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Free Study Guide: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Free BookNotes

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The soldiers constantly remark on their inability to communicate their experiences in a way that their family or peers will understand. Because of this, they feel a sense of isolation once they return home.


O’Brien constantly remarks on how the language of war is purposely constructed to make pain and death seem less real. It is merely the dialogue of an elaborate play, in which they all act their part.


Stories that never happened may contain more truth than actual events. Stories can reveal truth in a way that makes the stomach believe.


Many heroic feats are done not because of an abundance of courage, but because men will do anything to avoid shame. Men kill and die because they are scared not to. Following one’s conscious often requires the greatest courage.


The hero (O’Brien) struggles to understand his past and his involvement in the Vietnam War. When he returns to Vietnam and sees the country has moved beyond the war, he realizes he can do the same.


The book’s mood is one of reflection and sadness. This is largely due to the tragic nature of many of the stories. Although the author has fond memories of his companions during the war, he does not take pride in his actions - including actions others consider to be courageous. The path of experience and wisdom eventually leads to a form of redemption for the Tim O’Brien character, but the journey itself is not a happy one.

Tim O'Brien - The Things They Carried Free Study Guide / Notes / Summary
Tim O'Brien


Tim O’Brien grew up in Worthington, Minnesota and now lives in Massachusetts. He graduated from McAlester College in St. Paul. In 1968 he was drafted into the Vietnam Conflict and served one tour of duty from 1969-1970. After returning home he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University and studied government. After finishing his studies he worked as a national affairs correspondent for the Washington Post.

O’Brien has written several novels based on his experiences in Vietnam. The Things They Carried (published 1990) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. O’Brien won the National Book Award in 1979 for his novel Going After Cacciato. Another novel, In the Lake of the Woods, won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was selected as the best book of 1994 by Time Magazine. His other novels include, If I Die In a Combat Zone, The Nuclear Age, Northern Lights, and Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. His latest novel, Tomcat in Love, was a New York Times bestseller following its publication in 1998.


The United States sent troops to Southern Vietnam in the early 1960’s to help stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. Prior to American involvement, Vietnamese Communists had fought a lengthy war to free their country from French colonial rule. In 1954, the Viet Cong gained control over Northern half of Vietnam, but the Southern half maintained a government friendly to the United States. Beginning in the late 1950’s, Northern Vietnam began waging a guerilla war (supported by both the USSR and China) to bring all of Vietnam under its control. The United States began supporting South Vietnam during the Eisenhower administration, but following the Gulf of Tonkin incident (in which an American warship was allegedly fired on by a Vietnamese submarine) the United States began committing troops to fight against the North.

Unfortunately for the United States, the governments of South Vietnam were corrupt, unstable, and did not have the support of the people. The South Vietnamese army was poorly trained. Americans found themselves fighting a guerilla war, of which they had little experience. Because of overwhelming American firepower and technological capabilities, the Viet Cong relied on ambushes, land mines, and other surprise attacks to confuse and demoralize American troops.

‘Charlie’ would open fire on an unsuspecting column of GI’s, then disappear into the jungle or a maze of underground tunnels before Americans had a chance to engage. This gave American soldiers the impression that the Viet Cong were ‘ghosts’ or ‘phantoms’. Instead of established battlefronts, soldiers spent their time marching up and down the hillsides, looking through tunnels, burning villages that supported the enemy, and trying to avoid ambushes. This style of fighting hurt morale by preventing the soldiers from feeling they were accomplishing anything. Nothing lost or gained. At the end of the day they were no closer to ending the war than at the beginning.

Many factors made the war unpopular in the United States. Drafting procedures produced an army where the average age of a GI was nineteen, the youngest of any American war. Their youth and inexperience led to errors in judgment and increased fatalities. Television brought these casualties into the homes of every American. The longer the war went on, the more unpopular it became. Many American either did not understand why their boys were fighting in Vietnam, or thought the government was wrong to be fighting the war. As victory began to seem less and less likely, the country turned its attention away from its fighting men. Returning soldiers received little recognition for their service, and were often subject to jeers or humiliation from anti-war protesters. As a result, many servicemen (like Norman Bowker) had trouble making the adjustment from soldier to civilian.

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Strate, Shane. "TheBestNotes on The Things They Carried". . 09 May 2017