The Things They Carried is a collection of twenty-two stories, or chapters. All focus on the Alpha Company and the fate of its soldiers after they return home to America. A character named Tim O’Brien (same name as the author) narrates most of the stories.
In “The Things They Carried,” the Alpha Company is mobilized to fight in the Vietnam War. The soldiers carry goods necessary to their survival as well personal items. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters and photos from a female friend named Martha, and spends most of his time mooning over her. The first casualty for the company is Ted Lavender, shot dead while relieving himself. Cross blames himself for the death because he thinks he was too busy thinking about Martha to properly take care of his troops. He burns her letters and photographs and decides to be a better leader.
In “Love,” Jimmy goes to visit the narrator, Tim O’Brien, in his home in Massachusetts after the war. Cross relates that he bumped into Martha after she got home, and that he still loves her although she doesn’t love him back. He has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death, but pleads with O’Brien to portray him as a great leader if the writer ever writes about their experiences.
“Spin” is made up of a collection of recollections of the ordinary things soldiers do when they are at war, such as playing chess games. O’Brien compares the war to a Ping-Pong ball, saying that one can spin it in many different directions. He is now a 43-year-old writer who only writes war stories. His daughter thinks he should find a happier topic, but O’Brien keeps replaying the gruesome war scenes over and over in his mind.
In “On The Rainy River,” O’Brien describes the decision of whether or not to go to war after receiving his draft card. He had just graduated college and planned to go to Harvard for graduate school. He was split between the instinct to run, and the instinct to do what everyone expected: go to war. He took the car up to the Canadian border, and a friendly hotel owner rowed him along a river right up to Canada. In the end he couldn’t bring himself to jump out of the boat. He cried in the boat, paid Elroy for the room, and drove home. It is a hard story for O’Brien to tell, he writes, because it shows that he was a coward and that he made the wrong choice.
In “Enemies,” two members of the company, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen, get into a fistfight over a missing penknife. Jensen wins the fight and breaks Strunk’s nose. Jensen borrows a pistol and uses it to break his own nose. Then he asks Strunk if they are “square.” Strunk says yes and laughs at his new friend -- because he was the one who had stolen Jensen’s knife in the first place. In “Friends,” Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk make a pact that if either were seriously injured or crippled, the other would find a way to kill him. In October Lee Strunk steps on a mortar and loses his leg as a result of the accident. He is terrified, because he thinks Jensen will kill him. Later the men find out that Strunk has died, which seems to relieve Jensen of a big burden.
In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Curt Lemon steps on a mortar and is killed. O’Brien has to go up into a tree to pick out his remains, and one of the other men makes a bad pun on “lemon tree,” similar to many other morbid jokes the soldiers make throughout the book After Lemon's death, Rat Kiley writes his sister a long letter to which she never responds. Rat dismisses her as a “dumb cooze.” O’Brien says this is a true story because such stories are unsentimental, seem too crazy to believe, or else never end. Another “true” story O’Brien tells is about a water buffalo the company tortured after Lemon died. It seems incomprehensible, so it must be true, he writes.
After Curt Lemon was killed, and O’Brien describes having a hard time mourning him in “The Dentist.” Lemon was a macho guy, but one day a dentist came in on a helicopter to check up on the men’s teeth. Lemon was so afraid that when it was his turn he passed out in the dentist’s chair. Then he was so ashamed that he woke up the dentist in the middle of the night, insisted that he had a toothache, and made the dentist remove a perfectly good tooth.
O’Brien retells a story that he first heard from Rat Kiley in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Before joining up with Alpha, Kiley was stationed at a medical detachment near the village of Tra Bong along with a special force called the Green Berets. A young man named Mark Fossie imported in his American girlfriend. Fossie got upset when she didn't return to their quarters one night. It turns out she wasn’t cheating on him, but was on ambush duty with the Green Berets. Later, Fossie finds her in the Green Beret encampment wearing a necklace made of human tongues. In the end, she becomes a killer and disappears into the mountains by herself.
Henry Dobbins keeps his girlfriends’ stockings wrapped around his neck for good luck, and credits them with the fact that he never gets shot. Then, in “Stockings,” his girlfriend says she wants to break up. He continues to wear the stockings around his neck all the same. In “Church,” the company sets up camp at a pagoda where a few monks still remain. The monks especially like Henry Dobbins, who talks about possibly joining the order and gives the monks some chocolate and peaches as a parting gift.
In “The Man I Killed,” Tim O’Brien surveys the man he killed, repeating the same details over and over: He has thin, arched eyebrows, like a woman; he is thin, with a concave chest, like a scholar. O’Brien imagines that the man was always afraid to go to war, was possibly in love, was possibly a scholar. Kiowa tries to get O’Brien to stop staring at the corpse, with no success.
In “Ambush” O’Brien’s nine-year-old daughter, Kathleen, asks her father if he has ever killed anyone. Of course not, O’Brien tells her; he thinks when she is a grown-up she will understand better. In “Style,” his company enters a burnt-down compound full of dead bodies, and the only living person they find is a young girl, dancing. Azar thinks she is performing some strange rite. Dobbins thinks she is dancing because she likes to dance.
In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker returns to his hometown after the war is over. His best friend is dead and his ex-girlfriend has married someone else, so he has no one to talk to about why he failed to get a Silver Star medal for courage. He imagines a conversation with his father about the subject; the reason he didn’t get the medal was that he let his comrade Kiowa die in a shit field after Kiowa was shot. Bowker stops for a burger, drives around his hometown lake, and stops to admire the sunset. In 1975, writes O’Brien in “Notes,” he received a letter from Bowker telling the story that he retells in “Speaking of Courage.” O’Brien wants to emphasize that he made up the part about Bowker failing to save Kiowa and worrying about why he didn’t get the Silver Star. The letter shook O’Brien, who had congratulated himself on adjusting so well, transitioning straight from Vietnam to Harvard. In 1978, Bowker hanged himself.
All 18 soldiers in the company search for Kiowa’s body in the shit field in “In the Field.” Bowker eventually locates Kiowa’s body. Cross mentally rehearses different letters he might write to Kiowa’s father; perhaps he will take responsibility for the death, perhaps not. Instead of writing the letter to Kiowa’s father, he decides, he’ll play golf. In “Good Form,” O’Brien, the 43-year-old writer/narrator, says that “story truth”, i.e. what happens in the story, is more important than “happening truth,” i.e. what happened in reality. A few months after writing “In the Field,” O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen, who is ten. In “Field Trip,” she doesn’t understand what the war was about, nor why her father insists on traveling to a funny-smelling place (the shit field). O’Brien buries a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins where his friend died, and tries to say goodbye.
O’Brien blames Bobby Jorgenson, a young medic who replaced Rat Kiley with the company, for almost letting him die of shock after getting shot. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien enlists Azar’s help to get revenge on Jorgenson. They make noises outside Jorgenson’s encampment to make him think he is being attacked. Jorgenson is terrified, but then he figures out it's just O’Brien, and the two say they are “even.” “Night Life” is the account, culled secondhand from another soldier, of how Rat Kiley went beserk and had to leave the company. The strain of the war was too much for him and he shot himself in the foot to be discharged from the army.
In “The Lives of the Dead” O’Brien writes that the purpose of stories is to save lives. He had been in love with a nine-year-old, Linda, when he was also nine. They went on a date, and then she died of a brain tumor. Afterwards, he made dates with her in his dreams, and they went ice-skating together. The purpose of stories, writes O’Brien, is to make people like Linda or the soldiers killed in Vietnam live again.