water bottle with silicone sleeve.
„Speaking of Courage“ was originally published (in heavily modified form) as a chapter of O’Brien’s earlier novel Going After Cacciato.
„The Things They Carried“ was also included in the 1987 volume of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Ann Beattie and the second edition of Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama by Robert DiYanni.
The Things They Carried has received critical acclaim and has been established as one of the preeminent pieces of Vietnam War literature. It has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010. It has received multiple awards such as France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.
O’Brien has expressed surprise at how the book has become a staple in middle schools and high schools, stating that he „certainly hadn’t imagined fourteen year-old kids and eighteen year-olds and those even in their early twenties reading the book and bringing such fervor to it, which comes from their own lives, really. The book is applied to a bad childhood or a broken home, and these are the things they’re carrying. And in a way, it’s extremely flattering, and other times, it can be depressing.“
In 2014, the book was included in Amazon.com’s list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime and credited as the inspiration for a National Veterans Art Museum exhibit.