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War Changes in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carry”

In the history of literature there were many writers who became the living witnesses of the horrific realities of their times; some of them were Erich Maria Remarque (who was a soldier during World War I), Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi (who survived in concentration camps during the World War II), and Tim O’Brien (a former Vietnam War foot soldier). As writers, all of them attempted to describe the events they had witnessed, and each of them faced the same challenge of transforming the most destructive and powerful feelings and the most terrifying memories into words without losing the nature of these impressions but sharing it with the readers who had never experienced anything like that. Elie Wiesel expressed his struggle by writing: “I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them” (9). In his book The Things They Carried, O’Brien uses a variety of techniques and approaches in order to deliver his own impression of the war in a form as authentic as possible and share its controversial character with the readers.

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First of all, conducting the rhetorical analysis of the novel, one should pay attention to its title. The phrase “the things they carried” can be found on the second page of the book in the following sentence: “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity”, that is followed by a list of utensils that comprised the typical equipment of a foot soldier in Vietnam as well as the objects each soldier chose to carry because of the individual preferences – condoms, comic books, floss and a toothbrush, socks, underwear, and foot powder (O’Brien 2). Further, the author explains the meaning of the word “carry” for the foot soldiers: “To carry something was to hump it… In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive” (O’Brien 3). That way, it is possible to suppose that the author uses the verb “carry” for a purpose to compare the emotional baggage of the soldiers with the psychical weight they had to match with in terms of heaviness and pressure it created in the people. In other words, the title of the book refers to all the experiences the soldiers dealt with during the war as something that they had to move on with and adjust to having its weight resting on their shoulders forever and occasionally, like Lieutenant Cross close their eyes and dream of “carrying nothing” (O’Brien 6).

In order to demonstrate the chaotic nature of war, O’Brien lines the stories of his novel in non-chronological order. That way, the very structure of the book feels like the memories about a huge and long-lasting event where separate pieces of history come up randomly without being organized in a correct timeline. The major event that helps the reader realize the chronology of the stories is the death of Ted Lavender, who is shot almost immediately at the beginning of the book and is further mentioned either as recently dead, or about to be killed, or still alive. The death of Lavender is not depicted as an event shocking or special in any way, yet it is mentioned many times and in many stories as an important milestone.

Speaking about death, the author emphasizes that the fear of death was ever-present among the team of the foot soldiers and made them constantly think about the circumstances under which they could die: “Will your flashlight go dead? Do rats carry rabies? If you screamed, how far would the sound carry? Would your buddies hear it? Would they have the courage to drag you out? (O’Brien 7). At the same time, the death itself, however frequent, most of the time is mentioned in a very brief and emotional manner. In other words, instead of describing how tragic and depressing it was to see their peers die, O’Brien approaches death in a matter-of-fact manner documenting the events but not going into details. To be more precise, there are detailed descriptions of the dead bodies such as that of Ted: “He lay with his mouth open. The teeth were broken. There was a swollen black bruise under his left eye. The cheekbone was gone” or that of the Vietnamese boy, whose thumb one of the soldiers carried as a talisman “badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition” (O’Brien 8). Yet, these are the external details; the author never mentions the emotions he felt seeing the dead bodies. It is possible that this technique is used to show how much the perception of a soldier is different from that of a civilian when death is no longer a shock, but an everyday reality.

To conclude, O’Brien approaches war as a massive phenomenon that affects millions of people killing most and changing the survivors forever in a multitude of ways. In order to show the war from the perspective of a foot soldier, the author presents it in a form of a collection of random memories of a person whose feeling of self-preservation and fear are numbed by all the shocks of war, but whose other feelings (will to live, desire to love, hope for closeness and happiness) became much sharper.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 2012. Web.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Marion Wiesel. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2008. Print.

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