The Things They Carried
They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.
In the story, “The Things They Carried,” the narrator describes the soldiers’ lives in Vietnam by cataloging many of the items the soldiers humped, or carried, on their “endless march.” Most of the men’s time in Vietnam is spent on foot, walking through rough terrain while carrying everything they might need on their backs. Each item carried reveals something about the man who carries it, the setting, or the war itself. The soldiers physically carry the powdery orange-red soil, the land they walk through, and the humidity that clings to everything on their clothes, in their gear and in their nostrils. The harsh, unforgiving environment of Vietnam becomes one more heavy thing that the men carry, adding to their burden.
They would dig a foxhole and get the board out and play long, silent games as the sky went from pink to purple. The rest of us would sometimes stop by to watch. There was something restful about it, something orderly and reassuring. There were red checkers and black checkers. The playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels or mountains or jungles. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larger strategies. There was a winner and a loser. There were rules.
In this passage, the narrator describes a pair of soldiers, Bowker and Dobbins, playing checkers in a foxhole as the sun goes down, one of the many ways the soldiers spend their downtime. The narrator draws a stark contrast between the “orderly and reassuring” game of checkers—which has simple rules and follows predictable patterns—and the confusing tunnels, mountains, and jungles of Vietnam that the soldiers must navigate on a daily basis. Unlike in checkers, where opponents’ pieces are visible and clearly marked by their different colors, the soldiers don’t know whom they can trust, who the enemy is, or whether anyone is winning or losing the war. By playing checkers in their foxholes, the soldiers can briefly escape the muddle and confusion of war and take refuge in a game with clear rules.
Speaking of Courage
Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into slime and cover up and wait. . . . Heavy thunder, and mortar rounds, and people yelling. Some of the men began shooting up flares. Red and green and silver flares, all colors, and the rain came down in Technicolor.
The field was boiling. The shells made deep slushy craters, opening up all those years of waste, centuries worth, and the smell came bubbling out of the earth. Two rounds hit close by. Then a third, even closer, and immediately, off to his left, he heard somebody screaming.
The night of the mortar attack that kills Kiowa serves as one of the most climactic scenes in the collection. This episode, told from the point of view of Norman Bowker, uses short, choppy sentences and vivid imagery to paint a hellish picture of the men crawling through sewage in a downpour under heavy enemy fire. All around them, people scream, shells explode, and the bubbling earth tries to swallow them up. With no shelter nearby to protect them, the soldiers have no choice but to sink into the putrid sludge and hope they don’t get hit. The impact of this traumatic event extends throughout the collection, as it is mentioned in several other stories.
There were birds and butterflies, the soft rustlings of rural-anywhere. Below, in the earth, the relics of our presence were no doubt still there, the canteens and bandoliers and mess kits. This little field, I thought, had swallowed so much. My best friend. My pride. My belief in myself as a man of some small dignity and courage. . . . I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been. For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror. Now, it was just what it was. Flat and dreary and unremarkable.
In “Field Trip,” O’Brien takes his daughter to Vietnam twenty years after the war to show her the country and tell her about his life-changing experiences there. When they visit the field where Kiowa was killed, O’Brien is struck by how calm, beautiful, and commonplace the field has become. O’Brien has spent the past two decades ruminating on the horrific events that occurred in that field and blaming Vietnam for his anger and loss. Seeing how the land has changed helps O’Brien realize how much he, too, has changed since the war. His memories of that horrific night still linger below the surface, like the “relics” of war that are now buried in the field, but like the field that has swallowed so much, he has been transformed by time.
The Ghost Soldiers
We called the enemy ghosts. . . . The countryside itself seemed spooky—shadows and tunnels and incense burning in the dark. The land was haunted. We were fighting forces that did not obey the laws of twentieth-century science. Late at night, on guard, it seemed that all of Vietnam was alive and shimmering—odd shapes swaying in the paddies, boogiemen in sandals, spirits dancing in old pagodas. It was ghost country, and Charlie Cong was the main ghost. The way he came out at night. How you never really saw him, just thought you did. Almost magical—appearing, disappearing. He could blend with the land, changing form, becoming trees and grass. He could levitate. He could fly. He could pass through barbed wire and melt away like ice and creep up on you without sound or footsteps.
In this passage, O’Brien describes the Vietnamese countryside as a haunted, otherworldly place, seemingly alive with ghosts and spirits that make everything feel eerie. To the soldiers, the scariest ghost of all is “Charlie Cong,” a pejorative for the enemy soldiers of the Viet Cong who lurk in the shadows, attack at night, and don’t seem to be bound by the laws of physics. In the soldiers’ imaginations, these enemy “ghost soldiers” seem to be able to meld with the trees and grass of the Vietnamese countryside, becoming one with the terrifying setting of the war.