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The Things They Carried Summary and Analysis

by Tim O'Brien

"The Ghost Soldiers," "Night Life," and "The Lives of the Dead"

“The Ghost Soldiers”

O’Brien recalls that during his time at war, he was shot twice. The first time, he was hit in the side. It was a superficial wound, and Rat Kiley checked in on him a number of times, even though the company was still being shot at. Kiley joked that the wound would only cause problems if O’Brien was pregnant.

With Kiley's help, O'Brien was only in the hospital for a month. When he returned to the Alpha company, Rat Kiley was gone, and a young, inexperienced new medic, Bobby Jorgenson, had taken his place. When O’Brien got shot the second time, in the rear end, Jorgenson was scared and took ten minutes to crawl over to help him. O’Brien was furious. He thought that he had almost died of shock, and he blamed Jorgenson’s delay for the infection that set in. The location of the infection infuriated and humiliated O’Brien.

O’Brien was evacuated to a more cushy location, a hospital, to recover. He had to lie on his stomach and apply ointment to his backside. He was still fuming about Jorgenson, and was surprised to find himself missing the excitement of the front. When the whole company came to visit him, he was very depressed by the feeling that that he no longer fit in. O’Brien sat around with his former comrades while they caught him up on what happened since he left. One soldier, Morty Phillips, had since died of a strange tropical disease he contracted swimming in a river. O’Brien felt even worse when he noted that Jorgenson seemed like he was now accepted by the other men as part of the group.

Jorgenson sought out O’Brien to apologize for freezing up the time O’Brien got shot. But O’Brien remained set on revenge -- and enlisted Azar, one of the nastiest men in the platoon, to help him get it.

Azar and O’Brien decided to “spook” Jorgenson. “Ghost” was army slang for the Viet Cong, “don’t get spooked” meant don’t get killed. O’Brien and Jorgenson decided to try to play on Jorgenson’s fear of the enemy. They rigged up a few ammunition cans filled with rattling ammunition outside Jorgenson’s hootch, and then drank some beer to pass the time until midnight.

At midnight, the two men started pulling strings attached to the cans. The cans started to rattle, and the plan worked: They heard Jorgenson yelp. They terrorized the man by continuing to make noise. Three hours later, O’Brien wanted to stop, but Azar hadn’t had enough. They were still making noise when Jorgenson came out and shot off a gun, shouting O’Brien’s name. He realized what was going on. The two awkwardly made up the next day, decided the score was even, and joked about "spooking” Azar together.

Analysis

“The Ghost Soldiers” is the only chapter in which O’Brien is a protagonist in the real sense of the word -- rather than a mute, sometimes stunned, observer and narrator. A protagonist is a character who acts, who directs the action of the story. In this case, O’Brien is motivated to seek vengeance, and this quest helps make his character more rounded; character is defined by action, by goals, and here O'Brien's aims are clearer than in other parts of the book. By this point, the reader has grown accustomed to thinking of O’Brien as somewhat weak-minded (see “On the Rainy River”), as fundamentally a victim. In his acts of revenge against Jorgenson, O’Brien becomes a perpetrator. O’Brien himself recognizes this transformation -- but does not like it. He recalls:

“The night was absolute. Slowly, we dragged the ammo cans closer to Bobby Jorgenson’s bunker, and this, plus the moon, gave a sense of approaching peril, the slow belly-down crawl of evil” (206).

The “belly-down crawl” here is literally O’Brien and Jorgenson approaching the bunker. The narrator compares himself to pure evil. How has O’Brien been reduced to this sort of sneaking around? O’Brien implies that the war has poisoned even the narrator. This story extends a distinctively spooky tone, one that up until now has been associated only with foreign troops and the war, to the narrator himself.

The story also illustrates one of the central themes of the book, that no matter how terrible war may be, it provides something wonderful: camaraderie. The book has a philosophical streak; O’Brien weighs abstract questions such as the absolute moral justifications for going to war. The narrator is too much of a dualist in his philosophical outlook to see only the negative points of the war. He observes that the men help each other through with humor and with medical aid. But “The Ghost Soldiers” shows the dark underbelly of this camaraderie: what happens when someone (Jorgenson) fails in his duty to the group. The relationships among soldiers are a social contract, which can be broken.

Summary of “Night Life”

By the time O’Brien gets back in touch with the company, Rat Kiley, the medic, is gone. O’Brien finds out about his departure when some former comrades visit him at the military camp. One tells about a period of time when the Alpha Company had only been moving at night because of increased enemy presence in the area. Psychologically, it was hard on everyone, says the soldier. Some of the men took drugs, and Rat Kiley started to go crazy. According to the soldier, Kiley said that when he was looking at the other soldiers, he imagined what they looked like after they were shot. Kiley was talking about how much the soldiers would weigh when they were dead, about how hard it would be to heave them into the rescue helicopter. After a few days like this, says the soldier, Kiley started imagining himself as a dead body, too. Kiley couldn’t take the strain anymore so he took drugs and shot himself in the foot. The last anyone in the platoon had seen of him was when he got on the helicopter. The soldiers had all said goodbye, and Cross promised to say that the bullet in the foot was a mistake, so that Kiley would get an honorable discharge from service.

Analysis

O’Brien recounts the dramatic events of “Night Life” with a flat, matter-of-fact tone. Kiley’s struggle represents the fall-out of the vital importance attached to “courage” throughout the book. He does what all the men wish they could do, but none dare try. More to the point, he does what the other men consider cowardly but are too cowardly to undertake themselves. In this sense, Rat Kiley fits comfortably into neither normal literary role: he is neither hero nor anti-hero. According to the rules governing war and soldiers he has “failed.” But he wasn’t enough of a moralist to avoid going to war altogether, which would have made him a hero within O’Brien’s moral parameters.

The matter-of-fact language with which O’Brien recounts the events of “Night Life" creates distance. The reader is left to imagine whether O’Brien is sympathetic to his friend’s decision. Like so many other emotions in the book, the narrator does not explore this one outright. Detachment and simple language are key, and show the influence of Ernest Hemingway.

“The Lives of the Dead”

Just after he joins the Alpha Company, O’Brien is confronted with one of the first dead bodies he has ever seen in his life. Enemy fire hits the company and Cross orders an air strike on the Vietnamese village. The soldiers watch the village burn. They enter the town, which is empty except for a few dead bodies.

The soldiers joke around with one dead man. They shake his hand and say hello and encourage O’Brien to say hello. He becomes a company mascot of sorts. The soldiers sit him up at meals with them and pretend to feed him. O’Brien finds the humor grotesque and disturbing and retreats to his tent. Kiowa follows him to give him a Christmas cookie from a care package and to tell him he thinks he’s a decent person. This conversation marks the beginning of a close friendship. O’Brien decides to tell his new friend the story of his first love, Linda.

Linda and O’Brien were classmates in the fourth grade. They went on a date together, accompanied by O’Brien’s parents, for which Linda wore a new red cap. They saw a rather violent movie (Linda did not seem to mind the deaths) and then they went for ice cream. O’Brien knew that he loved Linda, and he says she loved him back with a rich, mature love. A few days later, at school, a bully named Nick Veenhof pulled the cap off her head and the whole class saw that she had lost all of her hair.

Linda had been undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor, and she died a few days later. O’Brien’s father took him to see her in a funeral home, an event which traumatized the young O’Brien. He thought that the body didn’t look like Linda: she was too large, too bloated to be real. After that, the boy made dates with Linda in his dreams to hold hands and go ice skating. He gave up on asking her what it was like to be dead, because she seemed to think it was a stupid question. The only thing she could compare it to was being in a book that no one read.

This is the purpose of the stories, writes O’Brien: To make the dead live again, to help Timmy become Tim O’Brien, and to keep the book from closing on Linda.

Analysis

The central motif of The Things They Carried is death. Death reappears again and again, in the form of a young Vietnamese man and a fellow soldier. “The Lives of the Dead” finally explains what has formed O’Brien attitude toward death. This attitude is best characterized as visceral horror and intellectual disbelief. Instead of turning his disbelief into religion, or a belief in the afterlife, O’Brien seeks solace in his dreams. If he can dream Linda, is she really dead? When Linda dismisses that same question as irrelevant, O’Brien has his answer: as long as he imagines her, she is not dead.

Dreams and sleep are close cousins of death, as poets from Shakespeare on have observed. One goes to sleep not knowing what one will dream or when one will wake up. In the last story in this collection, O’Brien explores the image of transforming one into the other. O’Brien as a young boy is like an alchemist or a resurrector – he brings Linda back to life in his dreams. The older O’Brien is a storyteller. A storyteller is a sort of God, who gets to control the parameters of his fictional universe. In O’Brien’s fictional universe, Linda is still alive. Fiction is the most potent weapon in O’Brien's arsenal, with which he may fight against that perennial obsession: death itself.

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