The Things They Carried: A Chapter Study
Morals Don't Write War Stories, Soldiers Do
The moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War is the backdrop of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. To this day, the US's involvement in the war still carries controversy. Likewise, Tim O’Brien’s characters are morally ambiguous. Some seem to care about little more than their own safety and make cruel jokes about the dead, while others feel sorrow for fallen comrades, and blame themselves for the deaths of comrades. Ted Lavender’s death and Kiowa’s reaction to it is an example of this idea. How O’Brien depicts these soldiers is just as important as what happens to them. Most importantly are Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ preoccupation with Martha and his negligence of command followed by his resolution to abandon his love interest and focus on the war. In O’Brien’s story, “How to Tell a True War Story” he emphasizes how a truthful war story lacks morality and rectitude. His characters in “The Things They Carried”, the eponymous short story, support this argument in that they are not presented as heroic, they have no deep moral conviction about winning the war, they simply “hump” their provisions along the march, doing as soldiers do. For its fidelity to accurately tracing the soldier-characters' motivations, The Things They Carried should be considered a true war story.
O’Brien creates characters that are not heroes, nor are they villains -- they are just men. There is truth in that human beings act as human beings regardless of where they are. The setting of a war does not necessarily transform men into heroes. The “poise” that they carry themselves with is a pretense of bravery. In reality, O’Brien writes, most of them want to “squeal”. Though the men do their best to act as soldiers O’Brien is careful not to glorify them when he writes, “They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it” (p20). The key point O’Brien is making here is not that these men are cowards or despicable individuals, but that they are human beings in a relentlessly difficult situation and they act as human beings do in times of great stress. They crack jokes, some act macho, some pretend not to be afraid, and some just focus on their soldierly duty, “no volition, no will…entirely a matter of posture…the hump was everything…a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility” (p 15). The characters in this story are not acting on some heighten moral agenda; they are merely men at war. This adds validity to the truthfulness of The Things They Carried. They act as they do because they are trained soldiers who fear death and just want to go home.
The death of Ted Lavender and Kiowa’s reaction to it are key plot points in this depiction of a “true war story”. Lavender is described as a “scared” person, he carries tranquilizers and marijuana with him in order to numb that fear. He dies while he is zipping up his pants after urinating; he is shot in the head and dies in an embarrassingly undignified way. The scene is devoid of a heroic death sequence, which is elaborated upon by Kiowa’s reaction to the way in which Lavender falls dead, “Not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins…the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down.” (p 6). O’Brien, in referring to “movie deaths”, conveys that he is consciously aware of the glamorization of war in films, television, and literature. His story lacks this absurd glorification. He simply shows the reader a soldier’s death, and emphasizes its matter-of-factness, it candidness, by having the victim die taking an innocent piss, not blasting away multiple enemies before going down in a hail of bullets, or some other unrealistic glorified manner.
The key plot thread in the story is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ fixation on Martha, a love interest back home, who, he resolves, does not return his affection. The “truth” of this war story is seen in Cross’ meditations on his predicament. Cross blames Ted Lavender’s death on his own negligence as a commanding officer. However it is not because he believes he has acted immorally by commanding laxly, but instead only chooses to become a better leader because he gives up believing that Martha truly loves him. His resolve occurs in the last few pages of the story, after burning Martha’s letters and photographs, “The morning came up wet and blurry. Everything seemed part of everything else, the fog and Martha and the deepening rain. He was a soldier, after all” (p 24). It is in this instance, upon choosing to abandon a defunct relationship with Martha, that Cross realizes that he must be a leader. This is not done out of any great virtue, it is simply done because he loses his hope for being with Martha, and after that, all he has left is to do his duty. Cross’ new sense of diligence reinforces O’Brien’s message of frank human nature by leaving out a moral revelation in the lieutenant. His revelation is pragmatic. He changes not due to any moral imperative but simply because he is a soldier and must lead his troops.
“The Things They Carried” follows the guidelines for telling a true war story put forth by O’Brien’s other tale “How to Tell a True War Story.” Lavender’s death lacks a purpose; it is merely what happens in war. The way in which these character soldiers carry themselves conveys the truthfulness of their story. They are simply men who act, as men do, not as glamorized war heroes. They burn villages, they use drugs, they make insensitive jokes about the dead, but they also feel sympathy, they have a capacity for love, they take pleasure in the simple luxuries they are allowed (Kiowa’s New Testament pillow). This presentation of men acting as men do serves a larger purpose by telling the truth about war, and O’Brien does not overburden the narrative with fanciful moral points. Just like the war these soldiers fought in, their personal stories are more truthful when not hindered by having to prove a high moral point.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print
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