“The Things They Carried”

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross of the Alpha Company carries around reminders of Martha, the girl he loves back home. The narrator, Tim O’Brien, describes what various soldiers carry with them. One day, as Cross thinks about Martha, a soldier named Lavender is shot and killed. The soldiers then burn down a village and Cross digs a hole and isolates himself inside.

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When Cross visits O’Brien in Massachusetts 20 years later, they reminisce. Cross describes meeting up with Martha after the war and says that they aren’t together, although he still loves her and holds out hope. O’Brien tells Cross that he’d like to write about their time in Vietnam, which Cross says would be fine as long as he doesn’t mention a specific unnamed incident.

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O’Brien describes disconnected memories of his war experiences that range from sweet and funny to horrifying and deeply distressing. He describes various opinions about how to deal with such painful memories and says he believes that writing is a way of coping with the things they are unable to forget.

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“On the Rainy River”

O’Brien describes spending the summer of 1968 wrestling with the decision to report for duty in a war he did not believe in or to flee to Canada and risk disappointing his family after getting drafted upon graduating from college.

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Dave Jensen breaks fellow soldier Lee Strunk’s nose in a fistfight over a missing jackknife, then grows so fearful about possible revenge from Jensen that he purposely breaks his own nose to even the score. Strunk (who, in fact, had stolen Jensen’s knife) is greatly amused.


Now friends, Jensen and Strunk resolve that if one gets seriously wounded, the other will kill him out of mercy. Later, Strunk is injured by a mortar round but begs Jensen not to kill him. Jensen is relieved to learn that Strunk eventually dies from the injury.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of “Enemies” & “Friends”

“How to Tell a True War Story”

O’Brien uses various stories related to the death of a member of the company, Curt Lemon, to illustrate the complexities of truth and invention as well as believability and unbelievability in war stories.

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“The Dentist”

O’Brien tells a story about Curt Lemon, whom he says he didn’t know well. Lemon is terrified by dentists and faints when he has to see an Army dentist, but later he returns to the dentist and insists that he extract a perfectly healthy tooth.

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“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”

In another story containing elements of unbelievability and enduring truth, O’Brien repeats a tale told by the medic Rat Kiley about a young American woman, Mary Anne Bell, who is snuck into an aid station in Vietnam by her sweetheart, Mark Fossie. Over time, Mary Anne gradually adopts the ways of the native Vietnamese before eventually becoming “part of the land,” as O’Brien puts it.

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O’Brien describes how soldier Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck as a good luck charm. Dobbins continues to wear them after his girlfriend dumps him, remarking that the magic hasn’t been lost.

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Holden meets Phoebe at the museum but angers her when he denies her request to leave with him. After they reconcile, Holden, overjoyed and wearing his red hunting hat, watches Phoebe ride a carousel. The narrative returns to Holden at the rest home where he declares that he will try to do better in life.

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“The Man I Killed”

O’Brien describes the shattering experience of killing an enemy soldier as well as the reactions of his fellow soldiers, especially the Bible-carrying Kiowa who unsuccessfully tries to comfort him. While O’Brien stares at the soldier’s mutilated body, he sympathetically imagines vivid details about the man whose life he has just ended. 

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Twenty years later, O’Brien continues to reflect on the man he killed in Vietnam, prompted by his daughter asking him if he killed anyone and his untruthful response that he had not. O’Brien describes the morning of the killing in detail and the guilt that he has carried ever since.

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The men are confused when they see a fourteen-year-old girl dancing after her village is destroyed and her family burned to death. Later, Dobbins rebukes and rough-handles Azar for making mocking, erotic gestures as he imitates the girl’s dance.

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“Speaking of Courage”

Former soldier Norman Bowker reflects on his life, which has been shattered by war experiences. He was awarded many medals, much to his father’s delight, but regrets that they do not include the Silver Star that Bowker thinks he would have received if he had risked his life saving Kiowa when the two found themselves sinking into the muck at an exploded sewage field.

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O’Brien explains that he wrote an earlier version of “Speaking of Courage” after Bowker urged him to write a story about someone whose will to live had been robbed by Vietnam, but that he’d left out Kiowa, which had disappointed Bowker and O’Brien himself. He wrote “Speaking of Courage” with all the details he’d left out of the earlier version after Bowker’s subsequent suicide.

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“In the Field”

O’Brien describes the platoon’s efforts to retrieve Kiowa’s body from the sewage field, including Cross’s feelings of regret about decisions he made leading up to Kiowa’s death and about finding himself in the position of leading the men of the platoon.

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“Good Form”

In another aside about writing and storytelling, O’Brien talks about the difference between the authentic truth and the events depicted in stories. He states that sometimes made-up stories can be truer than events that actually occurred.

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“Field Trip”

O’Brien describes a return trip he makes with his ten-year-old daughter to the field where Kiowa died, partly to remember and honor his friend and partly in hopes of helping his daughter better understand him by visiting a place that played a strong part in shaping his life.

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“The Ghost Soldiers”

O’Brien describes his contrasting experiences regarding the two times he was shot in combat: receiving great care from the medic Rat Kiley, then later enduring poor treatment by Kiley’s nervous replacement, Bobby Jorgenson. With the help of the troublemaker Azar, a rattled and seething O’Brien attempts to play a cruel prank on Jorgenson.

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“Night Life”

O’Brien is told the story behind medic Rat Kiley leaving the company for treatment in Japan. Haunted by injuries he feels unqualified to treat and the deaths of soldiers like Lavender and Lemon, Kiley has a mental breakdown that culminates in Kiley shooting himself in the toe to earn a release from duty.

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“The Lives of the Dead”

O’Brien describes his first up-close experiences with death, when the passing of his nine-year-old girlfriend in 1956 was followed by dreams in which he imagined her still alive. O’Brien explains that soldiers in Vietnam constantly told stories about their fallen comrades to make them seem less dead. In stories, O’Brien concludes, the dead live.

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