The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Among the stories in the novel/anthology, “The Things They Carried,” the first story, is probably the most anthologized and read. I read it in two or three classes back in the university. I knew Jimmy Cross and his girlfriend/love interest Martha, and knew very little about the rest of the Alpha Company, including Tim O’Brien, the writer of Cross’ story. But I knew that each member of the Alpha Company humped pocket knives, C rations, pistols or rifles, or photographs, love letters, pantyhose, patriotism or his dear life.
I found refuge in The Things They Carried. It kept me company for about a month, and I just finished it last night. So here are some things to remember:
1. The Things They Carried is not just about Lt. Jimmy Cross.
It is about “The Dentist,” “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” “The Man I Killed,” “The Ghost Soldiers,” and “The Lives of the Dead.”
2. The Things They Carried is a war story, but not really.
3. Martha was not the only girl the entire Alpha Company had to carry. There was Henry Dobbins’ girlfriend (or at least her pantyhose), Billie (or at least her picture), Mary Anne (the sweetheart of Song Tra Bong), Sally Kramer (who was now Sally Gustafson), and Linda, of course. Tim will never forget Linda.
4. Cowards go to war, too.
“…I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was.”
5. Honestly, Tim killed a man. In the essence of truth, Tim did not kill a man.
6. You don’t need to have a religion to be good.
“’The thing is, I believed in God and all that, but it wasn’t the religious part that interested me. Just being nice to people, that’s all. Being decent.’”
7. There was/is a Caucasian girl, possibly still in Song Tra Bong dead or alive, wearing culottes, pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues.
8. During a war, an interim of peace alienates.
“In a way, I envied him – all of them. Their deep bush tans, the sores and blisters, the stories, the in-it togetherness. I felt close to them, yes, but I also felt a new sense of separation.”
9. If you want a mellow war, ask Ted Lavender.
10. Norman Bowker did not let Kiowa die.
11. Bobby Jorgenson did not let Tim O’Brien die. He just didn’t know what to do on his first field work as a medic.
13. In a war zone, never look at a corpse like he’s dead.
“They proposed toasts. They lifted their canteens and drank to the old man’s family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death. It was more than mockery. There was a formality to it, like a funeral without the sadness.”
14. Life after a war will not make you feel as alive as you are in a war.
15. The Things They Carried is a work of fiction.
“For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough.
‘Daddy, tell the truth,’ Kathleen can say, ‘did you ever kill anybody?’ And I can honestly say, ‘of course not.’
Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes.’”
16. The Things They Carried is a work about fiction.
“Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it as a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me, how I’d allow myself to get dragged into a wrong war, all the mistakes I’d made, all the terrible things I had seen and done.”
“By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.”
17. There is no death, only unread books.
“…and after a while I asked her what it was like to be dead.
‘Well, right now,’ she said, ‘I’m not dead. But when I am, it’s like… I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.’”
18. On paper and in dreams anything can happen.
“I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”