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Literature / The Things They Carried

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"War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. The truths are contradictory."
Tim O' Brien, How to Tell a True War Story

"A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth."
the same

A bunch of related short stories written by Tim O'Brien that, for the most part, revolve around the experiences of his fictional narrator and the 17 (at first) other men that make up his platoon in The Vietnam War. It includes the short story of the same name.

By the way, that fictional narrator happens to be named Tim O'Brien. He has a whole bunch of other things in common with the book's author as well, though certainly not everything—unlike the narrator, the real Tim O' Brien does not have children (at the time of writing) and cannot say with certainty that he ever killed a man. In fact, everything in this book should be taken with a grain of salt with regard to its "truthfulness"; many stories seemingly presented as factual are altered or made up, as the author tries to make an emotional atmosphere that is "truer than true."The book has a disclaimer that it's a work of fiction even on the title page: "The Things They Carried / A work of Fiction by Tim O'Brien."

The book also makes comments about the act of writing itself, and, in particular, devotes an entire chapter (source of page quote) to talking about what makes a true war story.

Required high school reading in some places. "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" was made into a movie, "A Soldiers Sweetheart" starring Skeet Ulrich, Georgina Cates, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Provides examples Of:

  • Accidental Suicide: While Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley are playing with smoke grenades, Curt Lemon unknowingly steps on a grenade and dies in the explosion.
  • Action Girl: Mary Anne. She learns how to field strip an M-16, fights alongside Green Berets in night attacks, and goes native in the Vietnamese jungle.
  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: In "Speaking of Courage," it's presented that Norman Bowker is responsible for Kiowa's death. However, in "Notes" O'Brien confesses that it was his fault. In the next chapter, "In the Field," where the incident happens, the soldier with the flashlight is never named outright, but Tim O'Brien's character is the only still-living, named soldier absent in the search, indicating that the flashlight soldier is him.
  • Author Avatar: The narrator or Mitchell Sanders, depending on the situation. To make things more meta, Tim O'Brien is a named character in the story who shares many similarities with the actual author, Tim O'Brien, and the book includes several chapters where O'Brien ruminates on the nature of storytelling and writing. The only things that keep these chapters from being some kind of nonfictional essays are the references to Tim meeting or communicating or remembering members of the Alpha Company, who are all fictional.
  • Bait-and-Switch Compassion: When the gang runs across a one-legged boy, Azar gives the kid a chocolate bar, and for a moment it looks like he may feel sorry for the kid when he says "One leg, for Chrissake." Then he finishes the sentence with, "Some poor fucker ran out of ammo."
  • Black Comedy: Several instances. Most notably, the Green Berets in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" have a collection of human bones in their barracks, with a sign reading "Assemble Your Own Gook! Free Sample Kit!!" There's also Norman Bowker singing "Lemon Tree" to himself while cleaning Curt Lemon's guts off of a tree branch.
  • Blow Up The Dog:
    • Azar, Ted Lavender's puppy. He laughs about it and wonders why the others think it's such a big deal.
    • Soon after Curt Lemon death, Rat Kiley found a baby water buffalo, stroked its nose, and offered some C rations. After the animal showed disinterest, Rat mutilates the baby water buffalo with various shots over the body. The barely alive buffalo was dumped into the abandoned village well.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: At the end of "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," Mary Anne is described as wearing "her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues."
  • Communications Officer: Mitchell Sanders. He is also this while also being The Storyteller.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: O'Brien, Lt. Cross. Many of the soldiers, really. Azar subverts this, using it as a justification for blowing up a puppy.
  • Creepy Souvenir: In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong", when Mary Anne goes off the deep end, she makes herself a necklace strung with the tongues of executed Viet Cong soldiers.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Lieutenant Cross floating on his back in the shit field while they're still searching for Kiowa.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Kiowa ends up drowning in human shit after the platoon takes mortar fire in the shit field.
  • Dance of Despair: Implied in chapter "Style". The platoon comes across a girl whose entire family had died in the war. This girl did nothing but dance, and was dancing when they found her, for reasons they can't understand, but figure it's a cultural thing. Azar questions, then mocks the girl, but is told off by Dobbins.
  • Draft Dodging: Attempted, but not followed through with. O'Brien was too afraid of being shamed. Or, as the author puts it, too afraid to be a coward.
  • Driven to Suicide: Norman Bowker after the war. He quietly hung himself at the YMCA without leaving a suicide note, and his mother comments that he was a quiet boy and likely didn't want to bother anyone.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Azar poking fun at Kiowa's death, making comments about "eating shit" and the like, although after he sees the horrible state the body is in, he personally apologizes to the rest of the platoon.
  • Dying for Symbolism: A few instances. Some die during the story, some are already dead. The most notable are probably Ted Lavender, Norman Bowker, Kiowa and the Dainty Young Man.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Azar fills this role, as every single interaction he is shown to have with the other members of the crew suggests they can't stand being around him. It might have something to do with him blowing up Ted Lavender's puppy for shits and giggles.
    Tim O'Brian: "Nobody cared for him, including myself."
  • Going Native: "Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong" consists of Rat Kiley telling Mitchell Sanders about a girl he knew at his previous station. She was flown in by her boyfriend and starts the chapter as a naive and optimistic teenager, and by the end she's wandering the jungles of Vietnam, murdering with abandon and wearing a necklace of human tongues.
  • Hero's Muse: Deconstructed to hell and back. Numerous characters that play this role to several of the soldiers end up causing a considerable amount of the conflict of the plot, such as Martha, Henry Dobbins' girlfriend, and the ex-girlfriend of the guy who got Kiowa killed. The men cling to the idealized versions of these women in their heads since they find the notion that innocence and purity still exist somewhere outside of the war to be comforting in a situation that has deprived them of it themselves. Believing in this causes Lt. Cross to fall into even deeper despair after Ted Lavender is killed while he's day dreaming of Martha, and Mary Anne going native and joining the war effectively deconstructs the entire notion of women's innocence.
  • Jumping on a Grenade: Deconstructed. O'Brien tells a couple variations of the story as an example of how to tell when a war story is real. In one version, a soldier jumps on a grenade and saves his comrade's lives. In another, he does it, but they all die anyway.
    Grenade-Jumper: Story of my life man.
  • Kill the Cutie: Kiowa, Ted Lavender
  • Meaningful Name: Several. Norman ("Normal") Bowker, Ted Lavender, Lt. Jimmy Cross (initials J.C.), Kiowa (name of a famous American attack helicopter), the list goes on.
  • Meta Guy: Mitchell Sanders. Of all the characters in the platoon, he's the one who seems most aware of the symbolic significance of the events the platoon goes through. He tries to point it out to the other soldiers.
    "You want my opinion, there's a definite moral here."
    "You know. Moral."
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • "The Man I Killed" is all about O'Brien staring down in shock at the corpse of a Viet Cong soldier he killed with a grenade, describing his body in extreme detail as he imagines what the man's life before he died must have been like.
    • In "In the Field," O'brien gets another one when it's revealed he turned on his flashlight to show Kiowa a picture of his girlfriend, thus attracting mortar fire and inadvertently getting Kiowa killed. In the morning, all he can do is vainly search for the picture of his girlfriend that he lost in the mud while crying.
  • Pet the Dog: Azar, when he gives a one-legged boy his chocolate bar.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: What Norman Bowker eventually becomes. He tells O'Brien that he thinks he really died in the shit field, and eventually hangs himself without even leaving a note. Or that could just be O'Brien's fabrication. It doesn't matter either way.
  • Shout-Out: Mitchell Sanders' story in the chapter Spin about a guy who hooks up with a Red Cross nurse in Danang sounds an awful lot like the plot to A Farewell to Arms. The ending to Sanders version is the big difference though.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Azar's entire role as a character. Until he sees Kiowa's body after they pull it out of the shit field. It is the first time he shows any kind of genuine regret for the jokes he's made.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Ted Lavender, who gets shot in the head by a sniper while taking a piss, and Curt Lemon, who steps on a rigged 105 round while the platoon is on break and gets blown into Ludicrous Gibs.
  • Surrealism: The entire work is a prime example of a modern Surrealist piece of literature, and is essentially what the entire "truer than the truth" concept boils down to.
  • The Storyteller: Mitchell Sanders is the usual story teller, though Rat Kiley also tells one in "The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong." Somewhat fittingly, Rat tells his story to Sanders, who spends the chapter critiquing Rat's technique.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The book is written in such a way that many of the events that happen in the book don't fully make sense until the nature of the characters involved is also revealed. Because most of the chapters dedicated to exploring the characters are in the latter half of the book, it makes you look at the events in the first half of the book in a different light when you reread it.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • Rat Kiley is explicitly stated to be an unreliable narrator in his stories, often adding details in for effect.
      For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you'd find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.
    • O'Brien himself is an unreliable narrator, and often chapters alternate between a straightforward story taking place during the war, and then a chapter of O'Brien musing on the nature of story telling, and what he fabricated in a previous story and why. This is used often to reflect on the concepts of making things feel as true as experiencing them felt. Examples include:
      • O'Brien admits that the chapter "Speaking of Courage" detailing Norman Bowker's experiences in his home town were made up, based loosely on a letter he received from Norman about how he was adjusting (or failing to adjust) to civilian life. O'Brien describes how he based Norman's town on his own, moved it to the plains, and initially wrote the story differently so that it would fit in another novel he was working on, and how Norman disliked the result. The current version of "Speaking of Courage" is said to be his homage to Norman, written the way Norman would have wanted it to be, with the addition of Norman being responsible for Kiowa's death instead of Tim.
      • O'Brien says that he didn't actually kill the Dainty Young Man in "The Man I Killed," and says he was merely present when he died, and that he still felt responsible. Then he says no, that was a lie too, he never actually looked at the body, and so now he feels "faceless" guilt over him and the others killed during the war, and that this constant rewriting of history is his way of coping.
  • World of Symbolism: It honestly wouldn't be to ridiculous to call this one of the most heavily symbolic books ever written. The book is written in this way since O'Brien felt that a civilian could never properly understand the real experience of being a soldier without being one himself, so he instead attempted to capture the essence of the experience instead, in a way that a civilian would be able to understand. This is the reasoning behind the "truer than the truth" quote at the top of the page, and the reason it's given such a heavy focus throughout the book.