In The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories, the reader must take care to remember that the Tim O’Brien who appears as a character is not the same Tim O’Brien who wrote the book. This can be an especially difficult task, considering that the fictional O’Brien and the real, in-the-flesh O’Brien share many of the same characteristics and experiences: many, but not all, and that’s exactly the point.
In the story “Field Trip,” the fictional O’Brien’s astute nine-year-old daughter accuses him of obsessing over the past: “You know something? Sometimes you’re pretty weird. . . . Some dumb thing happens a long time ago and you can’t ever forget it” (183). Kathleen is right. Neither the fictional O’Brien nor the real one can seem to stop thinking and writing about the war in Vietnam. Much of O’Brien’s published work is about the Vietnam conflict, from his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1975) and his National Book Award Winner Going after Cacciato (1978) to his later novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994). Rather than express his views on the war in the political arena or as a journalist, O’Brien chooses to write war stories. O’Brien’s decision is, in part, driven by his desire to create for his readers a truthful narration of the war.
In the title story, “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien introduces the men whose stories compose the book. The title refers to things carried by a common Vietnam War grunt—nylon-covered flak jackets, steel helmets, extra rations—as well as the emotional burdens these men carry—the responsibility for fellow soldiers’ lives, ghosts of the war. Interspersed between the stories are O’Brien’s notes about writing, in which he emphasizes that true war stories are “never moral” (68) but instead should make the reader believe. What really happened during the war, O’Brien claims, is not as important as writing a story that makes the reader feel the experience of what the war was really like. And O’Brien’s collection attempts to do just that: By anecdotally sharing the experiences of the platoon of men who served together, O’Brien reconstructs the Vietnam War experience and in so doing redresses what he sees as some of the failings there.
Vietnam’s presence haunts the pages of The Things They Carried. The political world O’Brien explores in his literature is a uniquely post–Vietnam War world, and The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s self-proclaimed “best book” (Herzog 104), explores this world through its form and content. Its lack of a linear plotline and its blend of fact and fiction reflect the reality of America’s military entanglement in Vietnam and the ambivalence of the men serving there. According to O’Brien, the form of the book “mirror[s] the soldier’s chaotic psychological landscape and the political, moral, and military disorder related to America’s Vietnam experience” (Herzog 79).
O’Brien is able to retain control of and give meaning to his experience in Vietnam by dissociating from his actual experience—his “happening truth”—and creating a “story truth” that attempts to explain to and recapture for his readers the Vietnam War experience. According to O’Brien, story truth is dedicated to making “the stomach believe” (quoted in Herzog xi). The fictional O’Brien is then an effort by the writer to rewrite his service experience in a way that that creates some kind of truth both for him and for his readers. That O’Brien’s book discusses the writing process in as much depth as it discusses the war in Vietnam demonstrates how important a role writing and rewriting have in the substance of his narrative. Moreover, in rewriting his experience in a way that invests it with meaning, O’Brien’s narrative serves as the actualization of the potentially redemptive aspects of the service experience in Vietnam. This is not to say that The Things They Carried seeks to validate either America’s objectives and/or its actions in Vietnam or O’Brien and the other men’s behavior there. However, O’Brien does attempt to rewrite the narrative of his experience, however fictionally, to give it “story truth” and resonance.
O’Brien is cautious to not write a didactic book; he claims his objectives are to present the reader with a story for interpretation. The subjectivity of the act of interpretation and the writing of narratives become an important part of what O’Brien seeks to demonstrate through the collection. His stories share not only his perspective on the events but also what his characters repeatedly talk about in the stories—the “moral.” Yet O’Brien refuses to deliver one true moral in his stories; they are as varied as the ambiguities and experiences of the war in Vietnam. Eric James Schroeder makes a crucial observation about The Things They Carried: that “moral ambivalence” permeates the book, suggesting “that whereas a moral order does exist, the text itself cannot decode it; the reader must find it for himself” (Searle 122). The Things They Carried sets its characters on the same mission, whose result they never reveal to the reader, who is once again left to decipher the “story truth” O’Brien presents in the book.
O’Brien’s last story, “The Lives of the Dead,” begins with an anecdote about Lt. Jimmy (the Cross) Cross, Lemon, Kiowa, and the other men but finishes with a memory of O’Brien’s youth and a young girl, Linda, with whom he was friends. The story cuts back and forth between the two narratives. Linda died at nine years old of cancer, and O’Brien explains the power of storytelling in bringing her back to life for his comfort. A story, O’Brien writes, can make the “dead seem not quite so dead” (238). In the story of Linda, O’Brien is at his most obvious; writing is restorative, even regenerative (Linda grows back her hair and looks more alive than ever in his stories). By juxtaposing Linda’s narrative with that of the platoon, O’Brien emphasizes the restorative and regenerative effects he sees his writing as having for the Vietnam War experience.
Anderson, David L. The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Brown, T. Louise. War and Aftermath in Vietnam. London: Routledge, 1991.
Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Jason, Philip K. Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Naparsteck, Martin, and Tim O’Brien. “An Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Contemporary Literature 32, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 1–11.
O’Brien, Tim. Going after Cacciato. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
———. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
———. In the Lake of the Woods. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 2006.
———. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.
Searle, William J., ed. Search and Clear: Critical Responses to Selected Literature and Films of the Vietnam War. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.