Nearly Thirty Years Later “The Things They Carried” Still Matters

The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

Published 1990

Read 2011; Dec 2019

This reader first encountered this book when the 20th anniversary edition was published.  At the time, this reader was very impressed with the title story, the first in the book, and less satisfied by the remainder of the book.  However, several images from the first reading were ignited in memory during the second reading and this reader savored the entire offering this time.   

The title chapter remains a pivotal chapter.  O’Brien starts by describing personal items the soldiers carried (ie gum, photographs), then turns to the weapons and ammunition, and other combat equipment, delineating their weight.  By now the reader realizes the solider is pretty burdened and essentials such as raingear, a way to sleep, and clothing hadn’t been mentioned yet.  O’Brien includes these but then begins ratcheting things up—they carried foot rot, lice, the soil itself—and cranks further with feelings—thoughts of a girl (did she love him or not), fear—of the enemy, of not performing under fire, of not getting the medals expected by a father– and more.  The relentlessness of including more and more of what was carried draws the reader into the Vietnam foot soldier experience in a mere few pages in a more memorable way that any other story or film has done for this reader.  The reader is glad they didn’t have this experience personally but this reader realizes if so, they could never forget it even if they wanted to.  Touché.

This book has been described as “not a novel”.  It certainly isn’t that.  It has been described as a set of somewhat connected short stories.  This reader feels the better description is a set of essays, stories, and notes by the author serving to record the stories that are still in his head so that he may relieve himself of some burden of trying to remember them.  But he also shares his thoughts on what stories are, what they, mean, what they accomplish, and why we all need them to learn about others’ lives and to live our own.

O’Brien writes early in the book:  “forty-three years old and the war occurred half a life time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That’s what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”    Tim O’Brien give us a flavor of his experiences in a war he didn’t want to join but did to, according to his story “On the Rainy River”.  After several days spent trying to decide whether or not to cross the Minnesota/Canadian border he goes home “and then to Vietnam, where I was a solider, and then home again.  I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.  I was a coward.  I went to the war.”   This book helps us understand why he was never the same.

O’Brien gives us stories from a few angles sometimes about a particular incident and honesty tells us that perhaps none of the takes on this story are true.  O’Brien gives us an assessment of the stories told by Rat Kiley, the medic that helps O’Brien during his first wound:  “For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute, and then multiplying by maybe.”   So stories were important even then to make  it through the experience of a foot soldier in Vietnam, humping through the jungles of Vietnam with limited understand of why they were there, what their missions were supposed to accomplish, and with limited actual encounter with the enemy, but with lots of encounters with the sights and sounds of the humans and other inhabitants of this dense, hilly jungle. 

This reader especially appreciated the writing on this reading of the book.  O’Brien is superb in his descriptions.  Another example, this time citing “From “Night Life” describing night missions:  “No moon and no stars.  It was the purest black you could imagine, Sanders, said.  The kind of clock-stopping black that God must’ve had in mind when he sat down to invent blackness.”

We hear about the loss of the well-liked soldier Kiowa in a muddy shit field and the impact this had on the whole group.  Norman Bowher commits suicide in 1978, about ten years after his return.  Jimmy Connor, the commander keeps his men searching for the body against difficult odds of finding and certainly terrible circumstances being in that field again.  O’Brien returns to the shit field with his ten-year old daughter long after the fighting is over.  “Over the years, that coldness had never entirely disappeared.  There were times in my life when I couldn’t feel much, not sadness, or pity, or passion, and somehow I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been.  For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.  Now it was just what it was.  Flat and dreary and unremarkable.”

This reader appreciated the stories and notes he provides here about Vietnam as we can’t imagine it with any accuracy otherwise.  This reader applauds his language and thanks him for his raw insights and sharing.  O’Brien helped this reader to better understand the power of storytelling—how it helps get you through the unimaginable as well as “joining the past to the future…when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”   Readers like this one realize that we all have need for stories to help us understand how we got from there to here, wherever that is. 

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