The Things They Carried is a 1990 collection of short stories by Tim O'Brien about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The stories follow the members of O'Brien's platoon, their traumas, their values, their losses and hopes. Although much of the stories reflects real events, O'Brien wrote the stories as fiction, believing that, unlike a chronicle of purely-factual information, fiction better conveyed the emotional and experiential truth of the war.
The reader is introduced to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the leader of a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam. He carries physical reminders of Martha, the object of his unrequited love. A death in the squad causes Cross to reconsider his priorities, and, heartbroken, he burns all reminders of his life outside the war in order to stave off dangerous distractions.
We are privy to a conversation between Cross and O’Brien, reminiscing about the war and about Martha. O’Brien asks if he can write a story about Cross, detailing his memories and hopes for the future; Cross agrees, thinking that perhaps Martha will read it and come find him.
A series of unrelated memories from the war narrated from O’Brien’s point of view, Spin showcases the fact that wartime is not necessarily a steady onslaught of violence, but also includes moments of camaraderie and beauty: a joke of a hate letter to the Draft Board; learning a rain dance between battles.
On the Rainy River
O’Brien gets drafted straight out of college. He is reluctant to go to war and considers fleeing the draft; he even goes so far as to make his way toward the Canada–US border. Near the border, he encounters an elderly stranger who allows him to work through his internal struggle. O’Brien is given the opportunity to escape; however, the societal pressures are too much for him. He then goes to war ashamed with his inability to face the consequences of leaving.
Enemies and Friends
Told in two sections, we see the developing relationship between soldiers Jensen and Strunk. At first regularly antagonized by one another, the two are drawn toward 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.
How to Tell a True War Story
O’Brien uses examples of tales from his fellow soldiers to illustrate the fact that truth is a delicate and malleable thing when it comes to telling war stories. After all, anything can be faked... but generally, only the worst events can be proven real. He concludes that in the end, the truth of astory doesn’t matter so much as what the story is trying to say.
In order to mourn Curt Lemon, a man O’Brien did not know well, he shares a brief recollection about a bizarre interaction between Lemon and an army dentist. Lemon, who is afraid of dentists, faints before the dentist can examine him. Later that night, however, he complains of a phantom tooth ache so severe a tooth is pulled - even though it’s perfectly healthy.
Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong
O’Brien passes on the legendary (and almost certainly exaggerated) tale of Rat Kiley’s first assignment, near a river called the Song Tra Bong. The area being so isolated, the story goes, one of the soldiers flies his hometown girlfriend in by helicopter. At first, she cooks, cleans, and tends tothe soldiers’ wounds... but gradually, she assimilates into Vietnamese guerilla culture and disappears into the jungle.
Regarding superstitions at wartime, O’Brien explains how Henry Dobbins wore the stockings of his girlfriend around his neck to bed, and sometimes to battle. Even when the girlfriend breaks things off, he keeps the stockings around his neck, as their powers have been demonstrated.
The platoon discovers an abandoned building being used as a sort of church, inhabited by monks who bring them food and supplies. The men discuss their relationships with churches, and for the most part, appreciate the interaction with other people and the peace of the building. Henry Dobbins wants to become a priest, but decides otherwise.
The Man I Killed
O’Brien describes a man he killed in My Khe, as well as the manner in which he killed him. He makes up a life story for the man, torturing himself with the idea that he’d been a gentle soul.
O’Brien’s daughter asks if he killed anyone in the war; he lies to her that he did not. After noting this interaction, he goes on to tell the story of an ambush outside My Khe, in which O’Brien kills a young man who may or may not have wanted to harm him.
The platoon witnesses a young Vietnamese girl dancing through the burned remains of her village, and argue over whether it’s a ritual or simply what she likes to do. Later, Azar mocks the girl, and Dobbins rebukes him.
Speaking of Courage
This follows post-war Norman Bowker, who finds himself at a loss: his girlfriend is married, his friends are dead. He reflects on the medals he won in Vietnam, and imagines telling his father about both these and the medals he did not win. Ultimately, despite the fact that he has no one to share these memories with, he finds catharsis in imagined conversations.
O’Brien confesses that Norman Bowker asked him to write the previous story, and that he hanged himself three years later after being unable to find any meaning in life after the war. O’Brien muses over the suspicion that, without Harvard and writing, he too might have lost the will to live afterreturning from Vietnam.
In the Field
When Kiowa is killed on the banks of a river, during a mission led by Jimmy Cross, Cross takes responsibility for his death and writes to Kiowa’s father while the others search for the body - as usual, Azar jokes around at first. Another soldier also feels responsible for the death, as he did not save Kiowa; the story ends with the body being found in the mud and both soldiers left to their guilt.
O’Brien reiterates that the real truth does not have to be the same as the story truth, and that it is the emotions evoked by the story that matter. He admits that the story about killing a man on the trail outside My Khe was false; he merely saw the man die, but wanted to instill the same feelingsin the reader that he felt on the trail.
After finishing the story,“In the Field,” O’Brien says, he and his ten-year-old daughter visit the site of Kiowa’s death with an interpreter. The field looks different from his memory of it, but he leaves a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins in the spot where he believes Kiowa sank. In this way, he comes to terms with his friend’s death.
The Ghost Soldiers
O’Brien recounts the two times he took a bullet. The first time, he is treated by Rat Kiley, and is impressed with the man’s courage and skill. The second time, he is treated by Kiley’s replacement, Bobby Jorgenson; Jorgenson is incompetent, and nearly kills O’Brien. Furious, O’Brien promises revenge, but can only recruit Azar. They scare Jorgenson by pretending to be enemy soldiers, but when Jorgenson proves that he is no longer a coward, O’Brien lets go of his resentment.
O’Brien tells the second-hand account of Rat Kiley’s injury: warned of a possible attack, the platoon is on edge. Kiley reacts by distancing himself, the stress causing him to first be silent for days on end, and then talk constantly. He has a breakdown about the pressure of being a medic, and shoots himself in the toe to be sent away. No one questions his bravery.
The Lives of the Dead
O’Brien remembers his very first encounter with a dead body, that of his childhood sweetheart Linda. Suffering from a brain tumor, Linda dies at the age of nine and O’Brien is deeply affected by her funeral. In Vietnam, O’Brien explains, the soldiers keep the dead alive by telling stories aboutthem; in this way, he keeps Linda alive by telling her story.