In The Things They Carried, the complex relationships of Tim O’Brien’s characters with their psychological burdens, such as love, friendship, courage, cowardice, fear, luck and death, are defined by their surroundings.
Death is omnipresent in O’Brien’s Vietnam. Soldiers must face the sight of the men they kill themselves, of those they kill indirectly through air and artillery strikes and of their own dead friends. Corpses litter the narrative. To deal with death, the men develop various coping mechanisms that diminish its significance in their minds. They greet the dead they encounter like the living, “the only confirmed kill was an old man [...] Jensen went over and shook the old man’s hand. [...] One by one the others [...] grabbed the old man’s hand and offered a few words” (214), and even talk with their own dead, “Hey Lavender, how’s the war today? [...] Mellow, somebody said” (219). O’Brien initially finds this practice sickeningly abhorrent but he eventually accepts it as necessary. Slang is used to refer to death, “Greased, they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped” (19), as well as gallows humor that is at times shockingly dark, “Wasted in the waste, [...] a shit field. You got to admit, it’s pure world-class irony” (158); both of these serve to diminish death’s significance in the mind, to “destroy the reality of death itself” (19). O’Brien recounts the story of Curt Lemon, who stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round that blew him into a tree in pieces. While throwing down the remains so that they could be air evacuated, Henry Dobbins casually hummed the song “Lemon Tree”.
However, not every man manages to remain so finely controlled. During a particularly stressful two week period spent moving through the forest only at night, without light in the pitch black and total silence, Rat Kiley completely loses his mind. At first he retreats inside himself, not saying a word. After a week though, he can’t stop talking. He starts to complain hysterically that the “big giant killer bugs, [...] mutant bugs, bugs with fucked-up DNA [are] personally after his ass. [...] he could hear the bastards homing in on him, [...] whispering his name [...] all night long” (209). He also begins scratching at his bug bites incessantly, turning them into open sores. Soon his state worsens, and one afternoon he breaks down in front of Mitchell Sanders. He rambles on about how he will be talking to someone, passing the time, and out of nowhere will start picturing what the person would look like dead, or imagining how much their organs and limbs would weigh in his hands if he were to have to carry their remains to a helicopter. At night he’ll start “seeing [his] own body. Chunks of [himself]. [His] own heart, [his] own kidneys. [...] [He’ll] be lying dead out there in the dark” (212), he can’t stop these images, but also can’t bear continually seeing himself dead. The next morning, he shoots himself in the foot and is evacuated to Japan. In Vietnam, death must be disguised as a humorous friend or a mental break-down quickly ensues.
Paradoxically, cowardice is both what drives men to the war and pushes them to perform in the field. O’Brien explains that when he was conscripted, he decided to flee to Canada and travelled all the way to the border before returning home simply out of fear of the disapproval of his friends and family, “just to avoid the blush of dishonour” (20). In Vietnam, the soldiers dread showing their fear more than they fear death itself, therefore they endure the hardships not out of courage but because they are “too frightened to be cowards” (20). O’Brien provides the anecdote of Curt Lemon, who would constantly brag about his courageous exploits, yet who was so nervous about an army dental check-up that he fainted in the chair. “When he came to there was a funny new look on his face, almost sheepish, as if he’d been caught committing some terrible crime” (84), for the rest of that day Lemon kept to himself and spoke to no one, seriously affected by his shame. Late that night, he woke the dentist, complaining that he had a killer tooth ache, and convinced him to pull out a perfectly good tooth so that he could recoup some of his lost honour. O’Brien even goes as far as asserting that “men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (20).
Fear of Vietnam’s hidden dangers is one of the most pervasive themes of The Things They Carried and is central to many of the soldier’s experiences. Every waking hour the men feel Vietnam’s mystery, the threats lurking just beyond immediate perception but it is only when either of the two catalysts of silence and darkness is added that these threats become true monsters in the soldier’s imagination. When a soldier, armed only with a flashlight and pistol, must search one of the cramped enemy-dug tunnels, he begins to worry about odd things: if rats carry rabies or how far a scream would carry. O’Brien writes “in some respects [...] the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was a killer” (10). Mitchell Sanders tells O’Brien of a six-man patrol sent out into the wilderness to set up a listening post high up in the mountains, where there is always a thick fog. Their orders were to remain for a week, in total silence the entire time, so as to overhear any enemy movements in the valley below. The week drags by, and though the group doesn’t pick up any enemy activity, they begin to hear strange sounds, songs even, “this real soft, kind of wacked-out music. Weird echoes and stuff” (69), what seems to be Vietnam itself singing, calling to them.
Without language to cope with the hair-raising creepiness of their situation, the men lose their minds just like the aforementioned Rat Kiley and call in air and artillery strikes on the countryside around them, laying waste to the jungle. Yet the song can still be heard. Later, back at base, they are unable to explain why they ordered the barrage. Tim O’Brien also has an intense experience with silent darkness during the long night spent tormenting Jorgensen with Azar. Initially, O’Brien is enthusiastic, manipulating the noise makers he designed with calculated precision and continually setting off flares so as to torment Jorgensen. However, after the first few hours, he begins to imagine the medic’s sheer terror and, sympathetic, he relents, telling Azar that they’d made their point. However, his accomplice will not heed this show of weakness. As Azar continues with the final elements of the plan, O’Brien’ imagination runs wild. He sees himself in Jorgensen’s position, “I could read his mind. I was there with him. Together we understood what terror was: [...] you know you’re about to die” (200) and ends up sobbing hysterically in the bottom of the dugout, recalling how it felt to sense death approaching him as he laid on the ground, badly wounded.
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