The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien is raw take on the Vietnam War. It is not an ordinary war story all about combat and fights and their journey back home. Rather a tale of an American soldier who takes the time to reflect on his life. The story starts out with giving the reader an introduction to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, a young guy that is in love with Martha. He is a complex character one that carries the ghost of his first love, Linda that keep her memory alive and shares her story of life and death with soldiers around him illustrated in book, While her life short lived but very powerful in how he views death, The lives of the dead. Cross’ next love of Martha is a passive love. She doesn’t really reciprocate his love. He reminisces about his life outside of the war and thinks of the possibility of Martha in his life when the war ends. What struck me the most interesting in that it doesn’t really follow a specific order. The book moves from story to story in no chronological order and despite the main character being the narrator. It is a collection of short stories. As the author seems to imply that this is a semi-account of his experiences in the Vietnam War; this is not strongly affirmed because he would later claim that some parts are fictionalized. This causes the book to be incredibly unclear which leads to the idea that the author may be attempting to communicate that because the book, which centers on war is unclear, war itself is ambiguous and murky. This is supported by how the author contrasts the violent and intense moments of the war with the peaceful moments of the war. It is also supported by the murky presentation of truth throughout the book, (Kaplan, 43-52) and finally by the author’s shaky style of writing, which clouds the story and in a greater notion attributes a similar muddying cloud on war. (Calloway, 251) “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. ” The quote shows how he feels that war is confusing leaving the soldier with feelings of elation at times but then those high moments will lead to very low points, (Calloway, 249-257).
The theme that war is ambiguous and murky is strongly strengthen by the author’s striking usage of contrasting depictions of war and situational imagery. The author expectedly uses a graphic and unsettling imagery, as this is often associated with war. He puts this in as to show the authentic parts of war or to show the grotesque nature of war. Images such as when Curt Lemon’s accidently steps on a mine and Tim notices the “pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines” on the tree where he was blown to (O’Brien 60). Another example of the atrocity of war can be found when Ted Lavender who ought of the whole platoon seemed to be the most cautious is “shot in the head outside the village”(O’Brien 11). Ted’s death is intended to be ironic because he is described as being a very timid individual and so he carries a lot of things, maybe in the hopes that they will protect him, and still manages to be killed first. This tragic outcome is something that we can often associate with war. These dark events collectively only work to reinforce the typical reader’s expectations of brutality and carnage on a story involving war. These expectations being that war is bloody and morbid and is fraught with gory images and this is important because it supposed to serve as a contrast to the less conventional depiction of war that is presented in other parts of the collection of short stories. The portrayal of war as something that has some real world pleasantness like when “a little boy with a plastic leg” asked Azar for a chocolate bar and Azar gave a chocolate bar to the little kid (O’Brien 29). Although it seems like a simple event, the event holds a lot more significance given the context of the setting. There are moments during war that are actually humane and sweet between human beings. It is a “sweet” turn away from the gore of war to a more refreshing and an almost normal situation. And considering that the author chooses to share this story within a story centered on war, one could infer that the author is attempting to suggest that war is not entirely horrific and that it contains harmony within it thus inherently diluting the very nature of war itself. From something that is often perceived as dreadful to something more convoluted and opaque- unclear. Like life in general there lies many situations where there are horrible events and yet the compassion between people pull people out of the darkness into the light again.
Murkiness is incredibly pervasive throughout this text and even the concept of truth is under its mercy. The author scrutinizes the truth heavily as he tells the stories of his platoon mates because he does not seem to be interested in the truth itself in respect to his own life. Furthermore in respect to this story it is much more than just having the right elements to be considered a true war story. The author describes two men that create a bond during war. They pick on each other constantly, the two are drawn towards respect and friendship by the stress and horrors of wartime existence. Ultimately, they agree that if one should be wounded, the other must deal the fatal blow as a form of mercy. This is the ultimate test trust with putting each other’s lives in each other’s fate. A moment in this literary piece that truth becomes an important aide to the author’s theme is when Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get into a fight over something petty such as a missing jackknife and the situation escalates until Dave breaks Lee’s nose. When Lee returns and Jensen is paranoid that he will seek revenge and so he breaks his own nose. This craziness or sheer paranoia drives him to such actions. Then Lee claims that he had “stole [Dave’s} jackknife” (O’Brien 49). And in the context of truth, it is a bit strange that the truth having been obscured resulted in the whole ordeal and led Dave to become crazy. The truth being muddled resulted in Dave becoming crazy, it can be inferred that war, which has a great tendency to drive people to insanity must also naturally be muddled. The author claims that a true war story is “difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (O’Brien 53). The author, in this passage, is suggesting that a true war story could potentially have false components then it can be further suggested that war itself has some false components because war stories are meant to parallel with war, not so much truth itself. The message is more about that its okay that parts are false but more important that the message is conveyed. This is profound because it suggests that the uncertainty of truth in a war story corresponds to an uncertainty in the war story because truth is an integral foundation for an object or idea’s essence. War stories are in essence uncertain, war too is uncertain. The author later within the story connects the principle of truth in relation to war with the aforementioned contrast in the nature and depiction of war. The author claims that “truths are contradictory” and that although “war is grotesque” it “is also beauty” (O’Brien 59). The author is seamlessly interweaving two primary sources of the argument that support the theme that war is unclear and showing that a defining trait of war is that it can truthfully simultaneously be the two contrasting things but that forces war to become muddled and thus indefinable as one truth.
The author’s unnatural approach in putting this text together gives the reader an interesting experience because the way the book is set up is pretty jerky and chronologically in disarray. It starts off relatively normal with the author introducing the characters with some details that precede the actual events like when the author mentions Ted Lavender’s eventual death but it doesn’t really have too much of an effect to the reader’s reading experience in that, it doesn’t cause too much confusion or worth too much analysis on the readers part. But in the next story, the account jumps into the recent past where the author is talking to Jimmy Cross about the nature of the subsequent events in his life after his tour was over and although the author has already made a disturbance in the order of the book, the entropy continues when Cross mentions that in the event that O’Brien were to write a story, O’Brien doesn’t “’ mention anything about—“(O’Brien 11). And this is important because we see how the author isn’t constricted and can make the story into something almost anecdotal. And anecdotes are pivotal to this book because although at certain points it does seem to be like an essay or formal novel, it is not limited to the standard procedures and the author might very well be trying to leave that impression. The seeming inconsistency in writing also makes the book somewhat convoluted which might be to make the author’s intention unclear. The order of the book makes it so that one gets a disorganized story on war. Due to real the subject of war, the text itself is under the effect of such a force and it only makes the stories seem more realistic and vivid. The realism drives the reader into each account and allows them to see what they saw there in Vietnam during the war. As if although the subject of text is war, war is the dominant force encompassing the text and distorting it so that it becomes war’s subject, (Wesley, 11-18).
The author gets angry or even irritated by the evidence perceived in his tone in the seventh section, How to Tell a True War Story, when certain people would talk to him about how they received the stories and he says that they misunderstand the stories. The author claims that “a true war story is never about war” and about the things that involve it including the “sunlight” that killed Curt Lemon, “sorrow”, and so much more (O’Brien 62). From this, one can infer that those individuals that the author is specifying have misunderstood the nature of war stories and most likely war itself. And the author at this point in the text is most clearly saying that war is something that is much more profound and capable than just causing the listener or reader sadness and disgust. It is something that must be examined on more than one dimension because it is multi-faceted and because of that it can be very confusing but one can infer that if one keeps in mind that war is murky than maybe one can derive more from a war story. For example, one can be able to tell the story truth from the happening truth.
This collection of stories approaches the topic war in a manner that is becoming of such a topic. War is not something that is easy to discuss or write about. However, it is something that requires those mediums in order to be properly approached but the actual content of such proceedings may not even matter. War cannot be understood because there is nothing really to understand because we cannot metaphorically see war and what it is. Some might say that until one has been to war themselves that connection to what war really is, is truly lost on them. War is something that is felt and storytelling, being a time-honored and special form of literature is a powerful tool that can do as much; which explains the striking vividness that these stories were able to conjure up. In the story, “The man I killed”, the narrator is so tortured by the man that he killed that he goes to the length of actually creating a made up life for him where he tortures the narrator as restitution by making up a persona about the victim being a kind soul (O’Brien 118). The overwhelming guilt is felt throughout the story.
In the story Good Form, the theme of murkiness is very extensive. The mood of the author is gloomy, the setting is dark and the turn of events is unclear and blurry. The author begins by saying that he will be blunt and tell the truth. He says that he was forty three years then, a writer and long time ago he had passed through Quang Ngai Province when he was a foot soldier. He insists that this is the only truth while the rest is fiction; invented. Contrary to this, telling the truth, he narrates the story of how he watched a man die in My Khe village and finishes up by saying that even that story was fictional. The story in the novel becomes murkier when the author suggest that the truth depicted in a story can be truer than what actually happened. In the version of what actually happened, he says he was very young and afraid to look at the bodies then, later on all he remembers were dead bodies without faces. He says that though he did not kill the people, he felt the guilty of being present during their deaths. However, the truth according to the story is that the author killed a slim young man of about twenty years. The actual events of that time are quite unclear and surrounded by gloomy events. In addition, the theme of murkiness in the story Good Form of Tim O’Brien’s novel is when his daughter asks him to tell the truth whether or not he killed anyone, he says that saying yes or denying are both honest answers, (O’Brien 120).
Moreover in the story of Field Trip, Tim O’Brien builds on the theme of murkiness in his novel. In the story, there are various instances that depict lack of understanding of why some things happen. Furthermore, Tim O’Brien explains some situations during the war in Vietnam in a blurry manner. The author lacks to understand the change in the place for the last twenty year that he had not gone to the place where Kiowa’s body was lying. One form of murkiness is how Kathleen fails to understand why her father had to bring her to the place. She thinks the place stinks and smells rotten and is eager to leave as possible. On the other hand, her father brings her to the place where he was twenty years ago during the war as birthday present for Kathleen to help her start understanding the world and also interact with a little of her father’s history. As much as she had enjoyed the food and watching the animals and the place, still Kathleen could not understand and remained puzzled by the importance of coming the place. Thirdly and probably the most important, Kathleen fails to understand people had to fight or why the war had to happen.
In the story of Ghost Soldiers, Tim O’Brien develops on the theme of murkiness especially while explaining the events of the war. At the particular time of the war, many people including Rat Kiley, the medic died in a very sad way. The hopes of winning the war were dim and describes the time as ‘dark’ and thus murkiness. He says that he was shot twice but luckily found himself in the Rat Kiley’s lap who helped him and came to check on him as many times as possible despite the fierce war continuing. It was when he got back to the Alpha Company that he found Rat Kiley had been wounded and therefore transferred and another medic Bobby Jorgenson had been brought. The author is disgusted by how Jorgenson was very scared that even when he was shot the second time, Jorgenson took a long time before he could gather enough courage to go and check on him. He says that because of the poor treatment by Jorgenson, some of the parts of his body around the wound started to rot and that one could literally take out chunks of meat from his body using his or her fingers. All these gloom, lack of clear understanding by Jorgenson and the dim and dark times when the author says that he was gone with the pain represent the theme of murkiness, (O’Brien 127).
Murkiness also continues to build up in the story when the author narrates that ‘those higher up afraid of what would happen in the future if he would be shot again, moved him to the Headquarters Company – S-4 which only dealt with supplies and not taking part in the actual fighting or shooting in the war. This lack of understanding of what would happen in the future foretells murky future. The author explains how sometimes one would miss the danger and adventure of being in the war and feel the need to be in the action during the war. He explains how being part of a war can make one’s judgment clouded and make life without war to seem dark or dim. In developing the theme of murkiness, the author describes how hard it is to explain to a person who has never been part of war or felt it, how danger and death can make someone to become fully awake. He says that being part of war makes a person see the things that he or she has never seen before; that the surrounding become more vivid and a person is able to pay attention to the world, (Kaplan, 51-52).
The author continues to develop the theme of murkiness in the story while describing the life after taking the two bullets. He draws a picture of a dim and ark life without energy or much life. He says that at night he would sleep on his stomach and that was very hard for him especially since he had never ever slept on his stomach his entire life. He says he would lie there tight all night until when the pain would start to come and then he would remember Jorgenson and how he had treated him very poorly. He remembers hoe Jorgenson took a long time to gain the courage to come to him, and when he did, he had forgot the treatment for shock, (Kaplan, 51-52).
Basically, the author explores on the theme of murkiness in most of the short stories while explaining the different aspects about war. In the short stories, the theme of murkiness is fully depicted especially using the various forms of imagery while describing war. The death of the various characters such as Ted, Kiley and Kiowa throughout the stories symbolizes how grotesque war can be. In addition, the author depicts the murkiness of war through all the aspects that are not clearly known, expressed and understood and even through the various situations that the characters think are ‘dark’ or ‘dim’, (Chen, 77-78).
Calloway, Catherine. ““How to Tell a True War Story”: Metafiction in the Things They Carried.” Critique: studies in contemporary fiction 36.4 (1995): 249-257.
Chen, Tina. “Unravelling the Deeper Meaning”: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s” The Things They Carried.” Contemporary Literature (1998): 77-98.
Kaplan, Steven. “The undying uncertainty of the narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35.1 (1993): 43-52.
O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried. 1990.” New York: Broadway Book (1998).
Wesley, Marilyn. “Truth and Fiction in Tim O’Brien’s” If I Die in a Combat Zone” and” The Things They Carried”.” College Literature (2002): 1-18.