Tim O’Brien’s short story “The things they carried” is a set of short pieces of narratives that tell the experiences of young American soldiers during and after the involvement in the Vietnam War. O’Brien took part in the Vietnam War in his early 20s. O’Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota in 1946. However, he grew up in Worthington in the same state. In 1968, after graduating with a BA in Political science from Macalester University, he was recruited into the US Army, trained for a while before being sent to the Vietnam War as a foot soldier. Together with several other young men from college, neighborhoods, schools, and universities, O’Brien experienced the horrors of the Vietnam War, which prompted him to write several stories to narrate his experiences as one of the young Americans sent to participate in the unnecessary war.
In fact, the book consists of interrelated stories of the young soldiers as they undergo challenging moments in isolation, fighting in a war that could have been avoided. The author is the narrator and one of the young soldiers in combat. Arguably, the term “things” is used to mean the physical, physiological, emotional, and social burdens that the war forced the young soldiers to bear despite their age, inexperience, and inability to make pre-informed decisions.
O’Brien’s first plot provides an analysis of the physical objects the young soldiers were forced to carry in their backs, pockets, hands, and other parts of the body. The forces behind their suffering seem to vary. For instance, the military’s standard operating procedure required them to be fully armed, alert, and carry military necessities, such as guns, knives, gunpowder, binoculars, protective jackets, and boots among other heavy objects. However, it is worth noting that their cultures, traditions, beliefs also forced every individual to carry extra ‘things’. For instance, Lieutenant Cross carried photographs of the girl he loved (but she did not love him back). Kiowa carried his Bible while the other men carried such objects as marijuana, condoms, superstitious elements, and books. Moreover, the need to cope with the threat posed by the enemy and the terrain means that the young men have to bear heavy loads to protect themselves.
They are unfamiliar with the foreign land, direction, and operations of the enemy. Therefore, they are forced to maintain their possessions intact, even sleeping with their full military regalia. By using the physical objects the soldiers carried during their tenure in the Vietnam War, the author wanted to describe the suffering that the war caused to the soldiers and the American society in general. Considering that the soldiers were not adequately trained, it was unfair for the American government to expose them to the war. In fact, although not mentioned in the stories, it is evident that none of the young soldiers had a stable family, income, or housing. Most of them had just finished college or university with little chance to consider their career decisions. For instance, the leader, Lieutenant Cross, carried the pictures of the girl he loved and wondered “whether she was a virgin” and “whether she had boyfriends” (O’Brien 4).
Evidently, this is an indication that he was still a sexually inactive, young, and inexperienced man, yet he was assigned the duty to lead his platoon and make decisions in an international warfront. The characters of the other soldiers and the things they carried give additional evidence that they were not only young but also inexperienced and not ready for major combat. For example, the author says that only a few soldiers carried underwear, but concentrated on other unnecessary things such as condoms, drugs, and love material. This is an indication that the military training they had received prior to their Vietnam assignment was inadequate, ineffective, and untimely.
Most important, it is evident that the term “Things” is also used in reference to the psychological, mental, emotional, and physiological burdens the young soldiers were forced to bear in their Vietnam assignment. For instance, they are young and mostly in their sexually active age. They should be making important decisions in life. They are emotionally attached to their lovers, friends, and families. For example, despite being the leader, Lieutenant Cross concentrated on fantasies of false love. He was pursuing a college girl believing that he loved her, yet she did not show any sign of loving him. Throughout the first days of their operation, he was always thinking about the relationship rather than concentrating on his war duties. Other soldiers had similar psychological and emotional burdens. For instance, Kiowa concentrated on his family, always carrying the hatchet he was given by his father and a Bible that he received from his mother. It is clear that his attachment to the family was stronger than his love for religion. This explains why he valued his Bible, which he had received from the mother. Nevertheless, he was killed in the battle, which might have emotionally burdened the parents back home.
The war also places a physiological burden on the young soldiers. Evidently, they need excess energy to overcome the weight of the things they carried. For instance, the heavy military jacket needs a strong person to bear the weight. O’Brien uses the character of Henry Dobbins to describe the demand for energy that the soldiers were enduring. Henry is a huge person. It appears that the amount of food provided by the government is not enough for some of the soldiers. Therefore, some people like Dobbins were forced to come with additional diet from their homes. Moreover, the urge to have sex is a physiological and emotional burden that the war places on the young men. For example, Sanders carried condoms with him probably hoping that he would get a native Vietnamese female and solicit for sex. Although this behavior can be interpreted as the lack of morals in the warfront, it is important to consider the fact that the soldiers were young and in their sexually and emotionally active years. In fact, it is a biological fact that young men of Sanders’ age take sex as an important part of their lives. Thus, the war has also placed a physiological burden on some of the soldiers.
It is also important to note that the death of their colleagues due to landmine explosions and bullets from the enemy caused emotional burdens on the soldiers. For example, Lieutenant Cross believed that he was personally responsible for the death of his colleagues. He believed that he did not make the right decision to protect his men because his mind was still burdened by the illusion of love for the girl back home.
In conclusion, it is evident to state that the term “Things” has a wider meaning in O’Brien’s short stories. Evidently, the term is mostly used in reference to the burdens that the war has brought. The soldiers are forced to bear the physical weight of “the things they carried”. However, the things they carried were more than the military items they were supposed to carry because there were emotional, mental and physiological burdens to bear.
O’brien, Tim. The Things they carried. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990. Print