War Theme in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

The short story The Things they Carried portrays war and its impact on young soldiers, their life dreams and expectations, hardship, and fears. This short story can be seen as a reflection of the events which took place during the Vietnam War. O’Brien gives an insightful analysis of the deep personal feelings of soldiers and their experience during this wartime. War is portrayed as dangerous and tremendous evil which is difficult to understand and accept because the emotional burden is so heavy.

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War is portrayed as a battlefield equipped with ‘things’ carried by the soldiers. Typically, the grunt, who had enough problems maneuvering his own body through impenetrable jungles and knee-deep mud in temperatures above one hundred degrees, carried a field pack weighing sixty to eighty pounds stuffed with technological goodies, plus his weapon, and sometimes extra belts of M60 machine gun ammunition draped over his shoulders. The author goes far beyond a simplistic description given the weight of each thing they carry: “The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20 round magazine. The riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines … adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum.” (O’Brien 5). War is associated with gun machines and military ammunition. The baggage of realism both parallels and perpetuates the trouble of war. The realist story maintains the illusion that absurdity and ambiguity can be defeated and the impure ore refined by exposure to enlightened values. War realism is a fascinating artifice, but it is not necessarily a very realistic one. In itself, this is no problem; there is nothing inherently wrong with realism. But as it is practiced in the war, it invariably turns war into a simplified and seductive PG-13 or R-rated affair. Ultimately, it’s an artifice that is incongruous with what we did or what happened to people-Americans and Vietnamese-in Vietnam.

For O’Brien war is a struggle and constant tension to be killed. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien finds himself forced to speak oxymoronically: “In a true war story nothing much is ever absolutely true.” “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth” (88). The Things They Carried replicates a struggle to make sense of wartime experience and memory. It is at once a recounting of a soldier’s experiences in Vietnam and an interrogation of how such experiences are transformed into fiction by the imagination, What is striking about The Things They Carried, though, is O’Brien’s use of metaphor and his elaborate and elusive self-consciousness. War is a time of very special, supercharged craziness; it is so utterly different from mowing lawns or sweeping dandelion fuzz from them that the temptation to stare repeatedly at one’s personal Vietnam closeups is hard to resist. “Grief, terror, love, longing these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.” (O’Brien 6).

War means truth and falsehood, reality and representation, fact and fiction. Paradoxically, it is by emphasizing artifice, by demonstrating the extent to which experience is an imaginative construct, that O’Brien attempts to identify the important truths buried within his memories of Vietnam. Nonetheless, this perception is an accurate assessment from the point of view of imperialists, for whom Vietnam is a “messy” war because it does not go as planned and, for a brief time, became something of an obstacle for American policymakers, a mess they have been trying to wash their hands off ever since. Through thoughts and ideals of soldiers, it is possible to say that war is seen as motivated and justified by and conducted according to, such mythic national beliefs. At the beginning of the story, O’Brien describes things they carry: “what they carry was partly a function of rank, partly a field spatiality” (5). However well-intentioned, this focus on the continuity of the frontier was ideals that have served as a mystification, a means of shifting blame and obscuring the real causes of the war. The soldiers do not adequately examine how these ideals are created and distributed nor how information that counters these narratives is institutionally marginalized. War can be described as psychological pressure caused by military actions and fear to be killed. This theme is depicted through material and emotional things the soldiers carry.. “It was very sad … the things men carried inside.” (O’Brien 10). O’Brien portrays that everyone in Vietnam is a prisoner, a notion that accords with the view of the war as tragedy and that coheres with the popular myth of courage and bravery.

In sum, war is portrayed as an inevitable and dangerous, senseless and pitiless event. The essence of the story is to show that all American soldiers in Vietnam must carry some blame, must be held morally accountable. O’Brien assents to the existentialist perception of the darkness of war times. War is associated with military actions and emotional burdens: fear, kindness, love, and uncertainty.

Works Cited

O’Brien, T. “The Things They Carried” from The Things They Carried. pp.1-27. Broadway, 1998.

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