Book Review on The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien

There is often a lot of pressure to make the right choices, especially when it can have a direct impact on one’s life. But what happens when it is unclear what the right choice is? Tim O’brien, author of The Things They Carried, explores this idea in “On the Rainy River”, a chapter in which he recalls having to choose between going to the war or not. O’Brien asks multiple questions in one breath, contradicts previous statements, and utilizes certain stylistic features to demonstrate that not knowing what the right decision is can make people question their beliefs about themselves. 

First, O’Brien asks readers multiple questions at once to justify his own actions and beliefs. For example, when he is first drafted into the war, he believes he should not have to fight in a war he does not believe in, let alone understand. He asks, “Was it a civil war? A war of national liberation or simple aggression? Who started it, and when, and why? What really happened to the USS Maddox on that dark night in the Gulf of Tonkin? Was Ho Chi Minh a Communist stooge, or the nationalist savior, or both, or neither?” (O’Brien 38). By asking these questions, he wants the audience to also recognize his confusion, and therefore justify why he doesn’t belong in the military. This also makes it difficult for him to decide if he should go to war or find a way out of it. Similarly, when O’Brien is given the opportunity to run away from his current life, a life where he would have to join the military, he asks, “Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?” (54). He asks readers which option they would choose, if given the chance, as if the people who agree with him give him validation. He wants the audience to empathize with him and acknowledge that it is a difficult decision to make. If O’Brien knew what he wanted to do, he would not feel the need to justify himself.

Next, O’Brien contradicts his previous statements because he still does not know what he truly believes in. In the beginning, he believes that people should not fight in a war they have no interest in being in. He declares, “If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line. You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unity and help spill the blood. And you have to bring along your wife, or your kids, or your lover” (40). By saying this, he expresses that he should not have been drafted because he does not believe he should be forced into war. However, he then feels guilty for thinking about running away. O’Brien admits, “What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Cafe. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing” (49). He contradicts what he believed in earlier by choosing to go to the war because he would have felt ashamed and embarrassed if he did not. He believes that one should only go to war if they are willing to put their “precious fluids on the line”, but later considers going to war. As a result of not knowing whether to join the military or choose a new life, O’Brien begins questioning his own morals and beliefs. What he first accepted to be truth is now challenged. He does not know whether he should stick to what he originally thought, that people should not have to join a war they don’t support, or if he should go to maintain his reputation, even if it means going against his beliefs. 

Furthermore, O’Brien uses certain stylistic features, including repetition and varying sentence lengths, to emphasize his frustration of not knowing what to do. For instance, when he receives his draft notice, he feels distressed that he was chosen. He says, “I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen… I was no soldier. I hate Boy Scouts. I hated camping out. I hated dirt and tents and mosquitos. The sight of blood made me queasy, and I couldn’t tolerate authority, and I didn’t know a rifle from a slingshot” (39). He feels frustrated not only because he was chosen, but also because he now has to make the decision of whether to go or not. He believes that he is not fit to join the military, yet still questions if he should go. O’Brien later admits, “It was a moral split. I couldn’t make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared the ridicule and censure” (42). By repeating his fears of choosing to run away, he allows the audience to empathize with what he is dealing with. When he says it “was a moral split”, he is emphasizing how difficult it is to choose between going to war out of guilt or not going because he wants to follow his own beliefs, and wants readers to experience the same indecisiveness he goes through.

Not knowing what the right decision is can make it hard to realize what one’s true values and beliefs are, similar to what O’Brien experienced. The author asks questions to the audience, contradicts himself, and uses stylistic devices to exemplify this. While he wants his decisions to be justified, he also doesn’t know which choice is the right one to make. It is common to be indecisive in crucial moments, and consequently, can cause people to question their own morals. 



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