Reflections on “The Things They Carried”
Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried, is not a novel about the Vietnam War. It is a story about the soldiers and their experiences and emotions that are brought about from the war. O’Brien makes several statements about war through these dynamic characters. He shows the violent nature of soldiers under the pressures of war, he makes an effective antiwar statement, and he comments on the reversal of a social deviation into the norm. By skillfully employing the stylistic technique of specific, conscious detail selection and utilizing connotative diction, O’Brien thoroughly and convincingly makes each point.
The violent nature that the soldiers acquired during their tour in Vietnam is one of O’Brien’s predominant themes in his novel. By consciously selecting very descriptive details that reveal the drastic change in manner within the men, O’Brien creates within the reader an understanding of the effects of war on its participants. One of the soldiers, “Norman Bowler, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a Thumb. . .The Thumb was dark brown, rubbery to touch. . . It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen.” Bowler had been a very good-natured person in civilian life, yet war makes him into a very hard-mannered, emotionally devoid soldier, carrying about a severed finger as a trophy, proud of his kill. The transformation shown through Bowler is an excellent indicator of the psychological and emotional change that most of the soldiers undergo. To bring an innocent young man from sensitive to apathetic, from caring to hateful, requires a great force; the war provides this force. However, frequently are the changes more drastic. A soldier named “Ted Lavender adopted an orphaned puppy. . .Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device.”. Azar has become demented; to kill a puppy that someone else has adopted is horrible. However, the infliction of violence has become the norm of behavior for these men; the fleeting moment of compassion shown by one man is instantly erased by another, setting order back within the group. O’Brien here shows a hint of sensitivity among the men to set up a startling contrast between the past and the present for these men. The effect produced on the reader by this contrast is one of horror; therefore fulfilling O’Brien’s purpose, to convince the reader of war’s severely negative effects. In the buffalo story, “We came across a baby water buffalo. . .After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose. . .He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. . .He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill, it was to hurt.”. Rat displays a severe emotional problem here; however, it is still the norm. The startling degree of detached emotion brought on by the war is inherent in O’Brien’s detailed accounts of the soldiers’ actions concerning the lives of other beings.
O’Brien’s use of specific and connotative diction enhances the same theme, the loss of sensitivity and increase in violent behavior among the soldiers. The VC from which Bowker took the thumb was just “a boy,”, giving the image of a young, innocent person who should not have been subjected to the horrors of war. The connotation associated with boy enhances the fact that killing has no emotional effect on the Americans, that they kill for sport and do not care who or what their game may be. Just as perverse as killing boys, though, is the killing of “a baby,” the connotation being associated with human infants even though it is used to describe a young water buffalo they torture. The idea of a baby is abstract, and the killing of one is frowned upon in modern society, regardless of species. O’Brien creates an attitude of disgust in the reader with the word, further fulfilling his purpose in condemning violence. Even more drastic in connotation to be killed is the “orphaned puppy.”. Adding to the present idea of killing babies is the idea of killing orphaned babies, which brings out rage within the reader. The whole concept is metaphoric, based on the connotations of key words; nevertheless, it is extremely effective