I.                    Introduction

a.       Explain what the paper is about

b.      Thesis Statement

II.                 First theme of book: war

a.       weapons

b.      stories

c.       friends

d.      foes

III.               Second theme of book: memories

a.       before the war

b.      during the war

c.       after the war

d.      memorabilia

e.       objects

IV.              Third theme of book: life and death

a.       courage

b.      killing

c.       fights

d.      battles

V.                 Criticism of book’s style

a.       writing style

b.      composition

VI.              Criticism of the book being a fictional novel

a.       why it was written as a fiction

b.      did the author have background in war?

VII.            Closing thoughts, findings, and arguments

VIII.         Conclusion

a. Thesis statement

b. closing the paper

Matthew Smith
Mr. Kramer.

AP English

15 November 2006

What Did They Really Carry?

            During the course of one’s lifetime, a man is certain to encounter work, money, food, and companions. One thing that most do not and most do not want to come in contact with is war. Why? Because to many it is bloody and violent and has no clear cause or reason. But to Tim O’Brien it has a purpose and has an effect. It alters lives that come interlaced with it. It brings out the good, the bad, and all of the other characteristics in a human being. War defines who a person is, and most importantly, what they believe and what they are willing to fight for and give their lives for. For some it is just knowing that they are dying for their loved ones safety, even if it doesn’t last forever. For others it was for the well being and safety of anyone else. The Vietnam War was a war fought by foreigners (Americans) to better the lives of millions of others in a country on the other side of the world. In the piece of literature The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien, the author shows through his writing what he felt and how he still feels through the stories that he brought back with him after the war was over.

            The fact the war was not for the well-being of America greatly upset a large portion of the citizens. It was considered a foul thing to be any part of the war effort by a large amount of American citizens. A main portion of these rebelling protesters were teens and other young people. They were the ones that were most likely to be fighting in this war, and the ones that would most likely be drafted. This led to them fleeing to Canada , Mexico , or doing other things that would make them exempt from the draft. These young people were against all violence and the weapons that came with it.

The standard weapons for soldiers in the Vietnam War were the M-60, the M-16, and the M-79. The M-60 was a machine gun, and the men who carried these were usually on the large side. An M-60 weighed around twenty three pounds without the ammunition. Most soldiers carried around ten to fifteen pounds of ammunition. The M-16 was the standard weapon given to all common soldiers. It weighed seven and a half pounds unloaded and eight pounds with a full magazine in it. The M-79 was a grenade launcher carried by a few men in the war. The grenade launcher weighed in at almost six pounds (O’Brien 7-9)

            All of these weapons made up the soldiers lives. Without a weapon, survival would have been an uncommon situation. With the weapons came a sense of security and pride. Since the men had nothing else to care for, no objects of desire, the gun became his best friend. In other words, “the gun had his back.” A weapon is usually seen as an instrument used to bring harm to one, to kill a person in an attack. But this is not always the truth.

A weapon can save a life. It can provide a better life for thousands even millions of people. It can bring freedom and liberate and bring life to a new generation of free people. Unfortunately, the first thought is also true; a weapon can be used to kill, maim, and tear down. War is a great example of both of the opposite ends of the spectrum. A weapon is used to kill the enemy, and win the war, but with the win comes either good or bad. Freedom and liberty for all is the good, but oppression for all if the weapon is used in the wrong cause in the war.

            In addition to the rifles and grenade launchers, a foot soldier would carry anything from Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolvers to captured AK-47’s. One soldier carried what he called a weapon of last resort, a slingshot. Others carried brass knuckles, explosives, or anti-personnel mines and other devices (O’Brien 9).

            What they carried depended on the terrain and the mission they were conducting. If they were in the mountains or in swampy terrain, they would carry mosquito netting, bug repellent, and machetes. If the soldiers were in land known to be strewn heavily with mines, they would carry a mine detector (O’Brien 9). The book is clear to point out that the detector was usually useless because of the amount of shrapnel in the earth. Still, the men carried it to bring them the illusion of safety, and the feeling of somewhat security.

            The men in this book, The Things They Carried, are portrayed as brave and courageous yet many are dull to the fact that they could die around the next corner. They have become used to the fact that life is a commodity in war times. They would use rather trivial methods of choosing who got their life threatened next. An example is when they would draw straws to decide who went into an enemy tunnel to check for hidden soldiers before the tunnels were blown by explosives. All of the soldiers agreed it was a stupid act to go down the tunnels, but they followed commands from higher places.

            The soldiers often used what they called “spin” on the war they were encountering. They would crack jokes, play games, and mess around with each other. Things like this brought a sense of home to the men. They were brothers through the blood each of them would shed in the war.

One analogy that shows the power that the war had on the soldiers is in the playing of a checkers game. The game is played on a set grid; there are no jungles and no hidden tunnels. A powerful statement comes in the form of, “There is a winner and a loser; there were rules.” This shows how unfair war is and how they, the soldiers, felt about it (O’Brien 37). They knew that there were no rules to protect them and that there was no slack given by the enemy or their fellow soldiers for that matter. A soldier had to be tough mentally and physically but mentally more than anything.

            War became monotonous to the soldiers. They knew that if they weren’t moving and fighting, they would be digging foxholes, swatting at bugs, and trying to withstand the heat. There was no time to rest other than a small amount at night, which did not come everyday. This was the same thing everyday, just different terrain and a different battle. They were at war with the terrain and the enemy. It was no easy task and many perished because of the strains on the body every waking second.

            The book continues on to state that not all stories told were about battles and blood. Many were about peace and funny, amusing tales heard in the breaks in combat from others who were either there when it happened, or who heard it from someone else. Many men would go AWOL and run to a Red Cross station to hide out in (O’Brien 35). Many stories were heard of the men going back into combat because peace felt so good, they had to “hurt it back.” These stories encouraged the others to fight on and make the war end in the favor of the oppressed and make it a free country.

            Enemies, the book is quick to point out, are not just the Viet Cong. Enemies could be the terrain, the weather, the memories of home, and even a fellow soldier. In times of desperation and war, many things can get on a person’s nerves that would not be on them usually. Stupid fights can break out over stupid things, like with the missing jack knife. This is a prime example of the things that happen when war overruns a person’s life. The men in O’Brien’s patrol would sometimes get into fist fights over petty things that were rather stupid to fight about or over nothing at all. The author included that fact that just because an individual is fighting a person doesn’t mean they are an enemy. Just as in the American Civil War, where brothers would fight against each other. They fought for what they believed was right, not because they hated one another and were looking to kill family. They had enlisted or were drafted to fight for the cause that made sense to the majority. A thing that should be remembered is that soldiers are not politicians but men and women who, except for in some past wars, sign up to fight for our country. They do not make the decisions to start the war or end the war, just to protect each other and themselves. This is the most common misconception about soldiers of any time. While we are at home complaining about small things and whining about being involved in foreign wars, we still need to support out troops. They are dying for our freedom and for what our country was based on.

            This book is the prime example that good things come with the bad things of life in the and through the course of war. It can destroy and tear down, but it can also build up and renew life to a new level that was never thought possible before. This is the part of the war that not many people hear about. It is the war that the media does not portray or even want to bring to the public. The public does not hear of the heroes that are made in the war, only certain people who play a huge part in the war effort. All soldiers are heroes in my eyes. None will be forgotten and none should go without a thank you and some form of recognition for what they do for us and our country, by putting their lives on the line for us. Life is seen as just normalcy to us, but to a soldier in any war, it is seen as a commodity and a blessing, as it could be gone in a matter of seconds. As a fact, a weapon protects and preserves, but a soldier is a continued memory in the hearts of many.

Some things that all soldiers carried with them were memories and fear. They shared memories of losing friends and fellow soldiers, memories of home, memories of killing. The fear shaped how they fought and how they lived their lives during the war. The fear let them be alert and on their feet at all times. It became almost numbing to them as the war progressed. These two things they took home with them and shaped how the rest of their lives would take course. The horrific memories of war followed them throughout the rest of their lives and often ruined many soldier’s lives, if they did not lose their life fighting for the freedom of others.

            The most important thing that the soldiers of the Vietnam War carried were letters from home and pictures of loved ones or desired people, even products. A soldier carried these things to remind him of home, of a better place where he could be. Many men carried pictures of girlfriends, wives, mothers, even girls they had no relationship with. They carried these pictures to take them to a “happy place” in such a horrific scene as the Vietnam War (Fleming 3).

            Memories played a large part in the soldier’s lives, and kept many alive through the hardships they encountered. Memories from before the war started would be the things that kept them looking ahead to when they got the chance to go home. They would reflect on these things day and night, before and after the fights (O’Brien 1). The men carried good luck pebbles that maybe a child or wife or other family member gave them. They carried scarves or other clothing items that had been sent to them (O’Brien 13). These items allowed the soldiers to have a sense of home with them. It also gave them a sense of security and safety, even if it was false. The way that the men guarded those items made them seem like priceless antiques or relics. Yet, in a way, they were priceless. They kept individual morale and hope elevated. It allowed the men to be independent, yet brought together by the items they held so preciously.

All of those things meant the world to the soldiers. They were home. They were life (Fleming 12). They kept the things that were being imprinted on their minds on a daily basis relatively unknown. The things like death, killing, violence. Those are the memories that were made during the war. After a while, those images of war became mind-numbing in sorts.

The soldiers would remember for the rest of their life the turmoil and pain they saw everyday while in that foreign land (O’Brien 21). The way that a soldier dealt with these horrific scenes of life and death can be seen through O’Brien’s writing techniques and his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

After the war, the men would go home, but to what? They were scarred for life. They took with them the memories of their friends dying, the memories of the killing, the pain, and the hurt that they inflicted and that they put upon others. The way that a soldier dealt with this was not the same for everyone. Some would become recluses of sorts when they returned home. Some would act like nothing ever happened. And yet some would be scarred enormously by the war, not just on the outside but on the inside as well (O’Brien 124).

Objects that men took home often were not only significant to their time there but had a special meaning. Objects were not the only things that they took home to remind them of where they had been. They took home stories. Not just horrific war stories, but good and happy stories too. They would think about the times that there was no fighting and the times that there was no bloodshed. The times that men would play games with comrades and native villagers in the area (O’Brien 35). All of those things shaped the rest of their lives in the way that they lived after the fighting was through.

The courage these men showed can be the one testament to the things they encountered. They would go into places extremely dangerous and terrifying and not think much of it at all. Probably the most feared would be the underground tunnels that the men had to go explore searching for hidden enemies and weapon caches (O’Brien 12).  These tunnels claimed numerous lives and were often rigged with booby traps or filled with enemy soldiers. The tunnels served as hideouts, kitchens, hospitals, supply lines, and even command centers (VC Tunnels 1).

The killing that took place in Vietnam was enormous. The Viet Cong fighters lost over 1,000,000 soldiers, where the Americans only lost around 50,000. The large sum of the people who died in the war were Vietnamese civilians, of whom about 4,000,000 perished in the course of the war. (Casualties 1). The civilians did not just die from guns and bombs and blasts, but from the cruel and harsh treatment from the Viet Cong fighters and government.

During the Vietnam War, the major offensive that claimed the more lives than any other battle was the Tet Offensive (Casualties 1). This push by the Viet Cong was defeated by the forces of the United States and its allies. The way that the North Vietnamese army used this to their advantage was the propaganda war raging in America . There were protests frequently in all places of the country and the American citizens did not know exactly what the progress of even the purpose of the American cause in the Vietnam War (Casualties 2).

Tim O’Brien wrote this book as a work of fiction, but it was mainly composed of true stories written in autobiographical form (Plausibility of Denial 1). This meant that the stories he told are true, but some of the characters are not. He based his books on his personal experiences that happened before the war, during the draft, and eventually during the war when he was present in Vietnam . He writes about his conscience telling him to flee the draft, as it was the right and moral thing to do in his eyes. Yet, when he was in Vietnam fighting, it became the interest of his betrayal of and to himself.

The style that O’Brien wrote in was most definitely first person, as he recounts his actions and stories to the reader just as if he was sitting there at story time. O’Brien often says that he feels guilty for all of the things that he had done in the events leading up to, during, and after the war. He is remorseful and deep in his apologies, often which apologize for his dwelling upon the war and his memories during it. He believes that what his daughter says, which is to write about little girls and ponies, is almost correct (O’Brien 34).

O’Brien seems to use repetition to give his book a certain effect or importance or make it somewhat dramatic. It gives the reader a certain feeling that draws the attention to the writing and blocks out all else. This is precisely what gives his work that extra special feeling and importance. His work exemplifies that way that the average soldier survived during Vietnam . He tells about how the soldiers “humped” or carried their gear all the time. He tells what they carried and why they carried it in the first few chapters, but the objects and the reasons seem to echo throughout all the rest of the chapters. As the objects echo about, one cannot help but think that they are an underlying theme in the face of the true theme; the effect that war can have on an individual or a whole group. This is shown throughout all the chapters as they illustrate the men grouping together for comfort, safety, and protection.

The betrayal stems from his belief that the Vietnam War and wars in general are wrong and a part of human nature that should not be. He believed that morally he should have fled the draft and the war and gone to Canada . This leads one to believe that he is either a coward, or that maybe he did not believe that the draft and war were wrong and completely unnecessary. Can the human “conscience” be trusted? That is the theme that is running through readers’ heads as they read The Things They Carried. If a man is wrong for disobeying his conscience or going against it, what does that mean? Does it classify him as morally wrong or morally condemned? Or does it just make him a coward? All of these things can be the root of the disobeying of a conscience or of an idea that one takes to live life through. The way that a man or woman reacts to the feelings and ideas running through them defines who the really are. It defines and shows to them and the world what they believe and sometimes why they believe it  (Plausibility of Denial 1).

When the United States government decided to send American soldiers to fight in Vietnam , they probably never thought of the fact that that veterans might write about the war in Vietnam . Yet, they certainly expected the likelihood of antiwar protest, which is why they tried at first to fight the war covertly, later to hide how the war was being run, and finally to erase the memory of the total affair or slide it under layers of false images (Plausibility of Denial 1).

The real question is, why do people go against what they so strongly believe and so strongly base their life on? Why do they constantly contradict their beliefs and ideals? In my eyes this is the question of the ages and the answer defines a person’s character and the sets of morals they come to follow, simply because it is human nature to change your mind and form different opinions as you move along through your life and experience new things.

A moral is seen as a principle of right conduct. If O’Brien had skipped the draft, he would not have established his morals. It is therefore improbable that he would have contributed to society as greatly as he did by fighting for the freedom of others and by writing the works of a literary genius. He saw true that only cowardice prevented the moral choice of running away rather than killing. This shows that he did have a solid belief in the moral thing being to run away from war; to run away from what he truly believed deep down; to run away from fear. Through his experiences in battle, he shaped the way he would write later on in his life through the stories he heard and would later tell and the characters he encountered. Because of the tragedy he saw daily, he was compelled to get it out somehow and let the world know about the good and bad of war, and he did this through the writing of his books. But his contribution to the literature of the war has been exceptional, partly because his own experience has led to an almost unbearable share of that American guilt and shame and anguish (Plausibility of Denial 1).

Because the author had background in the Vietnam War, the way he wrote this book displays his true feelings on the matter. He shows that not all things in the war are bad and negative. He shows that people can bond and that most soldiers are fighting for what they believe is right, whether it truly is right or wrong is something that only God can judge. The fight that people will stand up for shows them the things they truly believe in and truly base their life on. This author, Tim O’Brien, shows that deep inside of him he supports the war, despite his most desperate attempts and feelings to avoid it (Plausibility of Denial 2). He felt that he betrayed himself because he went to fight in a war that he did not believe in. This exemplifies the idea that man does not know what his real feelings, ideas, and character is until his life is over. This rings true because how can you make a set of steadfast beliefs on life if you have not experienced it all yet? The answer is that you can not make grounded opinions on things you have yet to come in contact with. That is just a fact of life. O’Brien does however possess a greater knowledge that allows him to bring his point of view into the picture when talking about the issues of war, drafts, and life after the ravages of battle. He obtained these smarts by experiencing them and shaping his views after what he had come to see and know as everyday life for that period of time he spent in Vietnam .

O’Brien was drafted into the United States Army in 1968 and fought in the Vietnam War as an infantryman from 1969 to 1970. During that time, he was taken all over Vietnam fighting in many areas, especially the brutal My Lai area, where a massacre took place many a time. Before he was drafted he had graduated from college majoring in political science.

The fact that he majored in political science makes it easier to understand his view on the war and its effects. Although he rarely eluded to any political bias as far as the was effort went then or as it goes on now in the book, you can see his background shine through in many places such as in the chapter titled “Spin.”

Spin is not only one of the chapters in the book, but also a political tool used to make bad things look good or vice versa. It has been used by many campaigners to transform a mistake they made to make it look like the other man did it or it was actually a good thing. The way that O’Brien included this shows is prowess in the political world as well as in the journal and literary world. He learned how to put these tools effectively into words while he studied at Harvard University (Plausibility of Denial 1).

O’Brien composed a masterpiece of a book while still giving it an underlying theme as to what he believed and thought he would follow. If he did not believe in the war, then he would have fled the draft. Even though he went back against his gut feeling to be drafted, he still came out better than he was before. Sure, he had the opportunity to be killed or seriously injured, but the experience he got from the war and the things that came back with him altered his life to such an extent that he wrote many books about it and brought wars real face to the public. He showed that war is not always bad but sometimes good (Plausibility of Denial 1). That one man can not overcome tragedy alone, but that they need a way out of it. His way was through writing and the public is better informed now that he has shown them the true face or war. All in all, his place in the war allowed him to become the writer he is today, yet it does not explain why he wrote in partial fiction. That can possibly be explained that he did not wish to dishonor his fallen comrades or anything of that sort. That part of the equation, I am afraid to say, can only be answered by Tim O’Brien himself. 

If O’Brien could exemplify one main point that was not included it would have to be why he wrote as a fiction. He did not clearly show through the writing if it was a fiction or not. The only hint is the statement in the book, that says, “A work of fiction by Tim O’Brien.” This is clear to the reader but the process of finding evidence in the work itself that it is a fiction is hard to come by. There is no certain story that cannot be true. They are all believable and are said to be based on O’Brien’s true story and stay as a soldier in Vietnam (O’Brien 102).

All in all, this book shows the true face of the Vietnam War unlike anything else. It comes from a veteran yet it still feels modern and relevant to our times, although the war is in our past. The fact of the matter is, O’Brien made his works reflect what he felt. He made them show what he was feeling then and what he feels about them now. The only way to disprove any of his stories was to have been there. Although the same is true to prove his stories. These kind or contradictories are all over the book, which makes it so pleasant yet challenging to read. He described himself and his fellow foot soldiers as “legs” or “grunts.” This shows that the soldiers carried the weight of the equipment, the memories, and the guilt of lost lives. To me, that spells out the title of the book perfectly, and is what this book is all about. It glorified the common foot soldier and made known to the world the hardships they encountered but the resilience they showed to fight for our freedom.




1. An Introduction to His Writing: Tim O’Brien. January 1997. 12 October 2006 . http://www.lopezbooks.com/articles/obrien.html

2. Fleming, Shauna. A Million Thanks. New York : Doubleday, 2005.

3. Kacey Kowar’s Show. September 2003. 23 September 2006 . http://www.kaceykowarsshow.com/authors/obrien.html

4.O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York : Broadway Books, 1990.

5. Plausibility of Denial. December 1994. 10 October 2006 . http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/obrien.html

6. Yahoo Encyclopedia. June 2006. Yahoo. 22 August 2006 http://education.yahoo.com/reference/encyclopedia/entry/VietnamW

7. Wikipedia: Tim O'Brien. 12 November 2005 . 20 September 2006 . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_O'Brien_(author)