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Alienation and Exile in "The Things They Carried"

The Things They Carried is the titular first short story in a collection that chronicles the experiences of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Committed to writing authentically about the war, O’Brien drew on his own experiences of being drafted to serve in Vietnam. O’Brien refuses to adhere to the traditional structure of war narratives and instead presents us with a first-person narrative from the protagonist Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. In the opening short story, Cross details the personal belongings that the troops carry with them in Vietnam, ranging from their weaponry to the more abstract trauma of grief and terror.

The characters in Tim O’Brien’s short story The Things They Carried are both physically and emotionally isolated from the societies they belong to. Cross and his troupe feel isolated from American society primarily because they feel betrayed that they were sent to fight under false pretenses. The Things They Carried is part of a broader range of war literature that, according to Lucas Carpenter, honorary Charles Howard Candler Professor of English at Oxford College, Emory University, “squelches whatever remains of the Western meta-narrative of history […] disposed by reason, war can be used to accomplish worthy and beneficial ends” (Carpenter, 2003, p. 32). The soldiers believed they were drafted in order to uphold core American principles, by staving off the threat of communism and upholding South Vietnam’s democracy. They would come to realize, however, that the war was driven by capitalist intentions and they were fighting principally to protect American political and economic interests in Southeast Asia (Carpenter, 2003, p. 33).

Figure 1: Tim O'Brien as a foot soldier during the Vietnam War.

One of the primary concerns of the short story is American overabundance, and Cross lists the seemingly limitless things American soldiers carried in Vietnam, including both physical objects and psychological burdens (Clarke, 2013, p. 140). In one scathing passage O’Brien infers that waste and destruction are inherently repercussions of this culture of overconsumption and links this material waste to the wasting of human lives intrinsic to war: “They would often discard things along the route of the march […] they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades” (O’Brien, p. 647). Both the material waste and the destruction of human lives are treated as consequences of a culture devoted to overconsumption. Michael Clarke, Associate Professor teaching American Literature since the Civil War at the University of Calgary, connects that self-absorption and its excesses to an investigation of US Imperialism in his article “I Feel Close To Myself”: Solipsism And US Imperialism In Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”, which he suggests is a “deliberate attempt to explore American involvement in Vietnam as a legacy of colonialism” (Clarke, 2013, p. 138).

The Vietnam War was therefore a chaotic entanglement with no clear moral boundaries and no easily identifiable enemy (Carpenter, p. 35). Two members of Cross’ contingent, Sanders and Dobbins, debate this moral ambiguity when they come across a young, dead, Vietnamese boy carrying ammunition. Dobbins articulates the ambiguity of the violence as he watches Sanders cut off the boy’s thumb; “I don’t see no moral” (O’Brien, p. 645). Tina Chen, Professor of English and Asian-American Literatures at the Pennsylvania State University, argues in her article Unravelling the Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” that the central isolation felt by the soldiers stems from this sentiment; “Exile is a fluid and inescapable experience resulting from immersion in the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War” (Chen, 1998, p. 80). The men feel trapped by their political submission which sees them kill for no justifiable cause:

“They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, something setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same” (O’Brien, p. 646).

Figure 2: A group of South Vietnamese army soldiers and an American soldier with two captured Vietcong suspects, in Plaines des Joncs, South Vietnam.

The soldiers also feel betrayed by the patriotic representations of soldiers the American government depicted in order to get young men to enlist. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross makes reference to his own youth and subsequent lost innocence as “a kid at war, in love. He was twenty-four years old. He couldn’t help it” (O’Brien, p. 644). The portrayal projected by the American government proves to be hollow as the horrors in Vietnam- inflicted by and upon them- turn the soldiers into psychologically traumatized killers. Norman Bowker, a character of the novel described as otherwise “a very gentle person”, carries amongst his possessions a thumb from a Vietnamese corpse that had been gifted to him (O’Brien, p. 645). Ultimately, the soldiers have to come to terms with the fact that their government views them as expendable. This conflicts directly with the mentality of American culture that tends to prioritize the individual. Soldiers found that their lives had little value, and in many this resulted in the abandonment of civilized moralities and the descent to barbarism; “Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to” (O’Brien, p. 650).

The discord between American society and the grueling conditions faced in Vietnam is represented by Martha, a junior living in New Jersey who corresponds with Jimmy Cross and is the subject of many of his fantasies. The petty trivialities she writes to Jimmy about, including exams and her roommates, seem insignificant in comparison to Cross’ life in Vietnam. Martha comes to signify all the experiences the men are missing out on back home (Chen, p. 85). Martha’s symbol role is strengthened when she sends Lieutenant Cross a pebble from the Jersey shoreline as a good luck charm (Chen, p. 85). Cross carries the pebble in his mouth and imagines himself walking along the shoreline with Martha.

Figure 3: American soldier reading a letter from home.

The conditions in Vietnam are so horrendous that the soldiers are forced to use their imagination as a form of mental escape. The men share a common fantasy which involves an imagined flight over America, “over the farms and great sleeping cities and cemeteries and highways and the golden arches of McDonald’s” (O’Brien, p. 651). Cross’ personal fantasies include Martha: “He was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore” (O’Brien, p. 644). However, imagination proves to be insufficient in the face of atrocities of war and Cross’ fantasies are disturbed by violence:

“Without willing it, he was thinking about Martha. The stresses and fractures, the quick collapse, the two of them being buried alive under all that weight […] He felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered.” (O’Brien, p. 644).

Chen adds that Cross’ romantic fantasies are “pitifully inadequate in the face of the ambiguous and dangerous realities of combat duty in Vietnam” (Chen, p. 85). Indeed, Cross is daydreaming about Martha when Ted Lavender gets shot, and Cross blames himself and his unrealistic fantasies for distracting him; “He had loved Martha more than his men and as a consequence Lavender was now dead” (O’Brien, p. 647). He recognizes that Martha and he belong to separate realms, and the events of American society no longer have any effect on him; “In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real” (O’Brien, p. 647).

Figure 4: Digital painting by Pables, inspired by "The Things they Carried".

In reality, Cross actually blames himself for Lavender’s death as a way to find comfort. As Susan Farrell, Professor of English at the College of Charleston, explains, “The soldiers wish to find a reason for the deaths they witness in order to make them less frightening, less random, and meaningless” (Farrell, 2003, p. 4). Blame provides the illusion that deaths such as Lavender’s are preventable, and therefore, that further losses are not inevitable. Thus, Cross determines that his love-fueled fantasies about Martha are to blame for Lavender, and he swears to dispense with them in order to avoid such fatalities in the future, building for himself a false sense of power over his fate (Farrell, 2003, p. 4). His repudiation of Martha is ultimately an attempt to gain control over a situation in which he is helpless (Farrell, p. 4).

Lavender’s death ultimately creates a tension between the actuality of the battle and Cross’ interior imagined fantasies that give him refuge. Cross’ burning of his letters from Martha is his recognition that the damage the soldiers have endured complicates their potential return to normal society. Cross points out that Martha never even mentions the war in her letters to him: to her it is inconsequential, and she has no involvement in it. He resolves to stop deluding himself that their paths will ever converge again- the war has isolated him from Martha and his old life; “Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere” (O’Brien, p. 653). Lavender’s death also proves that the number of things the men carry with them become futile in the face of death; “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed” (O’Brien, p. 640). Their possessions are their direct link to America and American culture of materialism, and these are insufficient in keeping them safe.

Figure 5: Encounter between American soldier and Vietnamese mother and son.

The Things They Carried is driven by a fear of exile, but this break with familiarity becomes complicated as the soldiers become accustomed to the violence in Vietnam. The status of Vietnam is precarious in terms of the soldiers’ displacement and their experiences of home. Vietnam comes to symbolize both the site of their alienation and that of their newfound normality. Chen writes that “Vietnam exists as both place of estrangement and ironic homeland” (Chen, p. 81). Throughout the short story, the narrative is “engendered by the impossibility of ever achieving an unproblematic return home” thereby making the story about the “rootless existence of an exile” (Chen, p. 79). The end of the short story sees Cross deciding to abandon his reliance on his delusions about home, and instead focus on his duties in Vietnam. Return to the normality of American society after the war becomes unlikely — the men have undergone too much trauma to transpose themselves back into their old lives.

The Things They Carried divulges the displacement and exile felt by US soldiers sent off to fight in Vietnam. Although fantasies about home sustain them through the war’s violence, the trauma affects them too much to hope for a return to normality. O’Brien’s work is primarily concerned with spreading awareness about what soldiers faced, and in doing so he criticizes America’s foreign policies. His short story does not end on an optimistic note; the soldiers are offered no salvation and readers are left with the sentiment that their lives have been discarded in favor of American capitalist interests.

Bibliographical References

Carpenter, L. (2003). “It Don’t Mean Nothin’”: Vietnam War Fiction and Postmodernism. College Literature, 30 (2), pp. 30–50.

Chen, T. (1998). ”Unravelling the Deeper Meaning””: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”’. Contemporary Literature, 39 (1). pp. 77-98.

Clarke, M. T. (2013). “I Feel Close To Myself”: Solipsism And US Imperialism In Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” College Literature, 40 (2), pp. 130–154.

Farrell, S. (2003). “Tim O’Brien and Gender: A Defense of “The Things They Carried.” CEA Critic, 66 (1), pp. 1–21.

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. (1994) ed. by Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Megan Maistre

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