The Things They Carried: Theme

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Ideal vs. Real


The narrator, O'Brien, constantly holds up the discrepancy of the ideal versus the real. Even before he gets to Vietnam, he tries to escape to Canada to make a statement of conscience. It is a frightening decision but one he could be proud of, since he had always seen himself as a hero inside. He finds out there are very strong forces against heroism. One is public opinion. He is ashamed of his principles and cannot live according to them because “I was ashamed of my conscience” (p. 49). He is more worried about what people think of him than doing the right thing. The social pressure to fight for democracy in Vietnam is too much: “That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipedream” (p. 55).


The war is even worse, where any code of honor seems swallowed up in the reality of fear. The men each have their ignoble ways of coping—drugs, daydreaming, or violence to let off steam. Yet the war makes the men yearn for goodness: “In the midst of evil you want to be a good man” (p.77). Norman Bowker's father insists that he come home with medals, the proof of bravery. Norman wins seven medals but they do not change his self-image as a coward. He insists the medals are for “common valor” (p. 135). He is haunted because he wanted to win the Silver Star for uncommon valor, for saving Kiowa on the battlefield. 


Bowker says that real war is more about common valor: “Sometimes the bravest thing on earth was to sit through the night and feel the cold in your bones. Courage was not always a matter of yes or no . . . sometimes you were very brave up to a point” (p. 141). Bowker, like O'Brien, is racked with guilt because he could not act more ideally courageous. They have to accept themselves as flawed and limited.


Kiler and Lemon, for instance, play around thoughtlessly in the trees where landmines are waiting. Lavender is shot while going to the bathroom. These are not brave deaths, and the men are ashamed. Kiler writes an elaborate letter to Curt Lemon's sister extolling his bravery in war instead of telling her how he really died, goofing around. O'Brien, the author, admits he has been influenced by the spare writing style of Ernest Hemingway, and especially Hemingway's war stories and obsessive concern with male values like courage. War, however, is actually surreal, with its “aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference” (p. 77). War leaves the men with “a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not” (p. 78).


The Effect of Violence on Humans


Even as a young man, O'Brien knows that war will be horrible, either killing or getting killed. His conscience tells him it is wrong, yet he is swayed by the majority: “My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war” (p. 49). He continues to resist as a new recruit in the war. The men have a sort of initiation rite, making recruits play with Vietnamese corpses. O'Brien is invited to talk to and shake the hand of a dead old man in a village. He refuses. Only Kiowa comes up to him to congratulate him on not participating, for it is not respectful to the dead. By the end of his tour, however, the humane O'Brien is a different man. He goes to great lengths to get revenge on Jorgenson for not treating his wound properly. Now, the other men avoid O'Brien because he is irrationally aggressive, one of the side effects of combat.


O'Brien never hesitates to show the negative effects of violence on the men. They overreact, lose their sense of balance, and their sense of humanity. The fable about Mary Anness Bell, though a myth, illustrates the power of the Vietnam jungle and the guerrilla war to make the men into someone completely opposite to their civilized characters. Bowker cannot find himself in the familiar landscape of home after he returns from the war because he is someone else now. He tries to tell his war stories at the hamburger drive-in on the Fourth of July. He sees the neighbors he grew up with celebrating the national holiday and feels invisible to them. He finally takes the violence he has learned to live with and turns it on himself in suicide. One of the most surprising scenes, however, is the one where the angry and grief-striken Rat Kiley tortures the baby buffalo that looks at him with big eyes, but never makes a sound. The other men do not interfere. In war, the men do not have individuality but are created into fighting machines with reflexes. They witness, then internalize, the violence around them.


The Moral Ambiguity of the War


The premise of the book is based on the moral ambiguity of this war. The main character, O'Brien, did not believe in it before he went, nor after he participated. It was costly, dehumanizing, and did not lead to the promised outcome of defeating evil in the form of communism. The author does not sermonize but illustrates indirectly. There are no discussions of politics, nor even of battles and war strategy. O'Brien does not mention war protestors or government policy. He just shows the effect of the war on a few characters. He shows them becoming crazy from what is now called post traumatic stress disorder. He also paradoxically shows the men getting addicted to battle, an adrenaline rush, like skydiving.


On the other hand, the author shows certain scenes and feelings that are counter to war that make war a monstrosity superimposed on human life instead of a necessary part of it. For instance, the Indian, Kiowa, carries and uses as a pillow at night, a New Testament, as though the Bible remains for him a different ethic of love and forgiveness. He encourages the other men and tries to help O'Brien with his guilt about killing a man. Lt. Cross thinks this eulogy for him: “Kiowa had been a splendid human being, the very best, intelligent and gentle and quiet-spoken (p. 157).


O'Brien is shown as a man with a conscience when he refuses to objectify or vilify the Viet Cong corpse. Instead, he mourns the man he killed, inventing an imaginary life for him, giving him his own traits. He thinks this man did not want to go to war any more than he did but was afraid of being a coward. He thinks the man is a scholar and teacher.


Once, the men spend the night with Buddhist monks in a small temple. The monks are kind and nonjudgmental, even helping Henry Dobbins to clean his gun. They call Dobbins “Jesus,” supposedly for his simplicity. Dobbins is so impressed with their silence and peace, he wants to become a monk after the war. He says he almost became a minister, but he did not have the intellectual ability to preach and explain God to people. O'Brien uses Dobbins as a symbol of basic humanity when Dobbins explains his religion: “Just being nice to people, that's all. Being decent” (p. 115). Morality and decency do not depend on intellectual ability, ideology, country, or religious doctrine. Dobbins is the one who defends the right of the Vietnamese girl to dance her grief when her family is killed, while Azar tries to make fun of her.


O'Brien mentions that every moment of war is not terrible. There were the peaceful moments with the men playing checkers in the evening, or with the beauty of the blue sky. In the last story, “The Lives of the Dead,” O'Brien ties the war to a larger view of human life. He speaks of the death of his first girlfriend, nine-year-old Linda, who died of a brain tumor. This loss of a loved one is a common human experience, not just a war experience. He found solace in his dreams where he met Linda after her death. She would tell him not to cry. O'Brien feels his stories are like those dreams where he can meet the dead, for he is clear throughout the book, that these are love stories, not war stories. 

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