The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien Book Review
Communism, the boogie-man of the twentieth century and potential threat to the American way of life pressured the United States into a handful of armed conflicts following World War Two. The war in Korea saw over 30,000 American deaths, and Vietnam saw 50,000. Vietnam however, brought about a significant social movement of anti-war sentiments that other wars failed to garner as news coverage quickly revealed the terrors of the fighting in Southeast Asia. Soldiers were drafted to fight in a war which many saw as outside U.S. bounds. The perceived immorality of the war even prompted international action; Canada accepted fleeing American men who were drafted, but wished not to fight. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a book comprising several stories of soldiers who fought in Vietnam during the U.S.’ involvement. The book is a work of fiction inspired by the stories of those who O’Brien fought alongside in Vietnam. The story, though, does not glorify war or make heroes of every character. O’Brien is critical of the war, and of war as a practice, in The Things They Carried. This criticism is achieved by highlighting and expanding on the mental degradation of those whose lives were altered by their time in Vietnam.
O’Brien’s work is psychological — each chapter captures the thoughts of one of the characters which aids his purpose of showing the mental toll going to war takes. In the beginning of the book, there are more than thirty references to the weight of items carried by soldiers in the first twenty-five pages. However, the real burden carried by the soldiers is the mental expense of their engagement in Vietnam. Very bluntly, O’Brien writes that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries, “…a .45 caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded…and the responsibility for the lives of his men,” (25). Jimmy Cross however, cannot focus on the wellbeing of his troops as the memory of a girl back home occupies his bain. The, “Dense, crushing love,” which distracts him juxtaposed with the harsh brutalism of armed conflict makes him weary. Cross is a competent leader at the beginning of the book, but errs as the war wages on. Cross makes the mistake of having his men camp out in a latrine field on the outskirts of a Vietnamese village in a, “moment of carelessness or bad judgement,” leading to the death of one of his soldiers, Kiowa. After watching one of his men sinking into the river of waste, Jimmy Cross himself, “went deeper into the muck,” (O’Brien 169). The “muck” that Cross falls into is not physical as the muck that consumes Kiowa, but the muck of his mind, laden with guilt. He “lay floating…he let himself slip away,” (O’Brien 170). Jimmy Cross, as with all the characters, is influenced by Tim O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War and the stories of others who served. The weight of leading men through inhospitable jungle on an ambiguous mission wears down Jimmy Cross. He makes mistakes, and when the cost of those mistakes is human life, he dissociates, a sign of his mental degradation. This degradation is just one example of how O’Brien uses the mental state of his characters to expose the toll that paranoia takes on those who have faced war and criticize its effect on otherwise sane people.
Yet another character in The Things They Carried who succumbs to the plights of Vietnam and furthers O’Brien’s criticism is Norman Bowker. Bowker, an actual friend of Tim O’Brien is a high school educated young man who enjoys the peace and safety of his dad’s Chevy. While fighting he hoped that if he came back from the war with some impressive medals, his father might be proud of him. In a letter written to the author, Bowker expresses, “’It’s almost like I got killed over in Nam,’” despite his return to the United States after the war (O’Brien 150). When he returned home from the war, Bowker’s life stagnated, void of purpose. According to O’Brien’s retelling, Bowker would spend his days, “Clockwise, as if in orbit,” driving long, seven-mile laps around the lake in his hometown (133). Bowker makes up scenarios in his head as he drives, wishing that he had acted braver in just one moment to save Kiowa and win the Silver Star — maybe his dad would be proud if he had. Burdened with regret and unable to make himself useful, Bowker becomes depressed. One night, after playing basketball at the YMCA, “his friends found him hanging from a water pipe,” (O’Brien 154). Bowker did not lose his mind in Vietnam, but his return from the war saddles him with a sense of monotony and a lack of purpose, as if his life is taking never-ending laps around the lake. In the letter he wrote to the author, Bowker suggests that O’Brien, “’write a story about a guy who feels like he got zapped over in that shithole,” (151). O’Brien’s uses Bowker’s story of feeling like he was zapped in Vietnam to criticize the war and the toll it can take on an innocent young man. Someone who was worthy of, “seven medals,” for his service in the war had been incapable of adjustment thanks to the burdens of the war (136). Bowker’s story is similar to many who return from war, struggle to find purpose, and ultimately take their lives. From friend to funeral, Bowker’s tragic death amplifies the criticism of war developed by O’Brien.
Bowker may have ended his life on home soil, but Rat Kiley, a character in The Things They Carried, and a member of Jimmy Cross’s platoon, “lost his cool,” and harmed himself during the war (O’Brien 208). After spending weeks moving only at night, and sleeping during the day, the platoon is beginning to feel crazy. “You couldn’t even tell you were blinking, the blackness didn’t change,” writes O’Brien of the conditions. Rat Kiley, the platoon medic, faces the worst of the sleep deprivation and the “giant killer bugs,” (O’Brien 209). The conditions are enough to make anyone think less rationally, but Rat Kiley shows trademark signs of psychological distress, “making big scabs and then ripping off the scabs and scratching the open sore,” (O’Brien 210). After a long breakdown, crying out about visions of his own internal organs, “[He] doped himself up and put a round through his foot,” as a means of escaping the plights of the war. He is medically evacuated by helicopter and eventually treated at a hospital in Japan (212). As a medic, Rat Kiley knew how much shooting himself in the foot would hurt, even with painkillers, but the pain of his deteriorating mind was greater. The atrocities of war are great enough to make sane people lose their minds: that is the great criticism of The Things They Carried.
O’Brien’s book is not a traditional novel following one character. It features the stories of many, including the narrator, and how they struggled with psychological stress of war in addition to the physical stress. O’Brien’s criticism of war is personal, showing sympathy towards those whose minds were left on a battlefield. Rat Kiley may have lost part of his foot and Norman Bowker may have lost his youth, but the greater comment of the book is about soldiers losing their minds. Although telling their stories did not provide him with therapy it did offer O’Brien the opportunity to criticize the toll that war takes on those who may be required to fight.