Criticism of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien commentary by Ray Cates

 

American Literature Volume 2 Edited by William E. Cain Copyright 2004 Pearson Education, Inc.  Pages 1107 to 1122

Inside me the whole candy wrapped story by Tim O’Brien is the emotional trama of war.  When you’re 18 or 19 and think you will die any minute, if not tonight at least by tomorrow night.  You want the loud sounds all around to make you fall down, it would look bad to others to crawl and cringe, but it is a centerpiece of survival is to make yourself a smaller target.

This story gets started easy with disposable, everyday things, lists of necessities and choice items and then quickly puts a hand on real emotions, feelings and apprehensions. It all crawls down to the fear factor.

“The Things They Carried” is a sum total of fear, because imagined blood, your blood and that of those around you is often worse than the real sticky stuff.  Every night it is imagined as your gun moves back and forth, and as you fire, or wish you were allowed to fire.  Being around guns, explosives, shells, most in the military know that a fire would not just be a fire, but an explosion if somewhere close is hit.  Americans are not the only people who can hit targets, and those on the other side are also pulling triggers and setting off explosions. 

Page 1118 gets me shaking on the inside when it says, “Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop.”

I like the way Tim O’Brien in a metafictional way has merged into Jimmy Cross and is thus not just another character in another story, but is really there trudging along dragging a slightly worn dream of Martha and her little rock from the beach, doing the usual military something that truly means nothing to anyone. He doesn’t seem to have any over-riding passion for democracy or saving children, or clear-cut goals of a fictional Purple Heart hero.  He just has his orders, his pistol and his maps and the idea that he is responsible for his men — somehow.

His human love for the college girl gradually becomes as cold as her pebble in his mouth.  Martha appears to him a proper girl who would be a poet without outward passion, like an ice cream dispenser for children that only gives out spinach, while Jimmy is a foot soldier with overreaching dreams of love, love for a girl who looks at him funny when he puts his hand on her leg.  He cries in the foxhole and burns her letters because she had distracted him from the truth of right now –snipers and cut off fingers.  He is teeming hot with guilt that his dreams got Ted Lavender’s head shredded.

The Jimmy Cross story is about a march to nowhere by a bunch of nobodies that no one really cares for.  Martha signs her letters with the word ‘love’ but he knows it isn’t so.  This story is not like World War 2 tales that are meant to sell war bonds.  Vietnam was like Martha –what do you really get if you win?  In one case cold grey eyes, a girl with another man’s shadow in her picture and a supposed virgin. A poet who does not feel love for Jimmy, or at least fails to express it the ways women usually do when your far away and can’t get them pregnant.  When I was 19 and far away a little lipstick on the letter and perfume smells was good for my morale, and made me think, ‘Wow! I can’t wait to get back.  Just a plain ‘Love’ at the end would be a kind of obligation letter, maybe  her mother told her she should write to the poor slob in Vietnam.

With Vietnam the native people hated the French but acted French then never asked for or wanted anything American unless they could move to the U.S.A.  We went there as in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq without any will to win anything.  The plain truth is that if you don’t want a Martha, well you don’t get one.

“The Things They Carried” has no clear message the events are set in a fragmentation order with the most explosive going off last –the emotional burdens.  The story has no moral, or ending.  We as readers get a new reality from the story.  We are humping along with Jimmy as they all carry usual and unusual things and attempt to stay alive.  We learn just enough of Ted Lavender to care that he had his head split open.  But the Alpha Company burns the village of Than Khe because Ted was killed and readers might wonder, ‘How many innocent children were made homeless, and were left in the jungle hating Americans?”

Vietnam was not a religious war and only Kiowa liked to sleep on an open New Testament and Jesus’ name comes up when troops are scared.  The diffuse plot is held together by Jimmy and his dreams of Martha and then how he rid himself of his dream.  The physical things fill out the story.  The emotional weight tears at the heart.

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