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The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien is a narrative account of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The author recounts the experiences of a platoon of soldiers who were deployed to fight in Vietnam. He draws from the soldiers’ day-to-day encounters with the Vietcong combatants, and how such experiences affected them both physically and psychologically. The author also explores the collateral damage of the Vietnam War, especially in terms of the losses suffered by the local civilians who were caught between the fighting forces. At a deeper sense, however, The Things They Carried is a portrayal of the negative impact of war not only on the victims who get killed or have their livelihoods destroyed, but also on the soldiers themselves. The most remarkable aspect of the novel is the autobiographical approach it employs as it recounts O’Brien’s own experiences and those of his colleagues while leading a platoon of solders deep in the jungles of Vietnam. In this light, the title of the book is symbolic as it refers to the psychological burden they carried for being far away from home and their families, and the guilt they suffered for being participants in the meaningless deaths of many innocent civilians. Accordingly, Tim O’Brien’s main theme in The Things They Carried is the social and psychological impact of war on countries, victims, and the soldiers themselves.
In describing the actual luggage that the soldiers in the Alpha Company carried- ammunition, M-16 rifles, grenades, and pocket knives- O’Brien portrays the guilt and psychological burdens that combatants have to deal with. While the weapons that soldiers carry represent the burden of carrying a nation’s destiny, it also symbolizes the personal burden they have to deal with; reconciling their consciences to the harsh realities of war. O’Brien suggests that soldiers are forced to discard their emotional sensitivities to deal with the human damage they cause. Even after the war, they live with stigma of having killed so many innocents. The emotional torture that Norman Bowker experiences after the war in “Speaking of Courage” illustrates this point. His “grief and confusion are so strong that they prompt him to drive aimlessly around his hometown lake to write O’Brien a seventeen-page letter explaining how he never felt right after the war” (O’Brien 131). Most of the Alpha Company members were non-veterans who were brutally removed from their normal lives and plunged into the madness of war. As O’Brien notes, “Most of the men who fought in Vietnam were in their late teens and early twenties—they were children, students, and boyfriends who had no perspective on how to rationalize killing or come to terms with their friends’ untimely deaths” (O’Brien 23). He advances the idea that war is at one level a collective, national responsibility that compels nations to go into war. At another level, and the most critical one to the combatant in the field, it is a personal issue that places a huge psychological burden on individual soldiers. For instance, Henry Dobbins, whose giant physique makes him a heavy eater, is compelled to carry more food rations to satisfy his physiological needs. He also wraps his girlfriend pantyhose around his neck due to his superstitious belief that it will bring him good luck. Kiowa, a very religious person, carries a Bible, perhaps to invoke the mercies of divine providence. While these actions may be regarded as manifestations of superstition, they reflect the fear of death that persuades individuals to desperately cling to anything they believe will guarantee their survival. The fear of death, the anxiety of not seeing their loved ones back at home again, the guilt of the deaths they must cause, and vigilance they must keep to survive in enemy territory is the sum of their burden, “the things they carried” in their hearts from day to day.