Academic: “The Things They Carried”

This was my final paper for ENGL 210 – Writing Intensive Program: Methods for English Majors at NEIU.

The morals they carried, the morals he obscured.


Tim O’Brien claims in his novel The Things They Carried that “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 men have always done” (O’Brien 65). Julie Ooms, in the article “Battles are Always Fought Among Human Beings Not Purposes: Tim O’Brien’s Fiction as a Response to the Crisis of Modernity”, agrees that both O’Brien and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are trying to tell a true war story, “But it [The Memorial] does so with a price; it is a denial of defeat, of the shameful historical facts of the war’s happening, even while it still memorializes those people who died” (Ooms 25). Both of these authors are contending with the concepts of truth and morality. Tina Chen, writing in “Unraveling the deeper meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement” takes a slightly different angle on the concept of truth within O’Brien’s work: “Committed to examining the relationship between the concrete and imagined, O’Brien dismantles binaristic notions of “happening-truth” and “story-truth”: A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not have happened and be truer than truth” (Chen 77).

Individually these authors speak too narrowly on the concept of truth within The Things They Carried. It is my belief that, through synthesizing these authors’ theories, Ooms discussing the costs and value of actions & Chen discussing the multifaceted nature of truth, we can cut closer to the bone within the novel. In fact, I believe that they come closer to a reality that O’Brien tries to insulate himself from in the earlier quote. O’Brien is trying to evade the costs and truths of the actions portrayed in The Things They Carried and thusly the costs and truths of the actions he himself has actually encountered. He does this by constructing his false-real accounts, and evades a very powerful truth: that there is still an underlying morality within these stories he tells; that try as he might to justify, sermonize, or obfuscate there is still an intrinsic moral of the barbarism of war that can be found by the reader within the work.

Ooms highlights an ancillary work of O’Brien’s (“The Vietnam in Me”) in regards to America trying to personify itself as ‘the White Knight’. “Now, more than 25 years later, the villainy of that Saturday morning in 1968 has been pushed off to the margins of memory… Evil has no place, it seems, in our national mythology. We erase it” (Ooms 26). While not directly from The Things They Carried, it still serves an important point in regards to the book. O’Brien makes clear a moralistic stance, that there are deeds done in war that are “Evil”, not merely unethical or questionable, but “Evil”. If you can do this for any individual moment, it is then possible to begin assigning these moralized designations (“Good”, “Evil”, etc.) to any individual moment in war.

Even without O’Brien’s subtle concession, it is hard not to see a ‘moral’ within telling these war stories when ethication can be applied to the actions. The moral of remembering, the parable of forgetting, however you want to phrase it. We have to embrace the dark deeds we have done, not sweep them away, lest we repeat the mistakes we’ve made. Yet O’brien wrote this piece after “The Things They Carried”, so one has to question whether or not this is an addendum to his previously ‘anti-moral’ stance within the novel itself.

We can see this within the passage How to Tell a True War Story, in particular in the violence committed to the water buffalo. This animal had nothing to do with the conflict, was not in anyway connected to the death that Rat Kiley feels he must avenge. It is simply an act of violence for violence’s sake. The narrator and the rest of the soldiers justify the torture that Rat enacts upon this defenseless animal as “We had witnessed something essential, something brand-new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a name for it” (O’Brien 76). This particular passage is a diversion from the moral impact of the act. O’Brien tries to tell the reader what they should be thinking about the situation because O’Brien and the others at the scene felt this way. Regardless of justifications, this is an Evil act.

O’Brien then tries to use the misinterpretations of this particular passage to obfuscate the clear morality within this passage. His proxy within the novel begins to lambast a reader, particularly a woman proxy reader, who he believes ‘don’t understand’ and devolves to calling them “dumb cooze” (O’Brien 81). He doesn’t try to uncover the genuine meaning of the scene in his opinion or allow for the genuine moral to crystalize. He shifts the focus onto how this hypothetical reader is wrong. This, in and of itself, is a logical fallacy meant to distract as meaning is defined by the consumer. These tactics are meant to obfuscate the point of the water buffalo, to make sure that any meaning beyond what O’Brien himself is willing to admit is extremely difficult to assess.

The violence committed to the water buffalo is far from an isolated incident within O’Brien’s work. We are repeatedly shown acts of barbarism perpetrated by the American soldiers not only against those that have been designated as ‘others’ but also against their own comrades and against themselves as well. In the section “Enemies” we see Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen and the violence they perpetuate among themselves over a knife. “He kept his back covered; he avoided situations that might put the two of them alone together” (O’Brien 60). This passage in particular highlights the paranoia of the situation which strike me as similar to Poe’s Telltale Heart. Jensen is less concerned with the knife so much as the threat of retribution for the violence he has done to Strunk. He is afraid of consequence in a land where we have repeatedly been shown that consequences are often disregarded.

Jensen snaps, “He borrowed a pistol, gripped it by the barrel, and used it like a hammer to break his own nose. Afterwards he crossed the perimeter to Lee Strunk’s foxhole. He showed him what he’d done and asked if everything was square between them” (O’Brien 60). The description of the violence itself is without consequence. We are not told about the pain or gore of it. It is simply done. While violent and clearly indicative of some form of stress or psychological disorder, we see Jensen attempt to clear his conscience via a rudimentary equivalent exchange. Interestingly enough this entire encounter vaguely mirrors the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression is curtailed there by the acceptance of this blood sacrifice on the part of Jensen to appease Strunk.

The phyricisism of the entire conflict is encapsulated by the ending line of Lee Strunk. Enemies. Dave Jensen was never in the wrong in his accusation, but the paranoia drives him to act in self harm not dissimilarly to the story at large of the Vietnam war. The USA lashes out in paranoia and wounds itself through wounding its soldiers. Aside from that, this same segment highlights the futility of war. Jensen never gets his knife back. All he got was paranoid for a week and then a self-smashed nose. Nothing was gained, not even understanding. Strunk says, “The man’s crazy, I stole his fucking jackknife” (O’Brien 61). He doesn’t empathize with him after the conflict. He doesn’t return the knife. Jensen doesn’t empathize with Strunk by smashing himself. He is merely ‘evening the field’, paying a war reparation.

This is not the only instance where O’Brien tries to hide the phyricisism and hideous transformations caused by war, the spiny moralistic core of his book. Another instance is Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, Mary Anne Bell. This particular character and passage is discussed at length by Chen. Chen highlights Mary Anne’s transformation as both physical and mental stating “Mary Anne becomes other than Mary Anne, turning instead into some new, unidentifiable entity who simultaneously registers displacement and substitution through her physical transubstantiation into the imaginative landscape of Vietnam” (Chen 91). Chen hits close to the mark with her assessment of the transformation and the “ironically contingent upon her own willingness to be consumed, “burning away to nothing” (Chen 91).

However, we can look at Mary Anne’s transformation as O’Brien trying to covertly insert a rather sexist false-moral into his purportedly ‘anti-moralistic’ book. Rather than attribute pseudo-feminine mother earth imagery to her transformation and seemingly narcotic addiction to the territory, she is instead a warning against trespassing into the ‘roles of men’. Her agency in this violent world comes at the cost of her humanity. While Rat Kiley says something to the contrary of this idea, “You got to get rid of that sexist attitude”(O’Brien 102), he is promptly replied to by his listener, Sanders. “The story, the whole tone, man, you’re wrecking it” as well as “All these digressions, they just screw up the story’s sound. Stick to what happened” (O’Brien 102). This is O’Brien once again telling the reader what meanings are and are not meant to be interpreted from his stories. This is him saying “This woman having agency? It’s not a positive thing. Don’t try to paint it that way. Because you are wrong.”

While the color of her eyes changing seems a tad hyperbolic, it attempts to illustrates the savageness that has been absorbed by her soul through her eyes. Even though she seeks her own personal heaven through violence, there is a cost. While she has gained agency enough to be her own person beyond the recriminations of her boyfriend, she is considered to have become monstrous even by Rat Kiley who claims that he loved her. The ending passage of Mary Anne’s story begins to describe her as a creature out of urban legend or fairy tales. “Odd movements, odd shapes” (O’Brien 110) and again with the reference of “a couple times they almost saw her sliding through the shadows. Not quite, but almost. She had crossed over to the other side” (O’Brien 110). When compared to Rat Kiley’s brutality to the water buffalo, we find an interesting contrast. Rat could do a decidedly evil thing to a defenseless animal but still return from that. However Mary Anne “crossed over to the other side” (O’Brien 110), like a banshee or some other sort of darkness-dwelling monster woman.

But again, this obfuscation from the core of the craven heart of the story, which Chen helps to elucidate on. “O’Brien’s concept of displacement is predicated upon the impossibility of any permanent return, his work nonetheless insists upon multiple returns, however fleeting or unstable, to the imaginative landscape of Vietnam” (Chen 81). While returning is clearly possible, given how O’Brien recounts the fictionalized events and people within the novel, he directly strives to avoid returning to the one thing that matters: being held accountable  whether it be by morality or simply held accountable by himself for his actions. This is the reason why O’Brien makes the claim that a war story cannot have a moral, because he does not want to be judged.

We can see this mirrored in the way his squad mates behave even post war. We see this clearly illustrated with the behavior of Jimmy Cross. As Cross leaves his post-war meeting with O’Brien he says, “And do me a favor. Don’t mention anything about-” (O’Brien 29). O’Brien cuts him off and says “No, I won’t” (O’Brien 29). The interaction intimates that O’Brien knows of at least one incident that Cross would not want published that he would be judged for. The passage also speaks volumes through its succinctness. O’Brien, in particular, does not want to talk about whatever it is Cross does not want him to write about. He doesn’t want to know what he feels guilty about or what action he took while in Vietnam that shames him. And the reasoning for this is that O’Brien himself does not want to feel shame or judgment for his actions. He doesn’t want to look upon Cross’s actions with any sort of authority and thus be forced to look at his own actions.

Tim O’Brien himself inadvertently corroborates this in an interview published in 1991 in the Missouri Review. In reference to the Tim O’Brien character, the author said “He’s not a judging figure, but a consciousness, both telling the story and vaguely participating in it” (Kaplan 97). Or in other words, the narrator of the story is ill-equipped to parse anything that happens in the story through an authoritative perspective. The narrator is incapable of ascribing a moralistic perspective to the story. So in a way, O’Brien is correct in his assertion that his story can’t hold a moral within, because he cannot perceive the existence of the moral. The fictionalized O’Brien says “If a story seems moral, do not believe it” (O’Brien 65). Interestingly enough, the real O’Brien tells it differently in this same interview. “The only way that the horror of war can mean anything to us is through small detailed vignettes or episodes of evil” (Kaplan 102). Here we see, that years later O’Brien has again changed tack on his fictionalized self’s perspective, the perspective that he imparted upon this work of fiction. Interestingly enough this seems about on character for O’Brien, even the fictionalized version of himself, as neither seem to want to acknowledge the past, to be judged for their actions or beliefs. Neither wish to be held accountable for the things they do and what they put out into the world.

Works Cited:

Ooms, Julie. “Battles Are Always Fought Among Human Beings, Not Purposes”: Tim O’brien’s Fiction As A Response To The Crisis Of Modernity.” Renascence 66.1 (2014): 25-45. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Chen, Tina. “‘Unraveling the Deeper Meaning’: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 39, no. 1, 1998, pp. 77–98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1208922.

O’Brien, T. & Kaplan, S. “An Interview with Tim O’Brien.” The Missouri Review, vol. 14 no. 3, 1991, pp. 93-108. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mis.1991.0023.

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