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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 M&M’s candy.
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, Linda.