Analysis of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

In the short story cycle The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien cemented his reputation as one of the most powerful chroniclers of the Vietnam War, joining the conversation alongside Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), Michael Herr (Dispatches), David Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest), and the poet Bruce Weigl (Song of Napalm), among others. Comprising 22 pieces—some little more than vignettes, others more “traditional” stories—the collection details the experiences of the soldier Tim O’Brien, who returns to his native Minnesota after a tour of duty in Vietnam. In his subsequent role as author, O’Brien records his recollections in a false memoir of sorts as a way of reconstructing the war’s elusive “truth.” O’Brien’s goal in The Things They Carried, he tells Michael Coffey, “was to write something utterly convincing but without any rules as to what’s real and what’s made up. I forced myself to try to invent a new form. I had never invented form before” (60).

“In the Field” follows Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his platoon of 17 remaining men as they search a Vietnamese muck field for Kiowa, a lost comrade. Cross, who figures prominently in several of the book’s pieces—including the eponymous “The Things They Carried,” the collection’s most anthologized story—feels tremendous guilt over Kiowa’s death, not the least because the previous evening, just before an ambush, Cross refused to disobey orders and to move his men to higher, and therefore safer, ground. Kiowa, buried when a fellow soldier inadvertently gave away the platoon’s position to the enemy, was a popular soldier. Out of respect for their fallen comrade, the men dutifully wade through waist-deep sewage searching for his remains; they sustain themselves with a morbid sense of humor, making light of the situation in order to quell their fear of random, sudden death at the hands of a faceless enemy. Cross quickly realizes that he is ill suited for the military, having been shipped to Vietnam after joining the officer training corps in college only to be with friends and to collect a few college credits. “[Cross] did not care one way or the other about the war,” O’Brien intones, “and he had no desire to command, and even after all these months in the bush, all the days and nights, even then he did not know enough to keep his men out of a shit field” (168).

Tim O’Brien/The Austin Chronicle

War is a great leveler in O’Brien’s fiction. In the field where Cross and his men search for Kiowa, “The filth seemed to erase identities, transforming the men into identical copies of a single soldier, which was exactly how Jimmy Cross had been trained to treat them, as interchangeable units of command” (163). The young lieutenant, however, suspends his humanity only with great difficulty. Ruminating on Kiowa’s death, he imagines writing a letter to the soldier’s father before deciding that “no apologies were necessary, because in fact it was one of those freak things, and the war was full of freaks, and nothing could ever change it anyway” (176). Cross’s rationalization may absolve him (at least in part) of his guilt over Kiowa’s death, though it is also a tacit admission of his lack of control over the war’s daily life-and-death struggles. Cross’s desire to organize the details of Kiowa’s death in his own mind is an extension of O’Brien’s attempt in The Things They Carried to construct a coherent narrative that finds the essential truth of war (a notion that the author confirms in the ironically titled “How to Tell a True War Story” which acts as an interpretive key to his recollections).

Upon the discovery of Kiowa’s body, the men properly mourn the loss of their fellow soldier, though “they also felt a kind of giddiness, a secret joy, because they were alive, and because even the rain was preferable to being sucked under a shit field, and because it was all a matter of luck and happenstance” (175). Cross, yearning for war’s end, imagines himself on a golf course in his New Jersey hometown, free of the burden of leading men to their deaths. O’Brien examines the onus of responsibility often, and in the related story “Field Trip,” which details the author’s return to Vietnam two decades later to the field where Kiowa died, O’Brien finds a world barely recognizable as the one he left behind. “The field remains, but in a form much different from what O’Brien remembers, smaller now, and full of light,” Patrick A. Smith writes of O’Brien’s visit. “The air is soundless, the ghosts are missing, and the farmers who now tend the field go back to work after stealing a curious glance in his direction. The war is absent, except in O’Brien’s memory” (107). But it is memory, O’Brien makes clear, that supersedes experience and haunts soldiers long after the shooting has stopped.

Coffey, Michael. “Tim O’Brien: Inventing a New Form Helps the Author Talk about War, Memory, and Storytelling.” Publishers Weekly, 16 February 1990, pp. 60–61.
O’Brien, Tim. “In the Field.” In The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Smith, Patrick A. Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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