O’Brien says that a few months after finishing the story “In the Field,” he returns to the site of Kiowa’s death with his daughter Kathleen and an intepreter. He says though the field does look familiar, it is not how he remembers it—everything, he says, is dry. Kathleen complains that the land stinks. She has just turned ten and has received the trip as a birthday gift intended to grant her insight into her father’s history. But though she attempts to act tolerant, she is bored. She can’t understand the war or why her father fought in it.
As she and O’Brien approach the field, Kathleen is amused by the interpreter’s display of magic tricks. O’Brien reflects on the way the field, which now looks so different, could have the power to swallow his best friend and part of his life. He goes for a quick swim, surprising and disgusting Kathleen, who threatens to tell her mother. But before he leaves the river, he takes Kiowa’s moccasins and leaves them in the spot where he imagines his friend settled into the river. When O’Brien returns, Kathleen asks him if an old man in the field is mad at him. O’Brien says that all the anger is finished.
“Field Trip” explores the personal nature of memory and expands both the distance between us and O’Brien and that between O’Brien and Kathleen. When they travel to Vietnam, the thirty-four-year-old O’Brien and his ten-year-old daughter have profoundly different experiences interacting with the land. Kathleen complains, having no personal connection with the mucky water and the mysterious land. As a child, she cannot appreciate the area for what it is—a storehouse of memories for her father and an opportunity for him to come to terms with what happened so long ago and what has happened since. Most likely having a personal connection neither to O’Brien nor Vietnam, we, as readers, are put in Kathleen’s predicament while reading The Things They Carried. Like Kathleen, we are shown the characters and the settings of Vietnam and are ourselves challenged to do what the immature Kathleen cannot—take in the history and allow a piece of it to affect us.
Although “Field Trip” addresses the sensitive issue of introducing the children of veterans to the war experience, the impracticality of O’Brien’s attempt to share his experience with the young Kathleen quickly becomes clear. The title itself is a somewhat perverse and ironic pun: the field trip is, as the title implies, a childish lark, but it is also literally a trip to a field of war. These two levels of experience appear to be irreconcilable. Kathleen cannot be expected to understand the things that her father himself doesn’t understand—especially since he hasn’t even made a commitment to telling his daughter the whole truth. Furthermore, while O’Brien is interested in the truth that he can gain by comparing his memories to the reality of the significantly changed field, Kathleen is much more interested in the illusions and magic tricks their Vietnamese interpreter provides. Likewise, as O’Brien thinks that by swimming he is engaging in a profound act that honors the memory of Kiowa and relieves his own guilt, Kathleen sees her father’s wading into the river as immature. In the space between father and daughter lies a silence that separates every storyteller from his or her audience.
In this story, O’Brien physically revisits a war experience in hopes of alleviating his guilt over Kiowa’s death. Under the guise of a trip for his daughter, O’Brien comes to Vietnam to bury his guilt, bearing Kiowa’s moccasins and wading into the muck to deposit them there. Like Bowker dousing himself in his Iowa lake on the Fourth of July, O’Brien attempts a ritual cleansing. Since the land looks so different, O’Brien feels a safe distance in the twenty years since the end of the war. The field is smaller and less menacing, perhaps because it is not in a state of war, perhaps because O’Brien is older, or perhaps, simply, because the land has changed with the passage of time. His response to Kathleen’s question about whether an old farmer in the field is mad at them—that all the anger is finished—reveals not only his hope that he can conquer his past but also his need to do so.