Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is not a novel about the Vietnam War. Itis a story about the soldiers and their experiences and emotions that arebrought about from the war. O’Brien makes several statements about war throughthese dynamic characters. He shows the violent nature of soldiers under thepressures of war, he makes an effective antiwar statement, and he comments onthe reversal of a social deviation into the norm.
By skillfully employing thestylistic technique of specific, conscious detail selection and utilizingconnotative diction, O’Brien thoroughly and convincingly makes each point. Theviolent nature that the soldiers acquired during their tour in Vietnam is one ofO’Brien’s predominant themes in his novel. By consciously selecting verydescriptive 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 itsparticipants. One of the soldiers, “Norman Bowler, otherwise a very gentleperson, carried a Thumb.
. .The Thumb was dark brown, rubbery to touch. . . Ithad been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen”(13). Bowler hadbeen a very good-natured person in civilian life, yet war makes him into a veryhard-mannered, emotionally devoid soldier, carrying about a severed finger as atrophy, proud of his kill.
The transformation shown through Bowler is anexcellent indicator of the psychological and emotional change that most of thesoldiers 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 “TedLavender adopted an orphaned puppy. . .Azar strapped it to a Claymoreantipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device”(39).
Azar has becomedemented; 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; thefleeting 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 sensitivityamong the men to set up a startling contrast between the past and the presentfor these men.
The effect produced on the reader by this contrast is one ofhorror; therefore fulfilling O’Brien’s purpose, to convince the reader of war’sseverely negative effects. In the buffalo story, “We came across a babywater buffalo. . .
After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose. . .Hestepped back and shot it through the right front knee. .
.He shot it twice inthe flanks. It wasn’t to kill, it was to hurt”(85). Rat displays a severeemotional problem here; however, it is still the norm.
The startling degree ofdetached emotion brought on by the war is inherent in O’Brien’s detailedaccounts of the soldiers’ actions concerning the lives of other beings.O’Brien’s use of specific and connotative diction enhances the same theme, theloss of sensitivity and increase in violent behavior among the soldiers. The VCfrom which Bowker took the thumb was just “a boy”(13), giving theimage of a young, innocent person who should not have been subjected to thehorrors of war. The connotation associated with boy enhances the fact thatkilling has no emotional effect on the Americans, that they kill for sport anddo not care who or what their game may be. Just as perverse as killing boys,though, is the killing of “a baby”(85), the connotation beingassociated with human infants even though it is used to describe a young waterbuffalo they torture. The idea of a baby is abstract, and the killing of one isfrowned upon in modern society, regardless of species.
O’Brien creates anattitude of disgust in the reader with the word, further fulfilling his purposein condemning violence. Even more drastic in connotation to be killed is the”orphaned puppy”(39). Adding to the present idea of killing babies isthe 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 in conveying O’Brien’s theme. O’Brienmakes a valid, effective antiwar statement in The Things They Carried.
Thedetails he includes give the reader insight into his opinions concerning theVietnam War and the draft that was used to accumulate soldiers for the war.While thinking of escaping to Canada, he says: “I was drafted to fight awar I hated. . .The American war seemed to me wrong”(44). O’Brien feelsthat U.
S. involvement in Vietnamese affairs was unnecessary and wasteful. Heincludes an account of his plan to leave the country because he did not want torisk losing his life for a cause he did not believe in. Here O’Brien shows thelevel of contempt felt towards the war; draft dodging is dangerous.
He was not aradical antiwar enthusiast, however, for he takes “only a modest standagainst the war”(44). While not condoning the fighting, he does not protestthe war except for minimally, peacefully, and privately doing so. Hisdissatisfaction with the drafting process is included in his statement, “Iwas a liberal, for Christ’s sake: if they needed fresh bodies, why not draftsome back-to-the-stone-age-hawk?”(44). O’Brien’s point of drafting onlythose who approve involvement in the war is clearly made while his politicalstandpoint is simultaneously revealed. The liberal attitude O’Brien owns is verymuch a part of his antiwar theme; it is the axis around which his valuesconcerning the war revolve. The antiwar statement is enhanced by O’Brien’s useof connotative and informal diction to describe the war, its belligerentadvocates, and its participants.
The connotation in the adjective American indescribing the war seems as though O’Brien believes the Americans are making thewar revolve around themselves, instead of the Vietnamese. While also criticizingAmericans, he manages to once again question the necessity of United Statesinvolvement in the war. Also connotatively enhancing the antiwar theme is theword bodies to describe draftees; while an accurate evaluation scientifically,it gives the reader the impression that the young men that are being broughtinto the war to become statistics, part of a body count. O’Brien shows veryeffectively the massive destruction of innocent human life brought on byVietnam. In contrast with his sympathy toward draftees, O’Brien utilizesinformal, derogatory diction to describe the war’s advocates. He labels hisstereotype belligerent a “dumb jingo”(44), or moronic national prideenthusiast. By phrasing his views in such a manner, O’Brien is able to conveythe idea that there is enough opposition to the war that a negative slang hasbeen implemented frequently, hence the term dumb jingo.
The skill with whichO’Brien illustrates his views is very convincing throughout their development inthe novel; his antibelligerence focus is very effective. The social deviancethat has become the accepted norm in The Things They Carried is brought out byO’Brien in the form of the soldiers’ drug usage. O’Brien wants to convey theidea of negative transitions brought about by the war with a statement aboutmarijuana’s public, widespread, carefree use in Vietnam. He includes severalanecdotes that illustrate to which degree the substance is abused.
A friend ofO’Brien’s, Ted Lavender, “carried six or seven ounces of premiumdope”(4), which indicates not only the soldiers’ familiarity with the drug,but their acquired knowledge of the quality of the drug. The discouragement ofmarijuana, as well as other drugs, was previously the accepted view ofAmericans; however, according to O’Brien, is has become the norm for Americansin Vietnam. The war has completely reversed their morals. Once they carried acorpse out to “a dry paddy. . .and sat smoking the dead man’s dope untilthe chopper came.
Lieutenant Cross kept to himself”(8). Even the squad’ssupervisor, the platoon leader Lieutenant Cross, is unaffected by the soldiers’blatant use of an illegal substance; he has become so used to the occurrencethat he no longer condemns its use. For even a leader of men to be morallywarped by the war is an effective idea in O’Brien’s discouragement of war. AsGeorge Carlin once said to a New York audience, “We love war.
We are awarlike people, and therefore we love war”(Carlin 1992). This view iscommon today among Americans since the advent of long-distance warfare andbright, colorful explosions; however, in the guerrilla warfare of Vietnam, thegrudging participants loathed the idea. Tim O’Brien very effectively portraystheir hatred and the severe negative effects the war had on American soldiers inhis excellent, convincing novel The Things They Carried. The skillful choice ofdetails and several types of diction that reveal his theme of induced violence,his anti-war statement, and his view of the reversal of morals among GIs areeffective in presenting O’Brien’s views in this, “The Last WarNovel”(McClung 96).