First essay on The Things They Carried

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Pablo C. Avila


Dr. J. Elizabeth Clark

18 October 2007

First essay on The Things They Carried
The Vietnam War was the longest military conflict in the U.S. history, from 1959 to 19751. Many soldiers who fought there have written books about their experiences, however, Tim O’Brien, an American writer and soldier at Vietnam, has written the best story telling about what the war was; The Things They Carried. In this, his last novel, he recalls and tells all his experiences in detail about the war; as well as stories about his friends, and makes a reflection about them. He shows his feelings through stories that are difficult to clearly identify as “true.” This book shows us situations of hurt, friendship, and even love that soldiers experienced in war and how they have affected them even nowadays.
One major point about Tim O'Brien’s work is how many situations hurt the soldiers’ lives. From the beginning, O'Brien starts his work by numbering the many things soldiers have to carry; C rations, knives, some photographs, and even some relatives’ distrust are some of the things they have to take every day in war. Little by little, O'Brien demonstrates how hurt invaded each soldier, how difficult it was to get used to a difficult and different environment, as he says; “Jimmy Cross did not want the responsibility of leading these men. He had never wanted it.” (167). In this extract, O'Brien shows how complicated it was for Lieutenant Jimmy to have this responsibility in the war, he probably would have liked to do something completely different. At the same time, O'Brien struggled when making the decision about whether or not going to war; it was something he couldn’t face at first. Moreover, the soldiers sometimes got desperate about the nonsense of war; many of them were there just because they had been drafted. For instance, some of these situations are proved when O’Brien says; “They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.” (15) In this point, O’Brien shows the ridiculousness of the situation; soldiers didn’t know what they were there for, also, it demonstrates how reckless they felt about it and how hurt it caused them. In addition, O'Brien presents the situation where he feels himself attached to war, as he says.

“My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame.” (51-52)

In this point, he shows how hurt it was to disconnect himself from war, with all that violence around him, he felt trapped. Undoubtedly, all these situations indicate a deep hurt in soldiers, especially in O'Brien, who is affected even nowadays.
Another major point to remark is the environment of friendship, and sometimes confidence, that is created through many situations. In the chapter “Friends,” for example, the author offers a different, and positive, view of war; a short story of friendship between two soldiers who had previously gotten into a fight and now are making a pact of not letting the other to suffer in case one of them is wounded. The view O'Brien has this time is quite different from the first one and very positive at the same time. He sees war from a different perspective, a place where friendship takes place. For instance; he believes war can be a place where two buddies are banded through their experiences. In the extract; “The war wasn’t all terror and violence.” (31) O'Brien shows a favorable attitude from his experiences in war; moreover, he perceives the same view in his friends, that is, not only O'Brien gets to that point, but also his friends. Throughout his book, O'Brien talks about each of his friends telling different experiences encapsulated in a feeling of sharing, love, and friendship and though some of them are dead already, O'Brien’s stories keep them all alive.
The love Jimmy Cross felt for Martha teaches us a new lesson of keeping such a feeling in such situation. As O'Brien mentioned at the beginning of the book, the Lieutenant was so in love with Martha, but she never gave that love back. Jimmy used to receive letters from her; he used to smell them with a picture of her in his mind, knowing that her lips had been very close to that envelope; all these details provided by O'Brien give us an idea about how deep his love for Martha was. Despite Jimmy’s situation, he was capable to keep that profound feeling of love in such a terrible scenario of death and violence. But not only the love from a man to a woman is what the book presents, besides this story, we may point out the love each of the soldiers had for his own dreams and wishes; Tim, who wanted to survive to have a family, Norman Bowker, who wanted to go back to his town and try to fit on it, Jimmy Cross, who wanted to be with Martha for the rest of his life, and some other examples of what the soldiers wanted to do with their lives. In addition to that, we may point out the feeling of love among the platoon, how they shared many things and helped each other when someone was shot or wounded. Certainly, it is evident that there was a strong feeling of partnership among the soldiers.
By going back to Vietnam many years later, finally, O’Brien shows us the necessity of going back in time to what it marked his life; he seems to be unable to forget any detail from the war. Many experiences, some of them negative like the hurt these experiences caused in soldiers’ lives and some others positive like the memories about friendship among soldiers have marked their lives in a profound manner. The fact that O'Brien has written this book means that stories make him feel much better about what it happened, what he experienced. He wants to connect the past to the future, he affirms. All the good and bad things he saw and experienced in Vietnam will remain with him forever.

1 The Vietnam conflict caused the deaths of more than 58.000 Americans and another 304.000 wounded. Source: See the web site for more information.

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