In all honesty I have never really liked stories or movies about the Vietnam War, but Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried transcends the usual fare by forming a postmodern patchwork that combines one part metafictional commentary on the process of writing a war story, one part actual war story, one part tall tale, and one part memoir. Tim O’Brien claims that his “goal was to write something utterly convincing but without any rules as to what’s real and what’s made up. . . . In this new book I force myself to try and invent a form.” One of the main techniques used to accomplish this goal is the author featuring himself as a character, a technique used by many other authors such as Jorge Louis Borges, Philip Roth, China Mieville, and Jeffrey Ford. By joining characters in an imaginary platoon, Tim O’Brien situates his character self in the perfect position to give the illusion that the situation is biographical, even though, it is fiction. In the middle of the stories themselves, he often interrupts the narrative to talk about the writing process and the difficulty of recalling the details accurately.
O’Brien draws on this technique as a way of forcing us to rethink the entire literary genre of war stories; we not only get a “war story” being experienced by a set of characters, but we also get a story that continually comments on the process of writing a war story, and the problems inherent in writing such stories. O’Brien posits that fiction is not supposed to recall events accurately, but rather reconstitute events in such a way that they provide some glimpse of the truth. Fiction should capture and distill the emotions and atmosphere of Vietnam in a way that transcends a mere accurate recounting of events. O’Brien the character reminds us to be careful of assuming these stories actually happened, which is tempting considering how autobiographical many of them feel by the inclusion of a character based directly on the author and bearing his name.
The reader joins Alpha Company through a series of loosely interrelated short stories that bring us through the darkest parts of Vietnam and back again to America. We share their mental and physical burdens, observe their fears and ambitions, and struggle with them as they try to survive lakes of shit and existential searches for meaning in what seems like a meaningless war. The platoon displays all the intimacy of a dysfunctional family forced to share intimate quarters in a sweltering jungle. Their adventures together span from the gruesome to the far-fetched: a soldier who loses his best friend from a trip mine tortures a baby buffalo, a hardcore killer fears his visit to the army dentist, a soldier goes trick-or-treating in Vietnam with only a gun, a soldier fearing his friend will retaliate for breaking his nose decides to break his own nose, an army unit hiding out in the mountains on a reconnaissance mission hears Vietnamese music that will not go away even after they call in planes to bomb the entire mountain. These are some of the stories O’Brien tells of Vietnam. He does not depict the American soldiers as innocent, showing them in their full racist, misanthropic, violent glory, but he also does not completely condemn them either. For all the violence and masculine posturing, O’Brien never lets us forget that his characters are still boys, making difficult decisions with which even the wisest and eldest among us would struggle.
The title story which opens the collection has a unique narrative approach that tells its story about the platoon’s daily life and introduces the characters through the objects they carry with them. The story centers on first Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who fantasizes about a love affair with a college student named Martha. After going on one date with her before the war started, she continues to write him “love” letters that inspire him with hope and allow him to live a secret fantasy life in the middle of a war.
The story’s main purpose is to introduce us to the characters and reveal their personalities through the objects they carry with them. The weaponry and equipment dehumanizes the soldiers, defining them by their function in the company. The personal objects the soldiers carry, however, provides tantalizing glimpses of individual human beings with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The objects they carry often prove to be a heavy burden; these young men have to hump these objects up steep hills and through humid jungles. The things they carry also grow increasing abstract as the story progresses; the objects stop being concrete like cigarettes and letters, and start becoming more abstract: ghosts and memories and fears and grief and love. This serves as a great indicator of what the rest of the stories will be like.
My favorite story in the entire collection is a tall tale, which Rat Kiley, the medic, tells to the company about the time a fellow medic shipped his girlfriend over to Vietnam. The place slowly transforms her from girl-next-door to a Rambo-style killer who finds Conrad’s Heart of Darkness displaced to the Vietnam jungles. It is painful to watch the girl slowly lose her soul and mind, to become a silent sadist who relishes in the death and mayhem of Vietnam. Vietnam transforms normal people–people like Tim O’Brien with his scholarship to Harvard and dreams of graduate school–into psychopathic killers; it haunts them forever, even when they return back to their normal lives.
What should one take away from these stories? The temptation is to follow the lead of the soldiers who continually search for some meaning in the death of their comrades and enemies only to have the moral of these deaths elude them. If the story condemns America’s involvement in Vietnam it does so in relation to the young men who suffered the brunt of the war. It functions far more as an apologia for the young men who wander around in an obfuscation of meaning and purpose than it does as a condemnation of them. Vietnam is made real with all its twisted emotional, psychological, and descriptive baggage. Likewise, it is important to note that many of the stories or the frames of the stories give us a glimpse of the soldiers years later, after they have returned home from Vietnam. Perhaps we may read this as O’Brien saying life goes on after war, but the very fact that we are reading a war story also reminds us that you never quite get over it either.
For all the characters who adjust and go on to lead normal lives, O’Brien depicts a great many other characters that cannot forget their experiences and prove incapable of adjusting to civilian life after the war. Perhaps then the book itself is merely an attempt to ponder how a bunch of eighteen year old boys can be transformed and marked by one experience for the rest of their lives without offering a moral judgment; it is not about the politics, it is not really much about the war either, but really it is about the young men who were shipped off there and how they managed to cope with those experiences.