Rereading “The Things They Carried”

Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Things They Carried,” which was inspired by the author’s experiences in the infantry during the Vietnam War, has become a classic work of modern American fiction since it first appeared in Esquire magazine in 1986. O’Brien wrote several other short stories about his Vietnam experiences and collected them in book form in The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), which received numerous literary awards. High school English teachers often assign the short story or the book as required reading, and the short story is routinely included in anthologies of the best modern American short fiction. Ken Burns’s 10-episode documentary on the Vietnam War, which began running on PBS September 17, features interviews with Tim O’Brien, so I gave “The Things They Carried” a fresh read to see how I would react to it nearly thirty years after I first encountered it.

The short story takes up barely 15 pages in my Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, so I can’t say too much without revealing things that the reader would be better off discovering in the story itself. O’Brien sets up the story in a unique and innovative way by focusing the reader’s attention on all of the “things” that members of an infantry platoon carry with them as they venture out on their patrols. These things include all of the tangible objects that one would expect infantrymen to carry, such as can openers, wrist watches, dog tags, candy, cigarettes, and the like, along with arms and ammunition and various pieces of heavy equipment. But they also include emotional baggage, superstitions, hopes, fears, and the kind of mental endurance needed to deal with the constant threat of death.

“The Things They Carried” introduces the reader to First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who carries letters from a girl named Martha, a college English major with poetic sensibilities, along with his lingering doubts about Martha’s true feelings for him. Jimmy Cross and his recurring thoughts about Martha, along with an ever present ambivalence about their relationship, gives the story a poignancy that would be lacking if the reader were to see nothing of Jimmy Cross’s interior life. How Jimmy Cross handles his evolving feelings about Martha while the terror of the war plays out around him in the lives of his men is an important aspect of the drama in the story. And that is part of what makes it such a moving vignette of the Vietnam War.

O’Brien’s prose is plain and unadorned, and all the more effective for it. He does not need to embellish or inject the story with lyrical flourishes, the story is dramatic enough without them. And yet beneath the plainspoken cataloging of all the things Jimmy Cross’s platoon carries on patrol flows a rich vein of insight about what the war has done to the men who are living it. There is nothing tendentious about O’Brien’s writing, he does not try to sway the reader to one point or view or another about the men in Jimmy Cross’s platoon or the war itself. He simply endeavors to capture the reality of their experience. And it is difficult to come away from the story without being moved.

Of all the literature that the Vietnam War produced, there is probably nothing so vividly evocative of the infantryman’s experience and so affecting in its humanity as Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” While Ken Burn’s film will likely prove to be another masterpiece of documentary filmmaking and generate a lot of discussion, Tim O’Brien’s simple 15-page short story beautifully captures what it must have meant to serve in Vietnam. It’s well worth reading again, and in the thirty years since its first publication it has lost none of its vividness and power.

The Vietnam War has a unique place in my life experience because I grew up in the 1960s when nearly every evening news broadcast opened with a report on what was happening in Vietnam. American combat troops first arrived in Vietnam in 1965, when I was ten years old, which was just old enough to be curious about the world. I remember night after night watching television news reports from Vietnam, with footage of swarms of helicopters and infantrymen marching through thick, wet woods and rice paddies.

During my junior high school years (1967-1969), it seemed like everybody talked about the Vietnam War all the time. In school we were given writing and speaking assignments about it. Older brothers were being called up by the draft, or sometimes fleeing to Canada to avoid it. Protest marches appeared on television as often as reports about the war, and since I lived in the Bay Area the protests on the U.C. Berkeley campus were covered by all the local news stations as well as the national networks. There was always a copy of Life magazine in our home, which was well known for its photojournalism, and it brought graphic images of the Vietnam War to American households. I remember one particular issue of Life that featured pictures of every serviceman killed in action in Vietnam in the prior week, and you could not help but be moved by the row after row of military portraits in the magazine. Regardless of where you placed yourself on the political spectrum, the Vietnam War was an overarching presence in American life throughout the latter half of the 1960s.

When I turned 18 and was required to register for the draft myself the year was already 1973 and American combat troops had for the most part returned from Vietnam. So by that time registering for the draft seemed nothing like it did for those just five or ten years older than me. By 1973 the U.S. government had changed its strategy and expected the South Vietnamese military to do all the work of resisting North Vietnamese aggression. Two years later it was clear that South Vietnam could no longer survive as a country, and I’m sure that the closing episodes of Ken Burns’s documentary vividly depict the drama associated with the fall of Saigon and the abandonment of the American embassy there in April 1975.

It was some twenty years later that I ventured on my own kind of personal voyage to try and make sense of the Vietnam War. I had a somewhat distant relative whose name appears on the black gabbro walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. I visited it in the early 1990s and that inspired me to learn everything I could about his story. That project later turned into a self-published book: One Day in Vietnam: The True Story of an Army Bird Dog Pilot (iUniverse, 2000). In my background research for One Day in Vietnam I devoured just about everything I could find about the war, including another Tim O’Brien book, If I Die in Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (Delacorte Press, 1973).

If I were going to recommend a single book about the Vietnam War it would probably be Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (Viking Press, 1983). Karnow was the chief correspondent for an earlier PBS series on the Vietnam War in the early 1980s, which won six Emmy Awards as well as other awards. Karnow’s Vietnam is a solid introduction to the history of the country and a comprehensive narrative of the American military involvement that began in the 1950s. But there are lots of other excellent books about the Vietnam War. In 1998 the Library of America published an excellent two-volume compilation of American journalism dealing with the Vietnam War, Reporting Vietnam, Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969, and Reporting Vietnam, Part Two: American Journalism, 1969-1975. A moving collection of letters from those serving in Vietnam, edited by Bernard Edelman, was published in Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Norton, 1985). And there are so many Vietnam War memoirs written by those who served it would be impossible to count them. I can recommend Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), and Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). For a particularly riveting first-hand account of a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter pilot, which was probably the most dangerous job in Vietnam, I can also recommend Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk (Viking Press, 1983).

But it is Tim O’Brien who has earned a place in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, and it is fitting that he represented there. He not only captured the infantryman’s experience in Vietnam but also created a memorable and distinctive work of literature.