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The Things They Carried: What Did They Carry?

Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Things They Carried,” begins as a highly literal enumeration of objects soldiers in Vietnam carry, each thing valued not only for its utility but also according to its weight because every object has to be “humped” and therefore each soldier eliminates whatever is not needed, even dropping some of them along the way. Most of what they carry is meant to kill, save a life or sustain it; but the most highly prized objects have no utility, only mass. They represent the soldier’s individual choice, that which he prizes enough to hump through the jungle day after day for no reason other than that it is his and which connect soldiers to the world outside Vietnam, they keep them from being swallowed up by the jungle or the war, and they are the final reminder of a world in which they felt at home. These are the things that tell a story of men in a totally unfamiliar place trying to maintain their connection with home but they are useful only until the men accept that they are exiles, forever alienated from their former lives.

Lt. Jimmy Cross carries a ten-ounce packet of letters from a girl in New Jersey, someone whom he hardly knows but who represents all he dreamed of before he went to Vietnam. Each day he and his men face the prospect of laying down their lives, of committing atrocities, of slogging through inhospitable country day after day, and of sustained feats of heroism needed to overcome their instinctive fear, all for no identifiable reason. At the end of a day’s march, and increasingly while doing his duty, Cross escapes into obsessive fantasies about Martha that he knows can never come true. His dreams are clichéd, even old-fashioned, set in a time when there were home-truths and traditions, and life was predictable. As Tina Chen says, “Cross’s exilic daydreams return him to a center and a home that is depicted as lacking in generative potential … his romantic fantasies are pitifully inadequate in the face of the ambiguous and dangerous realities of combat duty in Vietnam” (85), and eventually Cross will put these dreams aside by burning the letters and photos, not only to lighten his load but to accept the new world in which he has been thrust so he can operate more effectively in it.

The other men also carry items that lack utility but are all the more valued for it. Henry Dobbins likes to eat, Dave Jensen likes to keep clean, Ted Lavender is afraid and carries extra tranquilizers and six or seven ounces of dope which, the narrator says, “for him was a necessity” (1023). So are Dobbins’s peaches in heavy syrup and Jensen’s extra bars of soap. These men are all exiles and became exiles the moment the war in Vietnam broke out and they were faced with the choice of losing their reputation and connections at home by refusing to serve or going to Vietnam where they will be alienated from all they have known and loved. They are epistemological exiles, no longer at home anywhere, clinging to memorabilia of their former home but slowly being drawn further away from that place until “home becomes a shifting and ambiguous location” (Chen 83) which, in O’Brien’s case he “constantly mediated and housed in the language of his stories” (Chen 83).

The men’s stories are the ones they tell each other. Kiowa obsessively tells and retells the story of Lavender’s unceremonious death, the way he falls like a “sack of cement,” as if he is trying to understand the rules of this strange, new world. Finally, he sees that there are no rules, only the sensual pleasure of being alive while others are dead. By mediating his new home through the language he distances himself from the New Testament he carries, which finally provides him with nothing more than sensual pleasure as he contemplates Lavender’s death (1031).

The men are exiles in the world of war, a place described by the writers and poets who fought in World War I. Thomas Myers says that The Things They Carried “depicts Vietnam as both ‘this war’ and ‘any war’,” which O’Brien agreed with when he says that “Every war seems formless to the men fighting it… We like to think our own war is special: especially horrible, especially insane, especially formless. But we need a more historical and compassionate perspective. We shouldn’t minimize the suffering and sense of bewilderment of other people in other wars” (qt. in O’Gorman 3). Ernest Hemingway is one of O’Brien’s major influences, says O’Gorman, which makes it easier for him to connect Vietnam with World War I, and in turn with wars as far back as Homer. The connections are made in the fight every man has with himself when under fire, so well described by O’Brien; but most of all these soldiers are bound together by their being exiled in a world where they must learn everything anew, just as a baby must learn to decipher its world.

This explains why soldiers are constantly trying to lighten their load. It is not that they are merely tired of carrying the things they do not immediately need, although they are very tired; it is that in the new world they inhabit they must aspire to be the one who carries the fewest things. As part of the US Army, they are given the best equipment to carry and when they lose things, these are replaced with even more and better things.

Purely for comfort they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive … fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters – the resources were stunning – sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter. (1031)

This endless supply assures them that they “would never be at a loss for things to carry,” the only thing they could be sure of. Yet all these things were actually an embarrassment for the men, especially as they became better acquainted with their place of exile.

The moral Mitchell Sanders alludes to explains why their material wealth, taken for granted back home, has turned into an embarrassment in the world of war. The soldiers find a teenage Viet Cong corpse dressed in shorts and sandals and carrying a bag of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition (1029) which reminds Sanders of Paladin, the lone cowboy who needed only his gun. In the world of war, that teenage boy was an initiate whereas the US soldiers are mere novices. Sanders acknowledges that by conferring sainthood upon the boy by treating his severed thumb as a holy relic; and it seems to be O’Brien’s view as well as he meticulously describes each piece of equipment he and his men carried into battle, and how each piece becomes less relevant to what the soldiers are doing. The new world is a simple kill-or-be-killed place to its inhabitants, where anyone may go boom-down at any moment.

The Things They Carried has been read as a post-modern novel, “a refusal of grand narratives” in Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux’s words (qt. in Nielson 2), “an embodiment of the processive and indeterminate nature of consciousness” that makes it impossible for the writer to analyze the political background and anything else that is out of his range of vision. As a result, says Nielson, “O’Brien’s imagination is virtually the only reality. O’Brien does not contextualize his experience, does not provide us with any deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of this war, and does not see beyond his individual experience to document the vastly greater suffering of the Vietnamese” (5). Instead he relies on what Nielson calls a “realist epistemology,” a belief that there exists a reliable correspondence between experience and knowledge, between reality and representation” (7), none of which a postmodernist could accept.

It is true that O’Brien refuses the grand narratives but he relies entirely on the ability of readers to connect with his experiences and representations through knowledge and empathy. O’Brien says he is “experimenting not for the joy of experimenting, but rather to explore meaning and themes and dramatic discovery” in order to “to include as much as possible the whole of humanity in these stories” (qt. in O’Gorman 1). When the postmodernists accuse him of ignoring the suffering of the Vietnamese, they are not reading O’Brien’s stories on his terms. To explain the world of war, a world he barely understands himself, so that his story “makes the stomach believe” he depends on his readers to bring what they know to his stories. Only then can they understand the suffering endured by all who enter this world of war.


Chen, Tina. “Unraveling the Deeper Meaning”: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Contemporary Literature © 1998 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Nielsen, Jim. “The Truth in Things: Personal Trauma as Historical Amnesia in The Things They Carried.” Fortune City. Web.

O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” Ann Charters, ed. The Story and Its Writer. 4th edition. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

O’Gorman, Farrell. “The Things They Carried as Composite Novel.” Web.


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