Each story in the book has a distinct plot, such as Lt. Cross’s struggle to reconcile his intense longing to be with Martha with the demands of leading his platoon. A reader could read a single story in the collection and come away with a sense of a beginning, middle, and end, as well as an idea of the major themes of the book. At the same time, the stories are meant to be read together, as they inform and enrich each other, offering different interpretations of the same events. Together the stories also have an overarching plot, with a main conflict: Tim’s quest to understand his time in Vietnam and how that experience changed and shaped him and his friends. This quest first becomes apparent in the story “Love,” when Tim visits Lt. Cross and learns about what happened to him and Martha after the war. Tim asks Cross if it would be all right for him to write about what happened to them in Vietnam, and Cross gives him permission.
As the book progresses, the conflict deepens for Tim. He alternates stories about the war with shorter pieces that reveal something of his life in the present. We see Tim as both a young soldier and the older writer that character grew into. We learn that the Vietnam War is the central story of Tim’s life, and he is still wrestling with how to tell it. For example, he juxtaposes the events of “The Man I Killed,” in which he recounts how he came to murder a young Vietnamese man who may not have posed any threat, with a conversation he has with his young daughter in “Ambush.” She asks him if he had ever killed anyone. He says he wants to tell her what happens, but chooses not to because she is too young. But, Tim says, “this is why I keep writing war stories.” He wants to understand what happened to him and his friends.
The Things They Carried ends with the narrator revealing the fates of characters like Kiowa and Dave Jensen, both of whom died during the war. The deaths of his fellow soldiers continue to haunt the narrator, especially since they died in violent and senseless ways. Tim’s last story resolves the conflict of how to create meaning from the war and how to make sense of the soldiers’ experiences. In “The Lives of the Dead” Tim writes “stories can save us,” before telling the story of his childhood friend, Linda, who died when she was young. By memorializing Linda in writing, and by remembering all of his friends from Vietnam by writing about them, Tim concludes, he can keep them alive in some way. He recognizes that he’s been writing the book to save his own life, and he has succeeded, bringing to an end this attempt to find meaning for his time in Vietnam.