The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien: Novel Review
Importance of Title The title of the book we chose is They Things They Carried. The title is significant because the book does not only list the physical burdens each soldier must carry, but also the psychological ones after the war. Each soldier carries different items, depending on their rank and job. Lieutenant Cross carried items such as maps, binoculars, and a .45 caliber pistol. Medics such as Rat Kiley carried morphine, plasma, and malaria tablets. Not only did each soldier carry weapons and supplies, but also carried items of sentimental value. Lt. Cross carried a photo of the girl he loved and a pebble she had sent him. Kiowa carried an illustrated New Testament Bible. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose and would wrap it around his neck as a comforter.
During the war, the soldiers also carry mental burdens. Lt. Cross carries the burden of knowing that he is in charge of an entire team’s life and the guilt if someone dies. Kiowa is a devout Baptist, so by participating in the war he is breaking several of the Ten Commandments and must shoulder that guilt. After the war each soldier has his own form of PTSD and must learn how to function in civilian life once again. Two Passages The first passage I will be analyzing is Mary Anne’s transformation during the Vietnam War. After tossing the idea around with his friends, Mark Fossie decided to ship she girlfriend over to where he was stationed. Six weeks later, Mary Anne arrives with “long white legs and blue eyes and complexion like strawberry ice cream,” (pg 93). Although she was young and straight out of high school, Mary Anne was eager to learn about the war and was not afraid to ask questions. By the end of the second week, Mary Anne was helping the medics clip arteries and pumping up plastic splints. Mary Anne was slowly losing the innocence she arrived with.She began to go on missions with the Greenies, a Special Forces squad who used the compound as a base for operations.
After she returned for a mission, Fossie put his foot down and told Mary Anne to start acting like a proper lady again. At first, she obeyed his orders and would spend all of their time together, even if it seemed forced. She soon becomes restless and leaves with the Greenies once again. Three weeks later she returns not as the all American, but as an animal who wears their trophies with pride. Mary Anne ripped out her innocence when he sliced out the men’s tongues and wore them as a necklace. Mary Anne was a wolf in sheep’s clothing by the time her boyfriend told her to start acting like a proper woman again. Mary Anne was gone and in her place was a monster with a bloodlust, wearing her trophies with pride. Her eyes were no longer sparkling with curiosity, but instead were “utterly flat and indifferent” (pg 110).
Mary Anne now has an appetite for the wildlife that has consumed her. She feels so at peace and right with herself that she concludes that what she is doing cannot possibly be bad. Unlike the soldiers who wanted out of the war, Mary Anne couldn’t get enough of it, which lead to her downfall. She let the horrors of Vietnam consume her and instead of fitting it The next passage I will be analyzing is when Rat Kiley tortures a water buffalo calf. After the death of his best friend Curt Lemon, Rat Kiley shoots a water buffalo calf, but “it wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt,” (78-9). Not knowing how to deal with his emotions, he displaces his anger and frustration on something weaker than himself. Instead of seeing the calf as a harmless creature who should be left alone, Rat Kiley sees it as an opportunity to let out the frustration he felt towards the situation. Just like Lemon, Kiley was young, innocent, and didn’t ask to be a part of the Vietnam War. If it weren’t for the draft, Lemon would have been alive. If it weren’t for the war, Lemon would still be breathing and going to school with Kiley. Neither of these boys had a choice when it came to joining the war. It is the Vietnam War’s fault that Kiley lost his best friend. Not knowing how to deal with the loss, Kiley mutilated an innocent baby water buffalo. At first, Kiley takes careful aim, planning where he will shoot next. After shooting the animal in the right knee, ear, hindquarters, tail, and below the ribs, Kiley switches to automatic. He begins to shoot without a care, “quick little spurts in the belly and butt,” (79). By the end of it, the creature is still alive, it’s eyes were “shiny black and dumb” (79), juxtaposing with Lemon’s “sharp gray eyes” (71).
After being forced into the war because of the draft and the untimely and preventable death of his best friend, Rat Kiley needs to feel like he has some control again. He not only wants, but needs to inflict the same amount of pain the war has inflicted onto to him. Themes The friendship shared between the soldiers is the strongest form of love throughout the book. Girlfriends and crushes betray the soldiers by breaking up with them (Henry Dobbin’s unnamed girlfriend), never loving them back(Martha), or disappearing into the jungle(Mary Anne). Parents expect too much of them. The soldiers learn to rely on and trust each other. When you’re fighting in a war, you can’t afford to have enemies on the inside. Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk are perfect examples of this. Jensen and Strunk get into a fistfight over a missing jackknife. Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose. In any other scenario, it would have ended right then and there but it was Vietnam and everyone carried guns. Jensen becomes paranoid and begins to watch his back, feeling “like fighting two different wars…no safe ground; enemies everywhere,” (63). Jensen knew that he couldn’t live like this and needed Strunk to be on his side. They learn to trust each other and even make a pact. Friendships, such as that between Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley, can help the soldiers forget about the war and remember what it’s like to be a kid again. After the war, they still keep in touch and visit each other. Jimmy Cross and Tim O’Brien and recount their days in Vietnam and catch up on their current lives. They talk about everything from love to death and everything in between. One evident theme in The Things They Carried is weakness. The first time we seem weakness is when Cross views himself as weak when Ted Lavender dies on his watch because he was daydreaming.
Lieutenant Cross is in charge of Alpha Team and he is in love with this girl he met in college before he got drafted. He doesn’t know if she loves him back, but he’s constantly thinking about her, even when he should be focusing on his team. He becomes distracted yet again and he thinks about the girl and because of it one of his soldiers gets shot. He was so consumed by this girl that he didn’t pay attention to their surroundings and Ted Lavender had to pay the price for it. He felt ashamed of his actions and knew this guilt “was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war,” (16). During the war, soldier are told to leave their emotions at the door as they enter the dense Vietnam jungle.
Although most of the time they are composed, there are times when the paranoia kicks in and they fire at nothing. When they realized what they had done “they would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hide it,” (19) trying to regain their dignity and begin to become soldiers again. Tim O’Brien felt this weakness when he wanted to run away to Canada after he received his draft notice. He has already formulated a plan and knew that he was not going to Vietnam. What kept him from running away was the shame and guilt he felt from that moment of weakness when he considered not serving his country and the feeling that everyone was watching, “all those eyes on him- the town, the whole universe- and [O’Brien] couldn’t risk the embarrassment,” (59). Another central theme in The Things They Carried is respect and reputation. The soldiers must keep up the tough, almost emotionless facade that comes with being an American soldier. Irrational fears must be faced in order to maintain the respect of your fellow soldiers and protect your reputation.
An example of this is Curt Lemon’s fear of dentists. After several previous encounters with dentists, Lemon developed a fear of them. While Lemon waited, he tensed up,and played with his dog tags. When he finally was called in, Lemon fainted. When he woke up, the shame came soon after. It was too much for Lemon and the “embarrassment must’ve turned a screw in his head” (88) because after he was done beating himself, he woke up the dentist and complained about an imaginary toothache until the dentist pulled out a perfectly good tooth. His need to maintain his fellow soldier’s respect and protect his reputation drives him to do something impulsive and unnecessary. Since they rely on each other so much and fear weakness, protecting your reputation is a survival skill. Another example of reputation is Mark Fossie and his girlfriend, Mary Anne. After she started going on missions with the Greenies, Fossie feels as if he needs to put Mary Anne in her place in order to protect his reputation. He jeopardizes his relationship with the girl he plans on spending the rest of his life with in order to prove that he’s a man and is the one in charge of the relationship. Social Issue The social issues I will be focusing on is the raise of PTSD in soldiers and veterans.
In The Things They Carried, the soldiers of Alpha Team are subjected to various scenes of combat including but not limited to: being shot at, seeing a friend get shot, having to shoot at people, seeing your friend slowly pulled down underneath a pile of human waste, and seeing your friend get blown up. All of these horrific scenes can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Vietnam War was the first war to uncover PTSD, which lead to investigating the mental disorder and making its first appearance in the DSM-I, being eliminated from DSM-II, then later being recognized once again in DSM-III.
Formerly known as “shell shock”, PTSD has three levels; reliving the event, seclusion, and erratic and violent behavior. Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the past 40 years have been filled with medical advances. This would make one think that the diagnosis rates would go down and/or treatment rates would increase. Unfortunately, neither of these are true and the statistics for the Vietnam War and Afghanistan and Iraq are shockingly similar despite the time gap. Currently, PTSD diagnoses is at an all time high, 50% are seeking treatment, and only 25% of those suffering from PTSD are receiving minimal treatment. This social issue is obviously evident not only in Vietnam War era, but also in today’s society.
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