Review: War in American Society and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

Published in 1990, Tim O’Brien’s collection of connected short stories The Things They Carried received great critical acclaim both as a piece of Vietnam War literature and as societal commentary. Based on his own experiences serving in the Vietnam War, O’Brien tells each story with a kind of brutal honesty and graphic description that make certain scenes difficult to read. However, it is at its core a testament to human nature—both the good and bad, brave and cowardly—and a near-scathing condemnation of war and those in American society who still believe in its glory or greatness.


The book carries a very strong “anti-war, pro-veteran” stance that is well developed and supported by each story and snippet of life before, during, and after the war. O’Brien addresses the horrors of war in a way that does not frame individual soldiers as completely blameless, but at the same time does not frame them as irredeemable villains. The trauma of soldiers is addressed without diminishing the horrors and crimes committed in the name of war and battle. Often a very fine and difficult line to walk in literature, O’Brien handles it with honesty and grace. To put it very simply, he tells it as it is.


The aftereffects of war on soldiers are also addressed with sympathy and care. O’Brien writes about his interactions with his daughter, former infantry mates, and haunting memories, retelling snippets of life and individual stories that tie together to form a much larger picture. Written in a way that blurs reality and fiction, otherwise known as verisimilitude, O’Brien leaves the reader wondering what is fact and what is fiction. In several stories, O’Brien speaks directly to the audience, telling us that what he wrote before was false and made up. In others, he retells events in a way that directly contradicts how they were told before. The effect is strong, reminiscent of a man struggling to dissect and trust his memories after traumatic events.


What I feel like this book does really really well is humanizing Vietnam War American soldiers without absolving them of blame or responsibility for their actions towards innocents during the war. Instead, the books subtly but clearly place blame where it (in my opinion) truly belongs: the government officials and rich who made the decision to join the war and send those who could not afford to pay off the draft to fight and die for a war and cause they did not believe in. It shows the reality of war: something dark and grim and awful, a contradiction to what is often pictured in the minds of Americans.


In the minds of many, war is this great and glorious thing, showing the strength and patriotism of Americans against a hateful and tyrannical world. O’Brien refutes them by showing the horror and grit of the battlefield. For every image of an American flag raised high and ‘liberation’, O’Brien presents a young man with a missing leg about to die longing for his family in his last moments and a soldier trying not to cry at the body of a Vietnamese child killed in the panic of crossfire. He brings us to the battlefield in snapshots of his memories, recollections, and experiences.


While a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable book to read due to both content and occasional language, it’s one of those books that I feel like everyone, especially Americans, should read at least once in their lifetimes. It brings an anti-war perspective from a generation and to a country that is oftentimes incredibly pro-war. A powerful and emotional read, I highly recommend The Things They Carried to those who wish to gain a further understanding of and deeper perspective into the Vietnam War, American military service, war in general, and to some extent, humanity in general.

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