The novel “The Things They Carried”was written in the 1980’s by Tim O’Brien, an American author who specializes in historical fiction war novels, though this particular narrative draws on his personal experience as a foot soldier in a small platoon in Vietnam. “The Things They Carried” recounts, as the title suggests, all the baggage soldiers carry into war, both physically and psychologically, with the great emphasis on the latter. The book opens with an extremely detailed description of the precise weight of each piece of equipment a man carries. This literal physical weight is then compared to a figurative burden; the mental worries and concerns, mostly unresolved, of each soldier.
The novel is not presented as a single, linear tale, but as a recollection of interconnected short stories, all featuring the same deeply developed characters, that move back and forth in time. Each short story focuses on one or more events from the author’s time in Vietnam or from his present life, reflecting on that time. These events, all seen from particular points of view, illustrate the different aspects of a soldier’s mind during war and together they weave the fragile lattice that is every soldier’s experience, alien to all but them.
The men all feel both fear and shame. During a bombardment, every man is terrified of death; however, when it is over, they are confronted by their greatest fear, letting their comrades see their fear. Their shame sometimes drives them to insane behaviour; the most boastful soldier, scared of dentists, passes out when examined. Later returns to the same dentist and convinces him to yank out a perfectly good tooth, simply to redeem himself. However, the men also have their love for those back home, and each other, as well as their courage. They go to great lengths to write to the families of their deceased comrades and they grieve the loss of their friends in subtle ways. Lastly, their courage is something they have to use repeatedly so that they can increase its limits, though the line between it and cowardice is always razor thin.
These various emotions are carefully explored by the author, but he also addresses the elements of a soldier’s everyday life. Good luck is a commodity in limited supply; they boost it with good luck charms and are careful to draw on it cautiously, so that it will last them. Surrounded by death, the soldiers cope by objectifying it, acting as if the dead, littered all around them, were in fact still living. They talk, and offer food, to the corpses. For the seasoned veteran, a true war story is easy recognizable. It is crazy, difficult to believe and may well have no point at all. For example, soldiers hear the forest whispering to them during a night watch and call in wave after wave of airstrikes.
O’Brien’s brilliant recounting of true events, combined with his strong insight, engages the reader, who can deduce implicitly the motivations and burdens of the main characters. This book is compelling for the manner in which it turns the futile war of Vietnam into a beautifully crafted work of literature. It is a singular analysis of the burden of men’s souls, the haunting force of the past and the liberating nature of storytelling.
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