Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a classic novel that depicts the lives of foot soldiers during the Vietnam War. O’ Brien explores the emotional and physical suffering of the men, the lost of innocence, the loss of morality, and the absurdity of the U. S. involvement of this war through a number of literary devices. Through a series of short stories, Tim O’Brien tells the story of the men he has met and the reality of war from his perspective. The Vietnam War initially started when Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist leader of Vietnam, declared Vietnam and independent country from France.
This was spurred on by the spread of communism from China. The French were forced out of Vietnam and Vietnam became separate, communists in the north and the French supporters in the south. The south grew increasingly weak, the communists stronger, and the United States felt it was time to intervene for the fear of the spread of communism, known as the “domino theory. ” When America joined the war, they thought it would’ve been an easy win, but Vietnam used guerilla warfare and the war dragged on for over 18 years.
As first, people supported the war and the idea of stopping communism, but as more and more soldiers got killed, the number of protests increased. The horrors he experienced as a soldier of this unexpected war is what inspired Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien characterizes the emotional burdens the men experiences through the physical things that these men carry. Each of the men carries a few items of sentimental value that carries the emotional burdens they have. Lieutenant Cross’s love for Martha is characterized through a photo of Martha and letters from her he has.
This love becomes a burden because it conflicts with the responsibility he has of the men he’s in charge of. He believes his love for Martha is distracting. When Ted Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross suffered from shame and self-hatred, as he felt because he loved Martha more than his men, he did not take care of his men, causing Lavender to die. The extra war equipment he carries physically is added weight, which characterizes the extra emotional burdens “and the responsibility for the lives of his men” (O’Brien, 5).
All the men have the emotional fear of dying, but the greater fear of showing fear, and their actions and their additional weapons characterize this. For example, Lee Strunk carries a slingshot, Mitchell Sanders carries brass knuckles, etc. These men had to suffer the scrutiny of each other, so they neither show fear, nor show that they cared of dying. Cowardice was the heaviest burden the men suffered, because they yearned to be cowardly. Physically, each of the men carries different diseases and parasites with them. This emphasizes how the men are in physical dangers, not just from the war, but health wise as well.
O’Brien mentions that the men “shared the weight of memory” and “took up what others could no longer bear. ” This characterizes how the war is traumatizing and the men have to suffer from the memories of it for the rest of the war, and maybe their life. Tim O’Brien uses imagery and catalog to describe how the soldiers suffer a great deal physically, from the weight of their supplies. But along with that, is a metaphor of the emotional suffering of watching people die, the fear of dying themselves, and the responsibilities they have over the others.
Throughout the entire story, we see a constant mention of the numerous and heavy things that these men carry, but we have the impression that these items are weightless compared to the emotions these men experience and live with. The most traumatizing experience these men have is the lost of innocence each of them experience. Lieutenant Cross’s realized innocence was lost when Ted Lavender died. He was “just a kid at war, in love” and this portrays the innocence he had before he lost it to the world.
His innocence was his love for Martha and how he believed he might’ve been able to marry her or be with her. Him burning the Martha’s letter and the photographs was a metaphor of him wanting to burn the shame he felt. He could not burn the blame, but he burned away his innocence. He lost his innocence when he realized he had to take on full responsibility if he were to take care of his men. Many of the men are innocent in a sense that they don’t want to participate in the war, but O’Brien mentions a peace story of a guy who goes AWOL and runs away with a Red Cross nurse.
He was innocent to think the war was over for him because he was in love, however his innocence was lost when he realized he wanted to be part of the war and return to combat, because peace hurt, and he wanted to hurt peace back. O’Brien’s innocence was lost the moment he joined the war, for he grew up to be a coward. If he never participated in the war, O’Brien would be the brave one and have to face scrutiny for the rest of his life, but he chose to throw away his innocence, become a coward, and join the war.
All the men were innocent in a sense that they thought the war would be fast and rewarding, however, the war took away their innocence when they realized how harsh it is and how aimless the fighting were. Men were dying for no reason, and along with it, they gave up their innocence with it. During the Vietnam War, there was an increase in opposition of America’s participation in the war. O’Brien’s diction conveys the feeling of absurdity towards the war the men feel. He uses words like “endless march, “without purpose”, “nothing won or lost,” “dumbly” as ways of conveying how the men felt towards raiding villages.
The men were “not caring” and did not care of the outcome. This leads to the soldiers’ internal conflicts regarding their participation of the war. Often times, the men have a great desire to run away from the war. O’Brien describes how easy it could be to just get hurt, then flee the warzone. Yet they are conflicted to do so, as it would be a show of cowardice and they could be viewed as a traitor from the country. Many of these men do not agree with America’s participation of the war, but they go because they feel a sense of duty.
When O’Brien was drafted, he knew the reasons behind the Vietnam War was wrong, even if he was politically naive, and he wanted to run to Canada. However, due to the guilt he knew he would feel, and the traitor he would be, he was extremely conflicted and spent a great deal thinking about his actions. In the end, he participated in the war, reluctantly, as he regarded the war as something wrong, but something he still did, because he was a coward. In a way, most of these men did not believe in the war, but due to patriotism, they participated, and along the way, justified their actions for personal reasons.
The novel, The Things They Carried, is a very real and honest depiction of the Vietnam War and how it affects the men emotionally and physically. With wisely chosen words, O’Brien clearly makes out the burdens the men carry, the lost of their innocence, and how absurd it was for America to participate in the Vietnam War. With extensive metaphors, O’Brien catalogs the things the men physically carry, and brings out the emotional bearings they have to endure. O’Brien makes his views very clear and shares his experiences with the audience as a way of telling the common stories he has heard.