This is a book based on the Vietnam War in the 20th century. The writer Tim O'Brien is a former soldier who fought in the war. He gives his real experiences in a verisimilitude style to portray in fiction form what really happens during the war. The Things They Carried literally describes what soldiers carry to war. The things soldiers carry go deeper than being objects as they carry the very essence of the reality that this and every other war that happened or is yet to happen represents.
O Brien uses himself as the protagonist in the book and his platoon members as the other people who his story revolves around. His book is a collection of stories that interrelate. He also uses those things soldiers carried to war as symbolism to carry very important themes in the book. Some of the major themes identified include loyalty, strength, leadership, patriotism, hope and faith, resilience, enmity, weakness, sacrifice, grief, fear and trauma. O Brien used the real names of his platoon members to make the book authentic and real. Those people include Lt. Jimmy Cross the platoon leader, Bob Riley a medic, Norman Bowker, Henry Dobbins a machine gunner, Kiowa, Mitchell Sanders a radio tele operator, Ted Lavender a grenadier, Azar, Bobby Jorgenson, Dave Jensen, Lee Strunk and Martha who is Jim Cross love interest but only sees him as a platonic friend.
Symbolic interpretation of what they carry
The things they carried included different kinds of weapons, protective gear, standard gear, explosives, food, radio transmitter and their personal effects. All soldiers had to carry these things at all times wherever they went and the weapons and gear weighed around 30 pounds or more depending on individual luggage. Personal effects carried whose significance will be explored in this write up included photos, letters, magazines, Bibles, cigarettes, candy and other personal memorabilia.
The weight of what they carry can be used to symbolize the weight of their mission. The entire country is dependent on a group of soldiers to lay their lives on the line to win this war. What they carry can also be used to symbolize survival. Carrying over 30 pounds of gear and weapons was not optional. The things they carried were their defense, source of food, shelter, protection and their way out of the war. They carried the idea of life and death with them wherever they went. Survival was not an option, it was a necessity.
They are unified using the things they carry, not because they carry the same things but because those things define who they are as soldiers. Their mission is to survive so that they have an opportunity to see those things they carry once more even though they carry with themselves wherever they go for example Jim Cross who carries his letters everywhere he goes.
The soldiers carry with themselves hope through the different items they own. This is hope that all will be over and they will be able to reconnect with their loved ones or their homes. Jim Cross will read his letter over and over as if expecting something new but each time he reads the letters he reminds himself of something he left back at home. The things they carried helped them find a connection between where they are and where they come from. It gives them a sense of purpose that whatever they do is not in vain because they will eventually come back home even though they carry with themselves a piece of home. By reading the letters Jim Cross reminds himself he needs to win the war in order to go back home to be with Martha. He longs so bad to be back home that he does not care whether Martha is a virgin or not anymore.
The things they carried offered an escape from reality. Most of the soldiers retreated to their thoughts of what their items represented. Jim Cross would constantly fantasize about Martha and what they could have been doing if they were together. It was a momentary escape from the harsh reality of their situation which kept them from going insane. This, however, for Jim Cross became tragic. On one of the days while on mission, he began fantasizing and was woken up to reality by the fall of Ted Saunders. He blames himself for not having been alert to protect a member of his platoon. In reaction to this he ended up burning the photos and letters because he thought they were a distraction. He felt shame and guilt for realizing that he loved Martha more than his own platoon soldiers.
The soldiers also carry faith in their hearts. Despite the situation they found solace in the idea that they can make it out alive. Kiowa carried a new testament Bible which indicates the faith aspect. This shows that he believed in God taking control of their situation.
Other than hope, faith, comfort and survival the soldiers also carried with them uncertainty. As described in the book no one knew when trouble would arise. A soldier would be alive one minute and dead the next. They could not pitch tent in one place because they always had to be on the go either looking for or fleeing from the enemy. Their lives were on their backs carrying everything everywhere they went. Most of them lived in fear for their lives, but could not show it.
This being considered the heaviest burden of all, the soldiers carry with themselves grief, loss and trauma. The soldiers experiences in the battle fields are far from normal. Most of those who survive end up being damaged on the inside. They carry the grief of their lost ones and have to relive the memories of pain, destruction and killing that goes on for long periods during the war. In O Briens book even though Norman Bowker survived, he ended up committing suicide later in life. Most survivors normally struggle with coming to terms with reality and finding their purpose outside the war, not forgetting the vivid memories that haunt them. O Brien in his book states that no one really forgets and the trauma never ends. By writing this book he is reliving the trauma day after day just as it was.
The burden and hardships that soldiers carry are very unfortunate. Those who got out and want to share their experience with the world have managed to do so in various forms like books and films. Many motion pictures have been produced about this Vietnam War. They include Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter among other documentaries and features. The section below compares and contrast the Oliver Stones Platoon with O Briens book. Both Oliver and O Brien were soldiers in the Vietnam War. Platoon depicts the Vietnam War in the life of a young inexperienced soldier ready to serve his country.
Comparison: Themes brought out in the book and film
Reading through the book indicates that most of the men who fought in the war were young people who gave up their lives to serve the country. O Brien himself joined the army while he was still young and at some point thought of quitting but got counsel from another person. The star character in Stones movie Chris Taylor was a college dropout ready to join the army and fight but his expectations are crushed when he lands in Vietnam especially being a first time soldier. They both chose to stay and fight for their country.
Soldiers in the same platoon vow on their own lives to protect each other. In both novel and film, soldiers are depicted as people who would do anything to save the life of a fellow platoon member. Losing a fellow soldier has a traumatic effect on soldiers in both the film and book the other for example the death of Ted Saunders and Kiowa Jim Cross while the death of Sergeant Elias affects Taylor.
In the book O Brien gets shot, but keeps moving. In the film Elias gets shot severally but keeps moving even though he eventually dies. This depicts that soldiers have a strong will to live and survive no matter the hardships they go through.
Contrast between the book and the film
The book leaves the imagery to the imagination of the reader while the film clearly depicts the imagery. The visual and audio aspect in the film make it more appealing in that it appeals more to the emotions as people watching the film get the exact picture of how gruesome war can be.
The book lightly mentions the Vietnamese locals as O Brien talks about how they moved from village to village looking for the enemy. The film gives us a clearer picture that can also appeal to the emotion of those watching to make them sympathize with the plight of the locals who equally suffered destruction on the hands of the soldiers.
The book may not clearly point out some aspects of the war, for example shedding a different light on the soldiers who were not always on the right. In the film, we see two soldiers trying to gang rape two young girls. As much as the soldiers suffered at the hands of the enemy, they were also brutal in some aspects.
Oliver Stone and Tim O Brien are survivors of the war and luckily enough get to tell their story. They still carry some of the things they had in the Vietnamese War, which are grief, trauma and loss of identity. They attempt to deal with these issues through literature and film therefore instead of wishing it away the best solution would be to spread their work to preach against war.
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