The Things They Carried

Teaching and learning resources for the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried, based on O’Brien’s own experiences before, during, and after his deployment as a soldier in the Vietnam War, is one of the most acclaimed war novels ever written. Stylistically, it’s masterful, skillfully conveying the experience of war and its aftermath to readers who have no comparable experiences. But the novel is most distinguished by its telling of painful, difficult truths, and its exploration of the nature of truth for those in the midst of war and overwhelmed by it.

My “Overview” here lists some of the major literary elements, aspects, and characteristics of the novel, and may be helpful in processing it. I’ve also provided study questions and notes for the “How to Tell a True War Story” chapter, one of my favorite pieces of writing, as well as a passage analysis exercise for students learning literary analysis or preparing for a test like the AP Literature and Composition exam.

The National Endowment for the Art’s Reader’s Guide contains a useful overview of and context for the novel, as well as an illuminating interview with O’Brien.

Although O’Brien tells the story in plain language, or as plain as it can be given the subject, one aspect that may be difficult for students to deal with is the slang and military jargon that he makes frequent use of in order to realistically depict the setting and characters. I’ve linked a few resources here that should be extremely helpful in this regard. The Sixties Project’s “Glossary of Military Terms and Slang” is the most comprehensive of these, with many additional terms not used in the novel.

The audiobook version of the novel is movingly narrated by Bryan Cranston.

The acclaimed Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War, available on Blu-ray, is also streaming on Netflix as of this writing. It’s well worth watching on its own, but it can also provide helpful historical context on and further insights into the Vietnam War for anyone reading the novel.

Overview of The Things They Carried

Point of view: 1st person, told from the author’s point of view and based on his experiences in the Vietnam War, but classified as a novel because of the fictionalization of some elements

Title: refers to both the physical things carried by soldiers (their military and personal burdens) and their emotional and psychological burdens

Setting: Vietnam in the late 1960s/early 1970s during the Vietnam War; various places in the U.S. before and after the war

Structure of the book: not linear; told as a disconnected but related series of stories and essays from the point of view of a soldier reflecting on his war experiences many years later

Major events in the book:

  • O’Brien’s drafting
  • O’Brien’s killing of an enemy soldier
  • the death of Curt Lemon
  • the death of Kiowa
  • Norman Bowker’s suicide

Style: straightforward and mostly plain language, but uses military jargon

  • Deals not just with war experiences but with the effect of those experiences on the American soldiers in O’Brien’s platoon, as well as O’Brien’s struggle before the war to decide whether to obey his draft notice or escape to Canada

Themes and motifs:

  • the nature of truth: O’Brien is interested in the truth of a soldier’s experience of war (subjective, experiential truth rather than objective, absolute, factual truth); he is intentionally cryptic about which stories in the book actually happened and which details and events are made up for the purpose of conveying a larger truth about war; many of the conclusions he comes to are the opposite of what you might expect (see the courage example below)
  • the nature of courage (often not what it appears to be; e.g. O’Brien calls his own decision to go to the war a cowardly decision)
  • moral relativity and immoral actions engendered by war
  • the sense of purposelessness shared by many men in war (only survival really matters)
  • horror, guilt, and confession: many of the characters feel some burden of guilt and are haunted by their experiences and actions in the war; confessions, particularly by O’Brien himself, play a major role in the story

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Notes © 2012 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.

“How to Tell a True War Story” Study Questions

1. What double meaning does the title of the chapter have?

2. Based on the descriptions, discussions, and vignettes in the chapter, what are the characteristics of a true war story? What does “truth” mean in the context of a war story? Consider the statement “That’s a true war story that never happened” and the characters’ various attempts to express the truth inherent in a particular story (“[Sanders’] frustration at…not quite pinning down the final and definitive truth”, “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it”).

Other quotes to consider:

  • “A true war story is never moral”; “absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil”
  • “there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed”
  • “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself…in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true”
  • “often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t”
  • “sometimes it’s just beyond telling”
  • “[Mitchell Sanders] wanted me to feel the truth, to believe by the raw force of feeling.”
  • “You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning.”
  • “True war stories do not generalize.”
  • “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
  • “The truths are contradictory.”
  • “you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead”
  • “absolute occurrence is irrelevant”
  • “the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference”

3. What truths about war does the story about the girl who didn’t write back to Rat Kiley express? Explain. Consider the narrator’s comment that it was a love story, not a war story.

4. What truths about war does the story about Curt Lemon’s death express? Explain.

5. What truths about war does the story about the listening-post operation in the mountains express? Explain. (“That quiet—just listen. There’s your moral.”) How would you explain what they heard? (“Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion. The whole country. Vietnam. The place talks.”)

6. What truths about war does the story about the baby buffalo express? Explain.

7. Why is a true war story “never about war” but about “love and memory,” “sorrow,” “people who never write back,” etc.?

8. Try to write a war story that meets O’Brien’s criteria for truth.

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Questions © 2012 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.

Notes on “How to Tell a True War Story”

The page numbers given here are for the Broadway Books edition first published in 1998.

General notes:

  • double meaning of “tell”: how to compose or narrate a true war story and how to distinguish a true war story from a false or fictional one (or at least one that doesn’t convey truth effectively)
  • war is absurd, irrational, paradoxical: story must avoid reducing its meaning to the rational, moral, etc.
  • the soldier’s experience of war is characterized by periods of normality, even mundanity, punctuated by sudden violence or madness
  • telling a true war story is not a matter of getting the facts straight—it’s about the way the story is told
  • the goal is to make the listener feel the experience of war—one of the many aspects of it
  • even this chapter itself is paradoxical, seemingly contradictory

Page 67

  • Rat is oblivious to the reaction Curt’s sister is likely to have to his description of her brother

Page 69

  • “talking dirty” = telling the harsh truth about the evil and ugliness of human nature

Page 70

  • significance of sunlight: surreal beauty

Page 71

  • top: subjectivity, surrealism are fundamental qualities—avoid “God’s eye view” (see also 78: no generalizations, abstractions, analysis)
  • two sources of war’s surrealism: extreme objective circumstances; perceptions skewed by fear, desperation, madness

Page 73

  • shared hallucinations? – perhaps reflective of shared desires
  • truth isn’t in the factuality of the details, in words, but in feeling—the point of a war story isn’t to convey transitory (and objective) facts, but universal (and subjective) experiences

Page 74

  • “Vietnam talks”: for those who become sensitive to the land, the country, the people, who develop some kind of sympathy or understanding, their thoughts and perceptions reveal truths about Vietnam

Page 75

  • bottom: “the whole war is right there in that stare”—awareness of truths that can’t be verbalized

Page 76

  • a true war story has no neat resolution or artificial closure: it resonates with universal significance, unanswerable questions, consequences for one’s view of life; continues to haunt the listener
  • the relativity of truth in its relationship with human beings: can the “final and definitive truth” ever be pinned down?
  • only those who have been in war can truly understand
  • war results from, and continues because of, a failure to listen, to heed, to care

Page 77

  • moral of story is ineffable: can’t be captured in words
  • war is too complex, as both a phenomenon and an experience, to be reduced to a simple moral

Page 78

  • war must be seen as a subjective, personal experience—that’s what really matters
  • baby water buffalo symbolizes innocence and what violence does to it
  • extreme violence and cruelty is a reaction to frustrated desire for revenge, madness and irrationality of war
  • the evil and absurdity of Rat’s actions are a reflection of the evil and absurdity of war

Page 80

  • paradoxes/contradictory truths about war

Pages 81-82

  • a war story is characterized by “the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference”: because war itself is a situation in which normal standards of morality are suspended—they become abstract and insubstantial in the face of the violence, absurdity, and extremity of war

– the “beauty” of a firefight consists in this indifference: one of the paradoxes of war

  • “almost nothing is true” as an isolated fact: it’s the effect of the story that must express truth
  • war, and the omnipresence of death, inspire a sublime intensity of feeling, awareness, appreciation

– intense awareness of mortality brings about an appreciation of life

  • war story must convey the ambiguity, uncertainty of war: “nothing is ever absolutely true”

Page 83

  • Curt Lemon’s death: war highlights the fragility of human life, fine line between life and death
  • singing “Lemon Tree”: war causes aloofness, absurd behavior; simultaneous presence of tragedy/horror and humor is profoundly disturbing

– war is so overwhelming that it can’t be processed normally: humor is a defense mechanism

  • true war story must be grounded in real experience, tragedy, absurdity, irony (e.g. the soldier throwing himself on the grenade but being unable to save his fellow soldiers), but not necessarily specific details: “absolute occurrence is irrelevant”

– general truths conveyed in details that may not be true; not conveyed as generalizations

Page 84

  • a true war story must make you feel what those who experienced it felt: “if I could ever get the story right…you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed”

Page 85

  • a true war story is never about war”: it’s about the truths of human experience illuminated by war

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Notes © 2012 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.