Tim O’Brien is both the narrator and protagonist of The Things They Carried. The work recounts his personal experience in the Vietnam War and allows him to comment on the war. He enters the war a scared young man afraid of the shame that dodging the war would bring him and leaves the war a guilt-ridden middle-aged man who tells stories about Vietnam in order to cope with his painful memories. To cover the distance between himself and what he recounts, O’Brien weaves a prominent thread of memory through the work. Reading these stories is similar to spending extended time with an old soldier, allowing his memories to come to him slowly.
O’Brien’s point of view shapes the events he relates. In many, if not most, cases, O’Brien holds himself up as evidence for the generalizations he makes about the war. He is our guide through the inexplicable horror of the war and the main example of how extreme situations can turn a rationally thinking man into a soldier who commits unspeakable acts and desires cruel and irrational things. Occasionally, O’Brien fades away and lets another character or a seemingly omniscient third person tell the story. This technique lends a universal human quality to the stories’ themes and gives us the opportunity to understand the Alpha Company from several different perspectives.
O’Brien uses storytelling as solace and as a means of coming to terms with the unspeakable horrors he witnessed as a soldier. His comments suggest that although he has become a successful writer and that his negotiation of memory through storytelling has been a good coping mechanism, he still thinks that certain realities cannot be explained at all. His experience with those untouched by the war, such as his daughter Kathleen, exposes an irony in his faith in storytelling. He knows that he can grapple with his feelings of disbelief and painful confusion by telling others what happened and how, but he cannot express every feeling.