The Things They Carried is a novel about the Vietnam War, which America was involved in from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1970’s. The U.S. has a long tradition of writers capturing the country’s wars in fiction. Writing about war is a way of both teaching the history of the conflict and of preserving some understanding of the experience soldiers had while fighting. Many famous novels, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, depict the universal experience of war. American writers have been particularly adept at exploring the human cost of war. Examples include Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about one soldier’s experience in the Spanish Civil War, and Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five, about World War II. Another antecedent of The Things They Carried is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, about the American Civil War, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
Drawing on the tradition of American war novels in writing The Things They Carried, O’Brien expands the possibilities of the genre by basing the work on his own experiences as a soldier and as a writer. While other authors used their own experiences fighting as general inspiration for their novels, O’Brien writes very specifically about his time in Vietnam, borrowing elements of his own life for the main character, the narrator, Tim. O’Brien writes to portray the Vietnam War and the people who fought it, but also to understand how the war shaped him and gave him his principal topic as a writer. Like Kurt Vonnegut and other writers before him, O’Brien makes no case for war as glorious. Instead, he shows war as a force so overwhelming that Tim must write about it continually to try to understand what he’s endured.
Since the publication of The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s style has influenced other American fiction writers in their portrayals of war. His choice to create a deep level of intimacy between the writer and the reader by following a small group of people closely during a war time situation is a technique also found in Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, about a soldier who fought in the American invasion of Iraq. Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain similarly explores the effect fighting in the Iraq War had on the title character, as well as on his family and the rest of his platoon. These books, like The Things They Carried, are more interested in the soldiers’ thoughts and feelings than they are in the details of the war.