In Tim OBriens novel, The Things They Carried, Kiowa, a dedicated Baptist everyone respects, tragically falls victim to a bomb raid that traps him under a field of shit. Kiowas death in a sense tests the psychological states of his fellow comrades as each soldier falls victim to the acidic nature of guilt, slowly burning a hole in their consciousness as they look back at that night wondering if they could have done something different to change the outcome. Guilt ultimately becomes inevitable in the face of war, a period foreign to the human mind in which one must face on a daily basis the atrocities and violence of death. Depending upon ones ways of coping with the experience of war, the guilt becomes manageable or eventually destroys ones sense of self-worth.
Unfortunately for Norman Bowker, the guilt of betraying Kiowa becomes so overwhelming that he commits suicide. Bowkers inability to look past his actions is reflected upon as Bowker drives his truck around a lake located back home after returning from the war. Just like the planets that are stuck in their revolutions around the Sun, Bowker is trapped in this mindset of guilt, always looking back at how the stench of the swamp paralyzed him as he watched Kiowa get sucked into the Earth. His incapability to cope with the guilt or move on is conveyed by his failure to break past the course of revolutions around the body of water. In a way, the shit fields also portray a life of their own. Just as Kiowa had slipped away into that swamp of shit back in Vietnam, Bowker was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste (172). Leaving those fields behind, Bowker was never the same person, almost as if the shit fields took part of his humanity just as it took hold of Kiowa. The shit ultimately comes to represent Bowkers own sense of self-worth. The guilt of not being able to do anything acts as a poison to Bowkers self esteem, destroying his image of worth merely leaving behind an image of shit.
Though unable to manage his guilt from taking over his consciousness, Bowkers letters to Brien reveal the very essence of how to cope with the guilt of war expressing ones memories and thoughts to others. In a sense, Briens writing of his war experience allowed him the opportunity to transition from a psychological state of war to a normal mindset. Acknowledging the fact that writing about Kiowas death was difficult for him as a result of his examination of his own guiltiness in one of his best friends demise, Brien admits to the audience the difficulty of actually achieving this transitioning from guilt. As Brien states, You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help clarify and explain (180). In essence, Briens guilt does not require the illustration of actual fact. To Brien, what is essential is the experience of the truth, ultimately allowing Brien to separate his guilt by depicting it in words.
As lieutenant of Alpha Company, Jimmy Cross is reasonably the one man who suffered the most guilt as a result of Kiowas death, and yet, Cross exemplifies a man who controls his guilt from taking over his life. Placing all the blame on himself for having the responsibility of deciding to camp in that swampy field next to the Song Tra Bong, Cross never seems to hide his guilt. As the leader of these men, Cross feels as if he has an obligation to Kiowas father, personally writing a letter placing all the blame on himself, Carefully, not covering up his own guiltMy own fault, he would say (191). Similar to Brien, Cross uses writing to express his guilt, enabling him to disconnect from the pain that guilt may have upon his consciousness. In a way, Cross ability to admit the wrongs of his ways shows the strength in his character. Understanding that Kiowas death amongst a field of shit could be blamed on the war, the rain pouring that night, the climate, the people behind the politics of the war, the United States, God, etc., Cross never uses any of these excuses for the decision he made that night. In the end, all Cross can do is let go and go back to that New Jersey home where all the responsibilities he held during the war seize to exist.
Just as these soldiers carried mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps, bug spray, weapons, helmets, jackets, boots, and the other equipment they struggled to carry during the war, guilt in a sense increased a soldiers mental load. By sharing the stories of these soldiers of war, Brien conveys the constant struggle these young men had with their sense of worth and dignity, driven by the forces around them to adapt to an environment so mysterious and unknown that it seemed almost as if nature and fate were playing a cruel joke. Even if a soldier survived the violence of the war, they continued to carry psychological scars of war, just as threatening as the bullets and mines that terrorized them everyday in Vietnam. Condemned from the very start, guilt would drive some of these doomed men to isolation, insanity, and even suicide. In a way, the author does not attempt to illuminate any sense of morals into the readers mind, but rather showcase the experiences and horrors that threatened the very fabric of these mens minds.