The Things They Carried: Metaphors

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O'Brien tells how ironically, during the summer before Vietnam, he worked in a meatpacking plant, removing blot clots from pig carcasses, bathed in blood for eight hours a day. This is a symbolic preparation for war. It is not unusual for war stories to have constant images of death and dismemberment, since violence is the nature of war. O'Brien, however, brings out the peculiar horror of the Vietnam War where so much violence happened outside of formal battle. Ted Lavender is shot when he goes into the bush to pee. His cheek and teeth are missing. When Curt Lemon steps on a mine and is blown to bits, with parts of his body hanging in a tree that O'Brien has to remove, it is almost like being back in the meatpacking plant. Besides the constant danger of being shot or stepping on enemy mines and losing limbs, as Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and Lee Strunk do, there are many images of dismemberment caused by the men themselves, as though violence is an infectious disease. This reaches a climax in the story about Mary Anne Bell, the girl Green Beret who wears a necklace of human tongues.


Rat Kiley is so upset by Lemon's death that he shoots the baby buffalo, making it die a bit at a time, legs, ear, tail, mouth, head. The men watch this slaughter with no comment because it is a visceral symbol of what they are all feeling. The cruelty, however, of the sadistic Azar taking the orphan puppy and strapping it to a mine to blow it up is less understandable. Norman Bowker carries the thumb of a dead Viet Cong as a good luck charm. Dave Jensen breaks the nose of Lee Strunk in an argument, and then breaks his own nose as a gesture of appeasement. O'Brien seeks revenge on the medic who leaves the bullet hole in his buttocks to fester and turn gangrenous. Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war.


Tim O'Brien is just as shocked at seeing the enemy soldier he killed as any of his own men dead, and repeats over and over how the corpse looked after he threw a grenade, with an eye missing, and the jaw in the throat. The author makes sure that the reader gets the horror of war through the images of dislocated body parts. This is even more effective since he does not sensationalize the images. He uses repetitive descriptions and detached objectivity to register a state of shock.


Water, Rain, Mud


The war takes place in a jungle, with days and nights spent in the rain or marching through swamps. Everything has to be protected with plastic; the foxholes fill up with water; mildew and mold are a problem. The men have foot powder and extra socks. The nights are cold, and the monsoon season very wet, but even in the hot days the men have to wear a steel flak jacket. They wear camouflage rain ponchos that can be tents on wet ground. They carry malaria tablets and insecticide against the terrible mosquito problem. The men are described as being constantly muddy and filthy, metaphors for the dirty war itself.


Once again, this war scenario is anticipated by O'Brien's activity the summer before he goes to Vietnam. He travels to northern Minnesota, hoping to get across the border to Canada and spends a week with an old man on Rainy River, who gives him a chance to make a run for it as they are fishing. He spends a lot of time in the boat looking at the river and imagining jumping into it and swimming for the Canadian shore. His life flashes before his eyes, and he feels he is drowning once he understands he is too cowardly to run away, as his conscience tells him to do: “My whole life seemed to spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or wanted to be. I couldn't get my breath” (p. 57).


The war in Vietnam culminates, in O'Brien's telling, in Kiowa's death on the shore of the Song Tra Bong river. It is a field used as a latrine by the villagers, so when it rains and floods in the night, the men are submerged in a dangerous and smelly swamp of human waste. They are attacked by the Viet Cong and duck under the water for safety, but Kiowa is hit and sinks in the mud. Bowker is so shaken by this that he commits suicide after coming home, convinced that he too died that night by the river. It becomes a metaphor for  the drowning of the humanity of each man. Lt. Cross cannot deal with his responsibility and instead just floats on the river, daydreaming as usual, ignoring the tragedy. After the war, O'Brien revisits the river that is symbolic of his Vietnam tour. The image fulfills the prophetic moment O'Brien spent on Rainy River with the old man, helplessly watching his life drift away, out of his control.


The Weight They Carry


The title of the book and the main story, “The Things They Carried” presents lists of items carried by the soldiers. O'Brien uses these catalog lists of items most effectively by giving a weight to them: the steel helmets weigh 5 pounds, the flak jackets weigh 6.7 pounds, a poncho weighs 2 pounds, a pistol weighs 2.9 pounds, a radio is 26 pounds, a loaded assault rifle is 8.2 pounds, and so on. The men have to “hump” or carry all of these supplies in the heat and rain. The physical weight is a metaphor for the psychological and emotional weight they carry: anxiety, fear, horror, grief, anger, “all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns” (p. 15).


The physical items may be put down at times of rest, but the emotional baggage never leaves. Tim and Norman Bowker and Lt. Cross still carry guilt after the war for the men who died and were left behind. Tim carries the photographic image of the Viet Cong man he killed that replays in his memory. Bowker kills himself because he is not able to put down the weight of his conscience, his conviction of his own cowardice.


The heaviness of the men's burdens is most apparent the night Kiowa dies in the smelly swamp at Song Tra Bong. The men are weighed down by their equipment when it begins to rain and turn the campground into a deathtrap. Being fired upon, they have to submerge themselves in the mud, and they cannot walk or move or breathe. Kiowa is buried in the mud. When O'Brien returns to this scene twenty years later with his daughter, it is clear from her response that the landscape is neutral and unremarkable. O'Brien, however, still carries the heaviness of that night, depositing Kiowa's moccasins in the water as a way to appease his spirit. Above all, O'Brien puts the whole weight of the war into his stories hoping to be free at last, because stories are a kind of miracle where he can dream all the dead alive again. He cannot save their heavy, destroyed bodies and minds, but he can save the value of their life.




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