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The Things They Carried Summary and Analysis

by Tim O'Brien

Marijuana and Heroin Use During the Vietnam War

One of many elements that set the Vietnam War apart from other wars up until that point was drug use, which was rampant among soldiers. Marijuana was grown all over Vietnam, and many soldiers had their first experiences smoking it overseas. It helped them mellow out, it helped them continue fighting. It took their mind off what the war was about and helped if they didn'tt necessarily believe in the cause for which they fought. In The Things They Carried, drug use is treated matter of factly: it is another not-too-wonderful strategy for trying not to see what is going on around the users. Some soldiers have religion, others have girlfriends waiting for them at home, others have dope.

Although smoking marijuana -- the drug of choice among soldiers -- was a punishable offense under army rules, many soldiers still indulged. Precise statistics are not available, but army records suggest that marijuana use at the time was much more widespread in Vietnam itself than it was in the United States. After outraged, sympathetic and bemused newspaper reports drew international interest to the issue, the southern Vietnamese government took steps to make marijuana harder to obtain in 1968. The problem was soon overshadowed, though, by the rise of heroin as a popular drug among soldiers.

Some leaders chose to ignore the problem. Others encouraged marijuana use, because it kept their men mellow and focused, because it diffused social problems in the group, because it had fewer side affects than alcohol use and abuse, or because they simply could not imagine trying to prohibit it. It is unclear whether a crackdown, ordered from above, on marijuana use helped feed a switch to heroin. What is clear from army documents is that heroin was a larger problem. Heroin is debilitating. And when soldiers returned to America they were sick for months because they no longer had access to the drug. This was often in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness portrayed in many of O'Brien's stories.

In O'Brien's fiction, all drugs are grouped together under the term "dope." As when writing about many of the other aspects of the book -- casual sex, killing, to name a few -- O'Brien the narrator remains non-judgmental. They are things that happen. Some people are drug addicts, others carry their girlfriends' stockings. In the moral balance and the wider craze of the war, these small transgressions hardly seem to matter.

Drug use in the book is even used to fuel some of the troops' humor. Ted Lavender is the group's habitual drug user. When he is high, the other men like to ask him how the war is going. Lavender responds: "...real smooth. Today we've got ourselves a real mellow war." (18) This is always good for a laugh. When Lavender is killed, the others try to convince themselves that he is just high, is in a higher place, has taken so much dope that he's up there floating in the clouds somewhere. To help themselves believe this, the soldiers all partake in smoking what's left of Lavender's dope. This anecdote illustrates that drug use, though it may have been insubordination according to strict army definitions, was also simply a form of escapism for the soldiers.

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