O’Brien also illustrates that fear is not the exclusive province of American soldiers. After he kills a Viet Cong guerilla for the first time, he imagines the story of the young man’s life up to his untimely death. This anecdote may simply be seen as O’Brien trying to project his own life’s narrative onto this frail-looking, delicately boned corpse. O’Brien describes particular form of cowardice he himself felt, “the young man would not have wanted to be a soldier and [he] would have feared performing badly in battle. [...] Beyond anything else, he would have feared disgracing himself” (121), as well as his own dismissal of daily acts of courage, “The young man could not make himself fight [the boys that teased him]. He often wanted to, but he was afraid, and this increased his shame” (121).
On the other hand, this anecdote’s abundance of details and verb tense, which quickly changes from the speculative style of “would have” to the assuredness of “did” for example, promote the interpretation that O’Brien is demonstrating the transcendent nature of complex relationships with the things one carries. Enemy soldiers confront the very same abstract concepts as their American counterparts. This theory is reinforced by the story of Mary Anne, a city girl brought to Vietnam by her boyfriend. During her stay, she becomes increasingly intrigued by the war until she herself is consumed by it, becoming a killer on par with the Green Berets and then, one day, disappearing into the forest. Her mental relationships with death and fear, though they lead to drastically different actions than the average soldier, are equally as obvious. None of the characters are immune to influence from their surroundings, but evidently some are more vulnerable to total subversion than others.
Courage is a concept that O’Brien sees in a completely fresh light in Vietnam. Previously, he had subscripted to the comforting view that courage was something that came to men in finite quantities. By being frugal and stockpiling this moral capital inside himself over the years, O’Brien believed that he would be ready for the day when the stakes were high enough that he would have to draw on his reservoir of courage. This attitude dispensed with small acts of daily courage while justifying his past actions and safe-guarding him against the future. In war, he realises that this practice had simply made him a trained, repetitive coward; courage is a muscle to be strengthened through use, not a precious commodity to be used but rarely. Norman Bowker’s recounting of how he almost won the Silver Star grants a greater depth to the role of Vietnam in the issue of courage. Bowker explains that “courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, [...] you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave” (141). He adds that “sometimes [...] the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid” (141). The night of Kiowa’s death in the shit field, the difference for Bowker was the smell. The feeling of the stink’s pervasion, of the foul stench stifling him as he is dragged further and further down into the mud, is what let Kiowa’s ankle slip out his grasp and let his body slide into the deep mud.
In the world of war, the meaning of luck also transforms. Luck, contrary to courage, is seen by soldiers as a life saver to be used wisely, “Don’t throw away luck on little stuff. Save it up” (187). Norman Bowker recounts to O’Brien that on a blisteringly hot day Morty Phillips set off alone, without telling anyone, and went deep into the jungle, through enemy territory, so that he could swim in a river. All the men agree that he was incredibly foolish to piss away all his luck on such nonsense, “Morty wasted his luck. Pissed it away [...] on nothing” (184). Soon their take on luck is seemingly proven correct as a week later Phillips develops a strange fever-like sickness that the men are sure he contracted in the water and must be evacuated. In addition to this scant natural supply of luck, charms are used to ward off danger, “Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker [...] carried a [Vietnamese boy’s] thumb” (12). O’Brien describes that Henry Dobbins always wore the panty hose of his girlfriend around his neck for luck. Ostensibly, they did have protective powers. Dobbins never got a scratch. On one occasion he tripped a Bouncing Betty mine that failed to detonate. On another, he was caught in the open without cover during a fierce firefight but was left unscathed by the storm of bullets. Later, when Dobbins receives a letter from his girlfriend explaining that she is leaving him, he doesn’t get rid of the pantyhose, instead stating simply that “no sweat, the magic doesn’t go away” (112).
In Vietnam, the soldiers’ attitude towards both love and friendship undergoes an unmistakeable transformation. Fantasies of romantic relationships waiting back home are entertained as a distraction from the war. At the beginning of the novel, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ obsesses to such an extent over Martha, a girl he dated but a single time, that his platoon becomes dangerously undisciplined. Almost all the men have photos of girls who they barely know or of girlfriends whose faithfulness they now doubt. For the most part, despite these pretenses and wishful thinking, soldierly camaraderie has become much more important than conventional forms of love. When Rat Kiley’s best friend, Curt Lemon, is killed, he is so moved that he writes an emotionally charged letter to the man’s sister, “a terrific letter, very personal and touching. Rat almost bawls writing it. [...] He says he loved the guy” (64). Soon after, the platoon finds a baby water buffalo and Rat Kiley kills it gruesomely, taking his time to torture the animal with precise wounding bursts from his assault rifle, dragging the death out, expunging all his terrible pain and grief. O’Brien notes that people will sometimes say to him that, in general, they hate war stories, but that they liked this one, that the poor baby buffalo made them sad; in reality, he explains, these people completely missed the point, “it wasn’t a war story. It was a love story” (81). O’Brien gives two other anecdotes to illustrate the strength and importance of the bonds between soldiers.
On one occasion, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen get into a vicious fight over a jack knife that the latter believes the former stole from him; Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose. There is a silent tension between the two, with Jensen waiting for Strunk to take his revenge, all the while becoming increasingly stressed since with enemies now to his front and rear he must always remain on his guard. After a week, Jensen finally loses control and breaks his own nose with the butt of a pistol, showing the result to Strunk, so that they can be even again. Strunk finds the entire situation very funny, laughing the next morning that “I stole his fucking jack knife” (61), and thereby showing the overriding importance of this friendship for Jensen. Later, this same pair makes a pact that if either of them were ever to get FUBAR, i.e. a wheelchair wound, the other would find a way to kill him. When Strunk does step on a rigged mortar round that takes off his right leg at the knee, he frantically begs Jensen not to kill him. The latter promises he won’t and Strunk is evacuated by helicopter. News comes back shortly after that he died of his wound, “which seemed to relieve Dave Jensen of an enormous weight” (63); he did not want his friend to live as a handicapped veteran.
In conclusion, through the almost exclusive use of intimate and profound anecdotes, O’Brien’s narrative style in The Things They Carried vividly illustrates how his characters’ complex relationships with the abstract concepts they hump are transformed by the frontline positions of the Vietnam War. By the end of the novel, the reader grasps that these psychological relationships are in fact shared by the combatants of any armed conflict. Though some elements might differ from backpack to backpack, the love and fear that weigh so heavily on a soldier’s mind are unshakeable constants of war, as inescapable as death itself.
for part 1, please see
for a book review of The Things They Carried, please see