‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien Essay

September 29, 2020 by Essay Writer


‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien repeatedly lists specific tangible objects that soldiers carried during the Vietnam War in the Than Khe locality. Additionally, the author documents the heaviness of the objects to underscore the physical items the soldiers carried. At the beginning, the narration seems to be simple regarding the objects a legion of soldiers carried during the war. The narration actually focuses on the demise of one of the legion members and the horrifying conditions in Than Khe.

Through repetitive documentation of the tangible objects carried by the soldiers, the author opens a leeway to allow him stress on the heaviness of the intangible items. This strategy allows the speaker to describe the battle experience. It also makes the speaker to deliberate on the very emotive issues.

The intangible is the mental impact of war. Besides, the intangible created burden in the minds and hearts of the soldiers. O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carried” demonstrates how the author utilizes conventional repetitive form of things carried to treat the unconventional story subject of the impact of war on soldiers.

Main Body

When O’Brien opens his story, he lays foundation for the story’s central themes of recollection, imagination and the opportunities for psychological escape offered by the powers arising from the effects of engaging in armed combat. For instance, as Lieutenant Cross goes through the demanding daily activities of war duty, he is mentally occupied by Martha.

Fundamentally, as he relives the moments with Martha, he not only remembers the memories but also imagines how a passionate camping expedition into the White Mountains would be like (O’Brien 1001). The author presents these desires by Cross as “pretending”. In this context, “pretending” emerges as a form of storytelling. He is actually narrating to himself. The author emphasizes on the significance of Cross’s actions by underscoring the items he had. These included Martha’s mails and picture.

Upon introducing the characters, the author gives miniature details of the items soldiers carried to foreshadow the physical and psychological baggage soldiers have to contend with in their line of duty.

However, it is imperative to note these items and extend specific attention to the details. The details foreshadow the central narratives that cover the novel. The technique O’Brien uses for listing the items the platoons carried simultaneously functions to generate completer fusions of the characters. By extension, the approach makes the characters appear to be very concrete to the audience.

O’Brien develops his story by discussing the objects carried by the platoons as everyday items that a soldier carries. These are the objects that made life in Vietnam more tolerable for each of the platoon members. The initial list of items included munching gum, roll-ups, Kool-Aid and cigarette lighters. Pound cake, canned peaches and extra hygiene supplies are also included (O’Brien 1002).

The letters Cross carried are also documented. Majority of these items are non-soldierly. They are effortlessly deliberated by the author deprived of any demanding emotional issues. Ted Lavender, the deceased soldier, is indicated briefly while listing the items. Lavender was terrified and hence carried sedatives. At this point, it is only mentioned that he was blasted in the skull in mid-April. This further prepares the audience for the emotional part of the story. In the list, this is scarcely mentioned.

The military items mentioned in the list are meant to demonstrate the baggage that the platoons carried. O’Brien gives the weight of each military item. He mentions strengthened helmets weighing 5. They also had facings and disguise cover. The boots they wore weighed 2.1 pounds. Fatigue jackets and trousers further added to the weight.

At the end of the list, Lavender’s demise is briefly mentioned again. This comes in terms of how his corpse enfolded in a rain poncho. Each of the men carried one. It is at this point that the narrator summons relative courage to narrate the Vietnam experience. At the beginning, the narrator appears to be working up bravely to talk about the experience. The narrator states that Lavender was blasted in the head, carried across a paddy, placed in a military craft and flown away (O’Brien 1003).

The psychological and physical weight experienced by soldiers is demonstrated in the third paragraph. The narrator appears to be regretting about speaking of issues concerning Lavender’s demise. He swiftly goes back to simpler things. Instead of giving details about the death of Lavender, the narrator speaks about the list of objects. The narrator starts by describing Cross’s obsession with Martha. Upon elucidating more of the imaginations possessing Cross, the storyteller goes back to list objects that are more soldierly.

The listing encompasses weaponry of diverse types and their respective weights. It is essentially a non-passionate list for most part. This is to signify that the narrator probably wanted to escape the reality of the experiences of war. The narrator was no longer burdened with physical baggage hence would comfortably talk about it. On the other hand, the psychological impact of the war was still in the mind of the narrator hence chose to talk about the physical baggage.

By talking about the non-emotive portion of the war, the storyteller’s emotive magnitude is reduced. He talks about guns, binoculars, code books, magazines and grenade launchers. The emotions of the narrator returns when he talks about the average weight that each soldier was expected to carry. When the narrator mentions about the weight carried by Lavender, he again mentions that Lavender was scared. He states that when Lavender went down, he was under exceptional weight.

The narrator appears to suggest that Lavender was not only overburdened with physical weight but also psychological baggage experienced by soldiers at war time. The narrator’s emotions are triggered. He narrates what happened after he was shot. Unexpectedly, the listing of items stops. He speaks of how soldiers feel about death. Among the most notable is the narration involving Cross.

That is, Cross’s thoughts and guilt about Lavender’s death reflect on the guilt fellow troop members have to contend with when one of them dies. Cross feels that Lavender’s death was as a result of his mental obsession with Martha (O’Brien 1005).

The narrator relists the items that seem to be focusing on him. The entire situation is more emotive while reflecting on the baggage they had to endure emotionally and psychologically. The weaponry is now termed as ‘a means of killing or staying alive.’ The listing is brief. The narrator hastily goes into discussing Cross’s preoccupation with Martha. The narrator sought to take his mind away from the battle. The next listing is about the items they had, depending on the kind of mission.

The situations and conditions of war are now given more details. This results in the narrator giving more details regarding Lavender’s death at length. He has gathered enough courage to the point that he can now narrate the entire incident without seeking emotional relief in listing the items. He details Cross’s fantasies at length.

The narration is disturbing when one learns that Cross was not psychologically present at a very critical time. Despite having stated that Cross was guilty of Lavender’s death, it is now clear to the reader why this was the case (O’Brien 1006).

So far, the storyteller has spoken about the difficult topic about the baggage soldiers have to contend with physically and emotionally. He starts one more list to ease up. The list is simple and devoid of details. Hastily, the listing turns out negative. The impact of the items they were carrying is sad, traumatic and extremely negative. There was tedious marching, execution of appalling missions without care and torching of entire villages. Other soldiers of the legion were now involved in pondering about Lavender’s demise.

The emotions are let loose to a point of no-return. Listing is no longer part of the remainder of the narration. The things that they carried are no longer actual items. Majority is contemplations, moods and insolences that individuals had in Vietnam. They carried all the psychological baggage of soldiers who may die in the war including sorrow, fear and love among others. He speaks freely regarding the inner and mental baggage the troops carried (O’Brien 1008).


The listing used by the author presents more than life of soldiers during the Vietnam War. The list assists the narrator to talk about a distressing narrative a little easier. He uses the list to shape his contemplations and enter into a traumatic subject. As the narrative develops, the physical listing decreases. However, the emotional content increases as he gathers more courage to speak about the horrific events that took place

Work Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried, Back Bay, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990. Print.

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