Not All Fiction

The Things They Carried By: Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried
By: Tim O’Brien

Wars have been fought, men and women have served, and there have been those on both sides of those who support war and those who are against war. When reading about this great country, there seems to be the reoccurring theme of war itself that is found on many pages of American History books.  Reading about these wars tends to bring up the undeniable feelings of patriotism, nationalism, and at times even ethnocentrism being that the United States of America always seems to be on the victorious side of these wars. Even if the United States is not wholly on winning side, for example the United States Civil War, there are always morals that can be gleaned from such events. The Vietnam War, however, does not bring such warm feelings when discussed, making it one of the most difficult wars to research or try to understand.

            The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indo-China War, is relatively newer in terms of United States history and is somewhat difficult for historians to study how and what Americans understood about the war. This occurs for many reasons, one being that the war does not having enough of a time or generational gap between the events and the present time to form objective ideas or opinions about the events, experiences, and responses that transpired. While this can be seen as negative in many respects, this argument can also be used for the good of studying the infamous war as well as other events. The 1960s are just far enough away in the past to have the generation of who fought in or protested the war share its varied experiences on the war. This is seen with both the movie Full Metal Jacket and the novel The Things They Carried. While both sources are fictional, they can be used by historians to gain insight into the thoughts, emotions, and realities surrounding the men who went to fight overseas as well as the overall American viewpoint on the experience of the Vietnam War.

            Opening the first scenes in the painful and seemingly insanely difficult training camp, viewers are shown how the military pushed young men to become “cold, hard killing machines[1]”. While this seems to be expected or even needed to create Marines in the beginning of the film, the audience begins to realize that there are many issues overlooked with the men. There is an obvious lack of physical testing for medical issues before admittance into the Marines, as well as mental illness that is overlooked. One of the men who has a mental issue is pushed past the tipping point during his training and becomes obsessed with his rifle, of which he is taught that he cannot be a Marine without. On the day of his graduation from training, this man takes action by killing his Sergeant and himself. This is a horrifying demonstration to historians that while it is fictional, the realities of the lack of knowledge or care about the need for healthy men both physically and mentally was portrayed to Americans during training for battle. This already shows a seeming of foreshadowing of the later issues to follow in the Vietnam War dealing with mental illness during and after the stent overseas.

While historians and audiences both have the ability to view the nature of the inability to screen soldiers and the perceived toll it played on individuals and groups of men fighting together, books seem to have a way of giving an inside look at a particular person. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, gives a brilliantly open example of the authentic feelings of a group of men in the same platoon in Vietnam. His stories are all fiction, but being a Vietnam veteran himself, he pulls pieces of truth into each of his tales as he describes the turmoil of the men. He tells the descriptive tale of the internal struggle of deciding to go with the draft instead of running away to freedom. He tells of fear that takes different forms. O’Brien tells of the “moral freeze” how he “couldn’t decide, [he] couldn’t act, [he] couldn’t comport [himself] with even a pretense of modest human dignity”[2] when given the opportunity to run away to Canada. He gives readers a glimpse into the fear of war itself and the possibility of death awaiting him. Almost more importantly, O’Brien also shows the fear of embarrassment. He is afraid to run from the draft to Canada because of the dishonor that his action would bestow upon himself and his family. This fear tells historians about the conflict between doing what a person had thought to be right and what American society had expected of him. This shows how much the writer’s experience with society played a role in his version of viewing the war itself. The action of running from the draft and not going to fight was considered cowardice and unpatriotic in the eyes of others, especially the older generation who had fought in World War II just twenty years earlier. The novel also showed how this belief revealed the lack of knowledge the average American had about why the war was being fought. Many believed that it was just to stop communism and that it was to protect the Vietnamese people from this perception of oppression. However, as described in the novel, the reason was far more complicated and seemed less logical. This ignorance of the war and the trust bestowed on the government at the time is what brings O’Brien’s character to side with society. His character finally decides his fate. He says, “I would go to war – I would kill and maybe die – because I was too embarrassed not to.”[3]

Contemporary history is, and possibly always will be, a controversial subject to encounter and research. There will always be those against the idea that historians can view material so close to the present time to form objective opinions or give true facts on a subject. However, to completely do away with the idea of studying the past in hopes of helping the future cannot be acknowledged. While the sources are considered fiction in a technical way as well as serving entertainment purposes, Full Metal Jacket, The Things They Carried, and other sources should be viewed as educational resources for anyone interested as well as historians. These stories still have the abilities to show viewpoints about the particular times in a soldier’s career. They can also help readers and researchers understand the emotions and thoughts involved in different parts of the Vietnam War process, such as being drafted, boot camp, and returning back to an unsupportive United States society.  The hardest reality to face while viewing or reading about these men is the knowledge that both death and danger play major roles in both the personal thoughts and also the public viewing of a soldier in Vietnam making these sources informational to historians about how Americans understood the experience of the Vietnam War.

[1] Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket, Warner Bros., 1987)

[2] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, (Boston: Mariner Books, 1990), Paperback

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