Friday, February 25, 2011

Let's Start Discussing

Who’s ready for a discussion of the first half (or so) of our book, through “How to Tell a True War Story”?

The Things They Carried is a compilation of war “stories” and remembrances that reads as a novel, told in the literal sense. Rife with visceral realities, O’Brien succeeds in conveying not the successes or failures of war, but rather the reality of living the war on boys who are given the responsibilities of men.

In the title essay/story“The Things They Carried,” are the tangible or intangible things more burdensome to carry? What does O'Brien mean when he says, "They carried their principles in their feet"?

What’s a true war story? Is it about battles and lives won and lost; or the tedium of being at war; or the effects of anxious boredom? How is a true war story “never about war”? How is a true war story “never moral”?

Culturally speaking, the Vietnam War did not produce “war heroes.” It’s a controversial statement, and I don’t aim to argue that some of the men who enlisted or were drafted and went to Vietnam were not heroes; but it is known that when they returned home they were largely not given a “hero’s welcome,” and this, coupled with fighting an ambiguous, unwinnable war, has impeded veterans’ ability to heal psychologically. In “On Rainy River,” O’Brien was paradoxically a coward if he chose to flee to Canada and a coward for not and ultimately fighting a war he was against. Let’s talk about why Elroy Berdahl was a hero and O’Brien was a coward.


  1. I'm glad you recommended this book for the reading club, Emily. Even though the stories are fictional, they ring true, true of human nature and true of the nature of the thing we do called war.

    My favorite story I think is the title one, the things they carried. Just think about all of the things that you would need to have with you to live if it all had to be carried, in your pack or in your helmet, or wherever, and then think about how much more stuff you would need if you were in a war zone and had to protect yourself from an enemy. And then of course all of the emotional baggage that we all carry, multiplied by all that would be added by having to fight in an unpopular war, miles from everthing you knew and loved. Except now you are growing to love these people that you have been thrown together with by this war.

    The chapter about Tim making his decision about going to war is amazing, also. In the end he decides that he did the cowardly thing by going to war, but isn't he just second guessing himself over the road not taken? I'll wager that if he had gone to Canada he would not have felt like much of a hero because of that choice, either. It's basically a no-win situation, and this book gives us a taste of what they must have been like.

  2. Mary,
    I really enjoyed reading your response. I, too, was awed by the size of the list of “things to carry” to sustain yourself, not to mention be protected and fight a war, especially in a tropical climate. There was also an incredible amount of waste in regard to those things: rations and supplies we regularly left behind because of the certainty that more would be dropped.

  3. The title chapter to "The Things They Carried" certainly is amazing. It really lets you, the reader, know what you are in for: it will be rough and it will be true. One little thing that stuck out for me in that opening chapter: there is something to the idea that even in the center of something as large and overwhelming as War, a person is still unable to get past the little dramas in their own life. For First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross it is the unrequited love of Martha that occupies his mind in a war zone. I wonder if this small selfishness is simply part of how humans deal with the largess of life, terrible or otherwise.

    The "true war story" discussion seems another of many paradoxical elements to O'Brien's narrative. It occurs to me that a "true war story never being about war" is probably why this book is powerful for a non-soldier like me. It rings true as a picture of human nature, whatever the setting, while the lack of morality captures some essence of war itself. It isn't tidy. I felt like I was being warned: "don't be looking here for happy endings."

    Mom, that is such an interesting point about "the road not taken": it sounds about right. Because we are reading his book we know which path his life took; it feels inevitable. And yet with that chapter he captures the terror of youth in jeopardy, of disappointment in past choices, and the actuality of really having no choice (or at least no really acceptable choice) at all.