The protagonist, who
is named Tim O’Brien, begins by describing an event that occurred
in the middle of his Vietnam experience. “The Things They Carried”
catalogs the variety of things his fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company
brought on their missions. Several of these things are intangible,
including guilt and fear, while others are specific physical objects,
including matches, morphine, M-16 rifles, and
Throughout the collection, the same characters reappear
in various stories. The first member of the Alpha Company to die
is Ted Lavender, a “grunt,” or low-ranking soldier, who deals with
his anxiety about the war by taking tranquilizers and smoking marijuana.
Lavender is shot in the head on his way back from going to the bathroom,
and his superior, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for the
tragedy. When Lavender is shot, Cross is distracting himself with
thoughts of Martha, a college crush. It is revealed in “Love” that
Cross’s feelings for Martha, whom he dated once before leaving for
Vietnam, were never reciprocated, and that even twenty years after
the war, his guilt over Lavender’s death remains.
In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator, O’Brien, explains
the series of events that led him to Vietnam in the first place.
He receives his draft notice in June of 1968,
and his feelings of confusion drive him north to the Canadian border,
which he contemplates crossing so that he will not be forced to
fight in a war in which he doesn’t believe. Sitting in a rowboat
with the proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge, where he stays, O’Brien
decides that his guilt about avoiding the war and fear of disappointing
his family are more important than his political convictions. He
soon leaves, going first back home to Worthington, Minnesota and
later to Vietnam.
In addition to Ted Lavender, a few other members of the
Alpha Company are killed during their mission overseas, including
Curt Lemon, who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round. Though O’Brien is not close to Lemon, in “The Dentist,”
he tells a story of how Lemon, who faints before a routine checkup
with an army-issued dentist, tries to save face by insisting that
a perfectly good tooth be pulled. Lee Strunk, another member of
the company, dies from injuries he sustains by stepping on a landmine.
In “Friends,” O’Brien remembers that before Strunk was fatally hurt,
Strunk and Dave Jensen had made a pact that if either man were irreparably
harmed, the other man would see that he was quickly killed. However,
when Strunk is actually hurt, he begs Jensen to spare him, and Jensen
complies. Instead of being upset by the news of his friend’s swift
death en route to treatment, Jensen is relieved.
The death that receives the most attention in The
Things They Carried is that of Kiowa, a much-loved member
of the Alpha Company and one of O’Brien’s closest friends. In “Speaking
of Courage,” the story of Kiowa’s death is relayed in retrospect
through the memory of Norman Bowker, years after the war. As Bowker
drives around a lake in his Iowa hometown, he thinks that he failed
to save Kiowa, who was killed when a mortar round hit and caused
him to sink headfirst into a marshy field. O’Brien realizes that
he has dealt with his guilt over Kiowa’s death differently than
Norman Bowker in “Notes.” Just before the end of the war, O’Brien
receives a long letter from Bowker that says he hasn’t found a way
to make life meaningful after the war. O’Brien resolves to tell
Bowker’s story, and the story of Kiowa’s death, in order to negotiate
his own feelings of guilt and hollowness.
Like “Love” and “Notes,” several of O’Brien’s stories
are told from a perspective twenty years after the Vietnam War,
when he is a forty-three-year-old writer living in Massachusetts.
Exposure to the guilt of old friends like Jimmy Cross and Norman
Bowker prompts him to write stories in order to understand what
they were going through. But two stories, “The Man I Killed” and
“Ambush,” are written so that O’Brien can confront his own guilt
over killing a man with a grenade outside the village of My Khe.
In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien imagines the life of his victim,
from his childhood to the way things would have turned out for him
had O’Brien not spotted him on a path and thrown a grenade at his
feet. In “Ambush,” O’Brien imagines how he might relay the story
of the man he killed to his nine-year-old daughter, Kathleen. In
this second story, O’Brien provides more details of the actual killing—including the
sound of the grenade and his own feelings—and explains that even
well after the fact, he hasn’t finished sorting out the experience.
In the last story, “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien gives
another twist to his contention that stories have the power to save
people. In the stories of Curt Lemon and Kiowa, O’Brien explains
that his imagination allowed him to grapple successfully with his
guilt and confusion over the death of his fourth-grade first love,