The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

by Robert A. Parker

This 1990 work deserves its reputation. Here are the experiences of civilian soldiers during a few months in Vietnam, as they discover the fragility of life and the humanity of their fellow soldiers. The author identifies one soldier as himself, and dedicates this book to the soldiers in these stories, although he also acknowledges some of the stories he tells have been fabricated.

This has been called a book of short stories, but it is, in effect, a novel. Because it is about the same platoon of soldiers who appear in each tale, one or more featured in one, other soldiers in another. A few of the tales leap ahead, and reveal the impact of Vietnam on a soldier’s future, particularly the soldier writing as a 43-year-old author.

Some of the stories are quite brief, not full stories, rather quick anecdotes that illustrate a particular aspect of the war. The best story by far is the title story. It is a tour de force which lists all the items a soldier carried into battle in Vietnam. Some items varied according to his role and the mission. Other items included his food, insect spray, and toilet paper, and all items included a precise listing of what each item weighed. But not only material items. Soldiers also carried the weight of other burdens, such as their fears, dreams, hungers, pain, and so on.

There are also memorable stories about death that expand into multiple stories. One concerns a Vietcong soldier killed on a jungle trail just because he was there, and the guilt one American soldier carries even when his buddies later try to talk him out of it. Another concerns the responsibility for an American Indian, Kiowa, being buried alive in sea of mud. His sad fate depends on a series of ignorant decisions and the guilty conscience of those who could not save him.

A few stories stand alone, such as the narrator’s (O’Brien’s?) abortive attempt to flee the draft. He does not because he is embarrassed to be seen as a coward. Still others are enhanced when the narrator recalls events from years later and evaluates their effect on him both then and now—when he has a family and is a writer (as O’Brien). The collection concludes with a kind of hymn to death, contrasting that of a girl, when she and the narrator were nine, to the deaths that he as a soldier witnessed in Vietnam, as well as other subsequent deaths when soldiers returned to civilian life. Indeed, the entire book reflects through these stories the dream of bringing the dead back to life.

O’Brien blends here the brutality and pain of warfare and the haphazardness of death; the use of humor, of denial, of lies and exaggeration in order to cope; the haunting memories and the failure of memory. It is also about both irony and sentimentality; about the blurring of fiction and fact; about the tension between harried soldiers and their love for one another; and about the shifting values that arise from experience. A review in the Richmond Dispatch sums up this work: It is “about a lost innocence that might be recaptured through the memories of stories….O’Brien tells us these stories because he must….this is the book about surviving.”

This is also a unique book. A novel comprised of short stories, yes. But also a novel about memory, about guilt, and an uncertain reality. A novel about reaction more than about its violence. A novel about the imagination prompted by reality. A novel about small incidents in the universe of war. A novel that sees the truth of war inside men’s minds, in the courage, the fear, that it creates, rather than in the suffering bodies.

O’Brien said in an interview that he did not write about the Vietnamese people because he did not know any. He did not write about battle because he did not experience any. He experienced “an aimlessness, not just in the physical sense but beyond that in the moral and ethical sense.” And that is why he wrote the kind of book he did. It is, he said, “a writer’s book on the effects of time on the imagination. It is definitely an anti-war book. I hated the war from the beginning.” He says it is a book “about man’s yearning for peace.”

He has certainly met that objective. This is about American civilians unprepared to fight a war in a strange land, not understanding the reason they are there, and trying to cope with the unreality around them. And in one person’s memory of that experience it captures the experience of all. But it is also about the elusiveness of experience and the elusiveness of memory. As Robert R. Harris wrote in his Times review, “[O’Brien] makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted that reality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer.”

I have read, and liked, two of the author’s earlier works, Caccioto and Lake of the Woods (both good, the former better). O’Brien’s Vietnam service obviously had a great impact on his life, and literature has benefitted from that experience. The author has graduated from fantasy to magic in those earlier works to playing with memory in this book. Which gives this work a more subtle approach, and also a more human approach. There are fewer fireworks and more exploring within. This work is also simpler on the surface, with more complex inner lives. The result is a more mature work, even if a shorter one.

I am drawn toward more of O’Brien, but primarily if he further explores his Vietnam experience. I would note, however, that for a single work of fiction on the Vietnam war, I still regard Matterhorn as the peak achievement. For it truly captures what the experience was like, as it follows a single company across the Vietnamese terrain and portrays a series of natural and violent confrontations with the enemy. (February, 2016)

 

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