Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990) Literature and War Readalong September 2011

A sequence of stories about the Vietnam War, this book also has the unity of a novel, with recurring characters and interwoven strands of plot and theme. It aims to summarize America’s involvement in Vietnam, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed. I don’t normally rely so heavily on quotes but in this case, I think, the author is the best person to give an accurate impression of his excellent writing.

But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. (…) The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.

The Things They Carried is told in interwoven stories. They are linked through the characters who return in most of them and through the common themes of war and storytelling. Each of the tales shows another way of telling a story or looks at an episode from another angle. Some are explicitly written by a writer for his readers only, they have never been told before. Some describe how the soldiers tell each other stories of what happened while they were separated or how they keep on retelling the same stories over and over again. Telling these stories gives meaning and is also liberating and healing. Those who cannot tell stories, those who are shut up by what they saw, those are bad off.

What is so fascinating about this book is that you can just read it like a series of linked episodes or you can read each episode as an attempt to tell the story another way.

One of the most powerful chapters is certainly the first, the one that gave the book its title. Through the enumeration of the things the soldiers carry, we get to know the soldiers, we sense that some of them will die and some will be wounded. As we learn later many of the young men O’Brien served with and who are introduced too us in this first chapter, die. Some through enemy fire, some in accidents. Some deaths are heroic, others are ridiculous, like Kiowa’s who got shot and then suffocated in a field full of shit. What impressed me in this story is the description of the stress, the weight they had to lift, the endless walking.

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.

We learn a lot about the feeling of having been in a war and in this particular war. We hear about the state of mind of the soldiers and what war did to them. There are some chapters that made me feel uncomfortable like the one of a young soldier’s girlfriend who stayed with them a few weeks, joined the Green Berets and ultimately disappeared in the night, swallowed by the war. She got addicted to the feeling of danger and the heightened sense of being alive that went with it. This is fascinating and also unsettling.

I have read other accounts of men who went to war, I know my own father’s stories but they sound different which leads me to the conclusion that some experiences were typical for the soldier in Vietnam.

The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event, at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay.

At the end of the book you have the whole story of Tim O’Brien’s time in Vietnam. From the day when he got the letter that informed him that he was drafted, to the first days in Vietnam, all through the weeks that passed, all the things that happened, the friends he found, the friends he lost and how he ended up feeling like an outcast because he was sent away from his company after he was wounded and had to do some light duty in another camp. Maybe not all of this is true, as O’Brien writes, but a lot of what is made up is closer to what really happened than that what is just the plain unadorned truth.

Here is my favourite quote:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The Things They Carried is fascinating and powerful. Writing at its very best.

I hope others have read it as well and liked it as much. I would also like to hear how it compares to Matterhorn.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Season

67 thoughts on “Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990) Literature and War Readalong September 2011

  1. I didn’t join in with this one, but I did enjoy your beautiful review. I’ve never felt compelled to read about the Vietnam war (having overdosed on WW1 and WW2, i think, through the university teaching), but Tim O’Brien is now a name that will go on my wish list.

    • Thanks, Litlove. There are a few difficult scenes (I had a problem reading them) but overall I was impressed about how much more it was about storytelling. And also about how to make someone who wasn’t there experience what it was like. It’s a stunning book and I would be interested to see what you think of it.

    • I agree with you. Although I host a Literature and War Readalong I haven’t included many books that describe combat. This is one of the rare ones but it is fantastic. I also think there is a huge difference between this book and others written by poeple who have not experienced war. O’Brien is far less ostentatious and most certainly does not glorify anything.
      Thanks for the link. I’ll read it soon and will also include it in my post.

  2. O’Brien is considered the go-to writer about the Vietnam War and this selection of short stories is fantastic because it not only illustrates the war, but how war can impact soldiers mentally and physically. O’Brien also captures the muddy waters of memory and how while one may remember an event in one way, someone else may remember that event in a slightly different way. While neither memory is fact, it is the truth of that individual’s experience. And I think that this particular lesson can be applied to other things that happen in our lives…we experience life with others, but individually.

    • What’s even more interesting, is that over the past weekend I was at the Vietnam War memorial and the tour guide there with one group talked about O’Brien and this book in particular…and how it is the quintessential book about the War. As for Matterhorn, I think that it is an instant classic about the war, but for a different reason. It is more about actual events and experiences in a fictionalized way and less psychological than O’Brien’s book. I would think it is more akin to a look at military strategy/movements of a particular unit/set of soldiers in Vietnam. There are psychological elements to it, but there is a greater focus on the movements and military politics behind those choices.

      • Thanks a lot for your comment, also about Matterhorn. Good to know what I have to expect. They sound very different. I can see why O’Brien’s is called a classic. It’s about the war but also about so much more. You are right, memory is an important element. I loved this psychlogical dimension. I found it inetersting, and think it is true,that some of the things have never been told. When writing them, he told them for the first time. He reshapes a few of the stories and we constantly wonder what is true but exactly because he does this, we get a far better idea of how it must have been like.
        Those memorials are impressive. I’ve only seen them in documentaries but they are impressive.
        I’m not much of a re-reader but I think I will re-read this book.

        • I’ve reread this book several times, most recently last year for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge I hosted with Anna at War Through the Generations. After meeting O’Brien several times and speaking with him and listening to him speak, you can tell that memory and recall of memory are very important subjects for him as a veteran and writer. I love that his books are based in fact, even if they are not truly autobiographical. I think that this book in particular shows something different from others in the subject area that seem too focused on the actual bloodshed and events, rather than on the psychological impacts.

          • I’m sure I will re-read it. I expected something much more like a “Platoon” in book form, much more combat driven. Although I still think Platoon is the best Vietnam movie, it doesn’t have the depth of “The Things They Carried”. I would love to talk to O’Brien. I’m not usually in the mood to talk to authors just because they are authors but in this case I would interested i the story behind.
            The story about the dead girlfriend is another amazing element. All of a sudden the book is also about how to keep those who died alive.

            • Excellent point. I also like that it sheds light on the thought process behind those who contemplated running to Canada to avoid the draft. I also like that it seems to be an entire tribute to those living and dead at the time of the Vietnam War.

              I think this book accomplishes so many things in not too many pages…Platoon is a good movie, but have you seen Hamburger Hill? I would watch that if you are really interested in the brutality of this war.

              • I have seen a lot of Vietnam movies and agree, Hamburger Hill is one of the best. I always shift them up and down but recently I started to think Platoon is better after all. It does criticize more openly.
                Yes, it is a tribute to all of them. What seesm to make it so hard is that there is often the question whether they could have done something like in Kiowa’s case or Ted Lavender. Someone always feels guilty about someone else’s death.

                • I think that’s the nature of the military since they are trained to be responsible for one another and to always have the others back…plus the conditioning that there are no individuals…just the unit and army/navy/marines/air force as a whole.

                  But I also think that’s the nature of any close relationship — feeling responsible when something bad happens to the other person.

                  • That’s true. When someone dies and you are close by, you feel responsible. And they did depend on one another. That’s why there are so many tales of incredible friendships and courage.

  3. Great review about an ugly war. The Vietnam Memorial is quite impressive. All these names.

    Did the soldiers ever question their participation in this war? Does he talk about the marches back home to make it stop? Do they have common points with the WWII soldiers in the Pacific?

    • Thanks Emma. Tim O’Brien questioned it and hated himself for having been a coward. Coward because he went. He thought it was all wrong. I didn’t see a lot of points in common with the soldiers in the Pacific, well, the terrain to a certain extent, the heat, the humidity, but still, Vietnam is different. These were other soldiers, another war. He doesn’t talk about the marches. He focuses on the soldier and how he deals with everything, there and afterwards. I think you should read it one day. It’s excellent.

      • How could he have escaped it? By crossing the border and hiding in Canada? When was he there? Not the whole war, I suppose.

        I thought about the terrain, the distance from home and the totally different country. And the hidden enemy that could strike anytime anywhere.That’s why I asked about WWII. (Does he talk about the napalm?)

        I know I should read this but, as you might have guessed as I didn’t rush into this readalong, I’m not a huge fan of war books. (or films) That’s the kind of books I read out of duty and for information, not by interest or pleasure.

        • Exactly because I know that, I think you should read it because it is about so much more.
          Yes, he could have gone to Canada, and there is a part where he is about to cross over but doesn’t do it in the end.
          I keep on comparing it to what my father told me about the desert. I think you couldn’t find much more different terrains. I don’t know what is worse. To have no possibility to hide, the Fata Morgana’s,the heat during the day and the cold at night, compared to the humidity and the heat, the dense vegetation… Both equally bad, I guess. my worst nightmare would have been WWII Eastern Front. Stalingrad, the snow…
          He doesn’t mention napalm, or at least not as explicitly. From what Serena wrote, I deduce, Matterhorn is much more like that, Maybe Guy will read it soon and then we will know. In any case Matterhorn was also written by someone who experienced combat.
          In the WWII books you get a lot of what he calls glorifying.

          • I don’t know either what’s the worse. But yes, I guess you’re right, Russia must have been the worse, be it Napoleonic wars or WWII.

            Maybe there is more glorifying in WWII books because the cause of the war seemed easier to understand for the common soldier. They were openly fighting for freedom and the homeland had been attacked. But with Vietnam, wasn’t the aim of this difficult to grasp?

            • Of course, that’s absolutely true. That’s why WWII is called “the good war”. The Great War, The Good War, The Forgotten War and then Vietnam. The fight against communism seemed to make sense at a certain moment but as soon as they were over there, it became hard to understand. i think it did play amjor role at what point in time you had to go, whether at the beginning or at the end.

              • Vietnam was part of the fight against the “red menace” of communism, but more than that it was helping our ally France retain its colony and to ensure the Vietnamese retained their freedom…or so US officials thought in the beginning…little did they know that the Vietnamese wanted their freedom from everyone…it was a nation constantly occupied…and wanted to be free, but US intervention did little to achieve that goal….it falling to communism rather than French rule in the end.

                The politics of the time is what makes Vietnam confusing, especially since it is not technically a war, but a police action. Hysteria over the spread of communism was all over, especially after the rise of Hitler and fascism…many in the government were opposed to communism because they didn’t want another great war…hence the actions to prevent its spread…i.e. Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam.

                • There was a lot of hysteria in that war. What always strikes me is the fact that the US government didn’t know better. The French were so familiar with the terrain and the country and still there was Dien Bien Phu.

    • There is a part that shocked me because it involves the hurting of an animal and I have a hard time coping with cruelty against animals, I wasn’t sure in the end if it was one of the “ture” stories or not. Apart from that incident, strangely enough this isn’t a depressing book. It’s mysterious and powerful and makes you think but it isn’t depressing. Not like one or two of the other novels of the readalong, Endo or Levi. I know Danielle liked it a great deal and will review it soon.

  4. I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. Here’s my review from last year:


    When I think about the best books about Vietnam, this book and Matterhorn immediately come alive. My thoughts on this book can be best described from an excerpt of my review.

    “So I guess it boils down to this: War is ugly, and there is a bit of both truth and fiction in these stories. Sometimes the true facts are unemotional and distant, while a fictional account that truthfully portrays war is more emotional and more alive.”

    I was most affected by how the book blurs the lines between truth and fiction. It didn’t matter whether the stories he tells are true or not. They all highlight the horrors of war, the fears of the men, and the consequences of their actions.

    • I also agree with Serena about the differences between this book and Matterhorn. There is some psychological stuff in Matterhorn, as you see how the characters are affected by the war, but it’s mostly just a story following this group of men and what happens to them on Matterhorn. You’re in the war, in the moment, whereas, The Things They Carried is more contemplative.

        • @Anna and Serena
          I had a sentence in the review at first where I called it a “meditation on war and storyteling” but “meditation” didn’t really capture it. Contemplative is spot on.
          I’ll include your review as well. Need to read it.
          maybe one gets more invloved with the characters in Matterhorn as it is such a long book? Here is was touched by O’Brien’s voice and a lot of what he wrote but I didn’t really get attached to any of the other characters.
          Excellent point about the true facts being unemotional and distant while the fictional parts where more emotional. I was wondering often whether this or that part was true but in the end, I thought it wasn’t important.
          I have a hard time imagining any book about Vietnam could be better than this one.

  5. This sounds excellent but something I don’t want to read at the moment. I find the current war-waging, which is largely ignored, extremly depressing.

    I will, however, commit to the German lit month. I have a large number of titles I need to shave down–otherwise it’ll be German literature year.

    • That’s good to know. Gavin from page247 wrote a great review. I’ve never been disappointed so far when she liked something, I just thought, right after the Things They Carried, I might not enjoy it so much but I’m looking forward to it now.

  6. This has been on my list of books to read for a long time now, but I’ve never got to it. Like some of the other commenters, I’m not too keen on reading about war. But I’ve heard such good things about this one, and there’s something very beautiful and lyrical to me about the idea of listing soldiers and the things they carried. I also like the sound of the narrative technique of interwoven stories. Thanks very much for the review!

    • You are welcome, Andrew. I think you will like it especially because it’s so centered on stories, how to tell them, how to remember. It’s very skillfully done but, yes, it still is a war story, there are shocking scenes and details that are not nice to read about, still, it’s an extremely beautiful book.

  7. Thank you for this great review. I wish I could have joined in on the readalong but you have reminder me of how much I loved The Things They Carried. I want to reread it and read Matterhorn. And thanks for the mention in your comment!

    • Your welcome, Gavin. I’m glad you liked the review. I trust your recommendations. I was a bit wary to read the Lotus Eaters right after this but they seem very different.
      It’s a fantastic book.

  8. 50 comments! Amazing. I have not read them yet. I don’t want to be influenced. Here are my favorite quotes:
    “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

    “By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was the endless march, village to village, without purpose, bothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march.”

    “They were afraid of dying, but they were even more afraid to show it.”

    “They died so as not to die of embarrassment.”

    “Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons.”

    “…when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause. You can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.”

    “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love, War is nasty; war is fun, War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

    Interestingly, all those quotes appear in the first half of the book.

    I learned a new term when researching the book – metafiction. Apparently “Things” is a prime example of this genre. It basically blurs the line between fact and fiction to get the author’s message across. Although I recognize why “Things” is a classic, I do not think I will be reading much more metafiction. I like both historical fiction and non-fiction, but not together. I found that as the book went on I became less enthused about it. I don’t like wondering “is this true?” “Did this happen?” “Did Kiowa really die in a shitfield?” “Did O’Brien spend a week on the Rainy River?” I understand why he did this, but it was like saying “My real experiences were boring, so I’m going to lie and make them more interesting.”

    The book got weaker as it went on. The opening stories are strong and teach a lot about Vietnam and war in general (see the quotes above). Some of the later chapters border on being silly ( e.g. The Ghost Soldiers, Sweetheart).

    This culminated in the chapter “Night Life” about the death of Rat KIley. O’Brien starts by saying they were moving by night because of a supposed enemy build-up. This is ridiculous! The tactics would have been the exact opposite. I know the book is not supposed to be strictly true, but how many people reading the book will not know which parts are obviously not true. How many readers leave the book thinking it is possible that a guy’s girlfriend could come over and join the Green Berets?

    • It is the book with the highest respone. Already the introducory post got over 50 comments. I guess that has a lot to do with the metafiction which would have indeed been the technical term to choose.
      I like all the quotes you chose, especially the last one.
      I told a friend abou the book and the mix of making things up and telling the truth and he got really annoyed. He said, he found that was so dishonest and absolutely wrong… While I can see his point, which is clearly quite close to your position, I think, to make other people understand emotionally what you have been through you need to bend the truth.
      That’s why I liked the story about the girlfriend. It felt right, or rather, it made me understand something more.
      I don’t think he thought it was boring what he went through. Just think about all the war movies in which there is a scene when one soldier says to a civilian or a newbie that being at war cannot be put into words, that nothing you can say can prepare you for what you will go through. I think O’Brien did attempt to do that. Simply telling the facts wouldn’t do it.

    • think if you are primarily interested in learning the facts of war, this is not the book that will provide that for you. But if you are looking for a more “emotional” truth, this is the one.

  9. Forgot to compliment you on your review. I recognized what O’Brien was trying to do better from what you said.

    Not surprising that I prefer “Matterhorn”. Linear, realistic, more conventional historical fiction.

    I would argue Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” is better than “Things”.

    Really looking forward to The Lotus Eaters, although I do not think I will like it (I would have read it by now since I have read numerous Vietnam books).

    • Thanks, Kevin. I was surprised to find a book that dealt to such a large extent with storytelling but I can understand that and why you prefer Matterhorn withouth having read it yet. I’m looking forward to The Lotus Eaters too. What makes me wary, after having read O’Brien is the fact that I thought one could feel that he knows what he is talking about which is ceratinly not Soli’s case. We will see.

  10. There is so much that is quotable in this book–I’m glad you shared excerpts! I had so many pages turned down–parts that I wanted to go back to. I really loved this book–I was surprised by how much I liked it as I’ve not been all that interested in reading about the Vietnam War. I think it was more interesting to me the way he told his stories–not just straightforward narrative but blurring of lines between reality and fiction–I don’t always do well with stories like that but this one just clicked with me. There were parts that were really sort of gruesome and cruel and I found myself getting mad but then he would turn things around so you knew it was all just fiction–even though it seems so realistic–strangely that made me feel better. I’m curious, though, about his other books–if he takes the same sort of approach or not. I am waiting for a library copy of Going After Cacciato and may try his memoir in the interim. I don’t think I would have picked this up had you not listed it for the readalong–so thanks for that! I’m very curious now about the next book–will be interested to see how it compares. Have you read any other books about Vietnam? Lots of interesting comments-it seems to have resonated with many and inspired lots of interesting thoughts! I wonder if this is the book most people have read together? Next time I’ll try and post a little earlier rather than after the fact, but I always need that weekend to write my book posts.

    • Should I do it again next year, which is very probabale, I will shift the readalong to Sunday. Friday seemed a good idea at the time…
      It’s an extremely quotable book as Kevin’s comment shows as well. I hard a hard time picking just a few. I was alos surprised that I liked it so much. The approahc is somewhat expereimental, yet it doesn’t feel like that. I ws often relieved when he wrote that something wasn’t true.
      I wouldn’t have chosen it if it hadn’t been for Francine Prose’s “Reading Like a Writer”. I think I will start to read her recommendations systematically now. I’ve read two or three and every book was outstanding. I’m really loking forward to The Lotus Eaters. It will be very different but I’m sure it is good. Next year I want to read “Dispatches” as that seems to be great as well.
      I’m extremely tempted by Matterhorn but it’s so long. Maybe after the German Literature Month.
      I’d like to read his memoir and maybe Going After Cacciato.
      It was my first Vietnam Novel apart from Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams but I cannot remember it well anymore. I read it 10 years ago.

        • This month we will read Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters I will write on it on October 30. I’m planning on reading Dispatches next year but I don’t know what month it will be and I will include a SciFi novel Forever War by Joe Haldeman that Max has suggetsed. It is based on haldeman’s experience in Vietnam. I though that is quite different and I’m very interested in this approach. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is another possibilty. maybe you know it?
          You are very welcome if you want to join. The Literature and War Readalong will certainly go one next year.

  11. It sounds excellent (which I had heard before) but for the future rather than right now.

    Dispatches is excellent by the way, and personally I prefer Hamburger Hill to Platoon by no small margin. I find Platoon ultimately cinematic and infused with Hollywood values. HH I find full of chaos and futility to the point it’s at times hard to follow.

    The Forever War is utterly different to how this sounds. There’s no particular guarantee you’ll like it actually. It’s Haldeman trying to capture something he couldn’t write about directly (besides, he was an SF writer, if you have to write about a war you were in and you’re an SF writer it’s natural you’ll write an SF book about it).

    Are you reading Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5 as part of this series?

    • I really think its excellent whether you are interested in the topic or not. That is an achievement in itself.
      I’m looking forward to Dispatches and will ceratinly inlcude it next year. I also think I will include Haldeman and am grateful for the recommendation. I’d like to broaden the project and think i is interesting to see how someone who cannot really write about what he is been through (or doesn’t want to,) tackles the subject.
      I didn’t want to include Catch-22 as I find it too long. I read othe books by Vonnegut and the beginning of Slaughterhouse-5. I wanted to do a mini perosnal sub-project on Dresden and include it there but it is a valid option for next year.
      When I first saw Hamburger Hill I immediately thought it was much better than Platoon and much more anti-war. But then I wasn’t so sure anymore. It’s by far more sickening than Platoon. Platoon is infused with Hollywood values, of course, the sacrifice etc. Still I like Dafoe in that role a lot. Charlie MoPic is quite good as well. In any case I have to re-watch Hamburger Hill. Platoon is a bit Saving Private Ryanish which I do not like. Heroism and all that. That’s why I always preferred the Thin Red Line.

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