Courage and the cult of manhood are familiar themes from earlier war novels and stories, but O'Brien turns the concept completely on its head. In "On a Rainy River," he describes how he forced himself into the "courageous" act of going to war through shaming himself by imagining what others would think of him if he did not go. Once in Vietnam, the idea of courage becomes laughable. Everyone jumps at the slightest noise, everyone fears for their life. Macho characters like Curt Lemon seem absurd to O'Brien, because O'Brien believes no one is actually courageous. It is a physical impossibility.
The Vietnam War was mostly a man's war, and this book is populated mostly by men. But the adolescent soldiers are obsessed by sex, and miss their virgin girlfriends desperately. The one soldier who ships in his girlfriend sees the relationship go horribly sour, so he is sexually frustrated, too. Yet the promise of women is always in the air; one of the draws of going to Japan are the cute nurses there. In fact, nurses are the ultimate sex symbol, because they are one of the few sexual outlets open to the men. But they are scarce, and sexual longing becomes just another source of tension.
The single uniting theme of this book lies in the burdens that soldiers bear, both physical and emotional. The title points this out, and most of the stories -- in one way or another -- are about burdens the war forces upon the soldiers. The burdens almost always seem too much for them to carry. Jimmy Cross is responsible for the lives of all of his soldiers, but he is unable to keep all of them alive. The soldiers carry drugs and lucky pantyhose and Bibles but most of these fail to keep them safe. Many of their burdens seem primal, almost biblical. "Well, that's Nam," says one character. "Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin's real fresh and original" (76). Part of the reason the burdens seem unbearable, the evil so fresh, is that the men are so young. They have many more years to carry the same burdens. Tim O'Brien must carry the burden of having killed a man for the rest of his life.
Religion is something some of the soldiers carry around with them, like a talisman that may have the ability to save them. But the most religious character, Kiowa, ends up dead, face-down in a shit field. Similarly horrific things happen to the non-religious, too. War and death seem to make no distinction. The value of religion seems not to be preservative, but rather as an indicator of how decent the men may be while still alive. Especially in “Church,” the two most decent men turn out to be the company’s two most religious men: Henry Dobbins and Kiowa. As for superstitions, most of the soldiers believe in them. O’Brien writes that it was difficult not to be superstitious in a country as "spooky" as Vietnam. The superstitions give the soldiers some illusion of control. By adhering to certain traditions they think they can control their own fates. This, like the promise of religion in the book, turns out to be an illusion.
The Vietnam War was the least popular war of all time among the American public. But it was also deeply unpopular among the soldiers themselves, most of whom were drafted. More than 50 percent of troops engaged in active disobedience, much politically motivated. Discontent is threaded through O’Brien’s account of the war, although his comrades don’t seem particularly political. Instead, they are escapist. They play checkers, they smoke dope, they watch movies, and they masturbate to Jane Fonda. They will do anything to take their mind off war. The very premise of The Things They Carried involves the the things the soldiers are forced to carry, many against their will, as well as the small talismans or entertainments the soldiers hang onto to engage in escapism from a terrible situation. For O’Brien, writing is a form of escapism. As he writes in the last story in the book, he thinks and hopes that through this particular form of escape he can make the impossible happen. In this form of escape he can make the dead live again.
The Vietnam War both defiles and preserves the innocence of those who participate. Most of the men at war are young, not yet twenty. Many have peachy skin and blonde hair. But O'Brien is relentless about pointing out that although they are young and innocent, they are killers. They kill on command, which makes their crimes seem somehow mitigated. But there is also the sense that they are in a primordial jungle of sorts and are somehow inventing evil anew each day. Perhaps the clearest parable of the loss of innocence is the story "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong", in which a young blonde soldier's girlfriend is brought over from America only to become intoxicated with Vietnam and become a killer.
In the quagmire of an incomprehensible war, one imperative is clear-cut: revenge. Revenge is not trained on the enemy. The soldiers have little to no sense of what the enemy has done “wrong.” So they wreak revenge on one another. The central motivation of “Enemies” is the standoff between two friends, one of whom seeks physical revenge. Revenge seems to be one of the few emotions other than shame that drive the young O’Brien when he is a soldier. “The Ghost Soldiers” is all about the revenge O’Brien wreaks on a young medic who he thinks didn’t treat him in time when he was wounded. (One of the most gripping qualities of the book is the narrator’s honesty about his own shortcomings.) His greed for revenge is fueled by an unattractive sense of his own worth. It blinds him, distorts his morals, and makes him temporarily seem a monster in the reader’s eyes. But he does not flinch at recalling his actions, nor does he decline to tell them to the reader.
The Things They Carried Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Things They Carried is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.