Tim O'Brien's “The Things They Carried” (1990) is one of the finest books on the Vietnam War. Part fiction, part memoir, the collection of stories follows a platoon in Vietnam and their lives before and after the war. O'Brien blurs the line between what actually happened and what seems to have happened. The reader may wonder if the story is really true. “The Things They Carried” argues directly to the reader and through stories that it doesn't matter if it really happened. What matters is that it came from the memory of a soldier and that memory—no matter how long or elusive— is the true story.
O'Brien writes literally about the things they carried: “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches.” One carried his grandfather's hatchet, another 20 pounds of ammo, another a sling-shot. The book is also named for the intangible things they carried: the love for the girl left back home, the hunger for the familiar, fear, the blur of battle, the simultaneous power and terror of killing, the loss of all that seemed universally true; the soldiers “carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
Interwoven with stories from Vietnam is a running commentary on how to write a story. O'Brien asserts that “a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being.” O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran and journalist, could not have anticipated how long and how well his own storytelling would continue to resonate with readers, particularly young readers. “The Things They Carried” is discussed in history and language courses and has opened the minds of previously uninterested teenagers. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, the book has sold over 2 million copies to date. As the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive nears, as many read Mark Bowden's newly released “Huế 1968” from Atlantic Monthly Press, and as we watch Ken Burn's documentary film series on Vietnam which begins September 17th on PBS, readers, young and old, veteran and civilian, will discover and rediscover Tim O'Brien's masterpiece of storytelling.
Written by Lisa Newman