In Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried the reader is given a list of both the physical and mental items that a soldier has to carry during war. The way O’Brien incorporates these lists into his writing indisputably makes the events and stories conceivable for the reader because each item defines the nature of the men in alpha platoon. O’Brien’s depiction of the men in alpha platoon does more than define each man’s personality but it enables a reader with no knowledge of war to experience the reality of it. O’Brien’s obscures the definitively drawn line between socioeconomic lasses by way of war.
The Vietnam War was the first war broadcasted on television and it was also a war where those on the battlefield were only separated by rank and not money. Like the author, many of the soldiers did not anticipate being drafted into the war. For many it just happened. By using both the tangible and intangible items of each soldier, O’Brien has an effect on the reader that is not only emotionally overwhelming at times, but also exceedingly unique in that each item gives a reflective glimpse into each soldier, his heritage, and perhaps his normalcy before war.
In chapter titled “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien states the tangible items carried by the men of alpha platoon. The items carried included, “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two to three canteens of water (O’Brien 2). Each item on its own may only weigh a few ounces but when added together “.. these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds” (O’Brien 2).
O’Brien addresses the weight of each item carried throughout chapter one to call attention to he substantial amount of weight each man has to carry. The items carried by each man varied by its function in carrying out each man’s specific duty. O’Brien uses the weight of each item in a way to engulf the reader with his or her own calculations of physical weight. The weight of the tangible items gives someone with little to no experience with what a soldier goes through during war some notion, possibly even appreciation, for what the men of alpha platoon went through.
O’Brien does not use quotation marks to signify dialogue between characters. Instead, he uses the lists of items the men carry to introduce ach character so that the reader has a sense of familiarity when there is an exchange of words. The items each man carries assists in defining his character. For instance, Henry Dobbins is noted as a “big man” and because of this he carried additional provisions (O’Brien 2). Dave Jensen is known for his hygiene and “he carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia (O’Brien 2).
Many of the men carried items exclusive to his nature. O’Brien writes, “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers.. 6-7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a ecessity ( 2-3). Later in the story when Lavender is shot in the head the men smoke his remaining marijuana and joke of “how incredibly tranquil he was” (O’Brien 19). O’Brien never outright says that Kiowa is Native American but the reader can infer the fact by what O’Brien writes. “Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, and his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet” (3). O’Brien also mentions Kiowa’s “pair of moccasins for silence” (9).
In addition to the flak jackets, steel helmets, and other necessary items for war, the men of alpha platoon “all carried ghosts” (O’Brien 9). The heartrending effects of the Vietnam War made it mandatory for each man to carry his fears, pressures, and grief. ““They carried all the emotional of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight (O’Brien 20). It was after Lavender’s death that the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross elects to put his men and their mission first instead of daydreaming about Martha (O’Brien 22).
Cross symbolizes this shift by burning the letters Martha had written him. Letters that enabled him to magine love for Martha but not love from her (O’Brien 23. ) O’Brien reveals that emotional pain thre Lavender’s death, “. “He tried not to cry… He felt shame. He Jimmy Cross after hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (O’Brien 16).
Before Lavender’s death the letters had provided Cross with substance to daydream, but Cross blames his daydreaming for Lavender’s death (O’Brien 23). The irony is that Cross seems to blame Martha for his fantasies nd takes out his anger by estranging himself from distractions (O’Brien 24). They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor” (O’Brien 20). The Things They Carried” is about more than physical items carried during war, it is about soldiers who have to cart around the devastating psychological affects of war. Although O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is considered fiction in many ways it is Metafiction.
“Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh 2. Once in an interview O’Brien admitted to his conscious blurring of fact and fiction by way of using Metafiction to generate stories that are “more real” (Sawyer 117-126. ) O’Brien’s practice of using Metafiction indisputably makes the events and stories conceivable for the reader. The reality of O’Brien’s description of the intangible items each man carried has been noted to have ong-term implications for those who have had to lug around the psychological affects of war.
According to an article in BMC Psychiatry, “Combat exposure is the factor most consistently associated with mental disorders and symptomatology. Research with Vietnam veterans demonstrated substantial associations between combat exposure and PTSD” (Kewley 1). In another article findings that suggest, “… Vietnam veterans are much more likely to report problems associated with posttraumatic stress disorder including “nightmares, loss of control of behavior, emotional numbing, withdrawal from the external environment, hyper alertness, anxiety, and epression”(Card 7).
The way in which Tim O’Brien represents each character with both the physical and emotional baggage that he carries lends itself to constructing characters that become personal. The characters by way of these items that they carry have become believable. It is because of this believability that the reader can visualize the weight of each character. O’Brien’s ability to blur the lines between fiction and fact with the items carried in war ensures the reader understands that the actual men who served in Vietnam are not far from the fictional characters of O’Brien’s story.