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

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On occasions, you could put a spin on the war, or make it dance like a ping-pong ball. Like when Sanders picked the lice off his body, sealed them up in an envelope and mailed them to his draft board. Or a stoned Ted Lavender saying “We got ourselves a mellow war today.” Or Rat Kiley’s mantra for walking through the minefield - “Step out of line, hit a mine. Follow the dink, you’re in the pink.” (Page 33)

The real obsession with the war is with all those stories. Not all bloody stories, either. Some are peace stories and others are love stories. Some are tragic and some are funny. “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end” (Page 36) Bowker wishing his dad wasn’t so obsessed with medals. Kiowa and Kiley doing a rain dance. Azar strapping Lavender’s puppy to an antipersonnel mine and detonating it. Looking over the dead body of a Viet Cong you’ve just killed with a grenade. These stories remain even after the meaning fades away.


This chapter is composed a story fragments strung together with little or no analysis. The stories are what have stayed with O’Brien while everything else gets sucked down the whirlpool of memory. He seems fascinated with the process of remembering events, what endures and what gets left behind. The memories of the participants shape the ways that those of us who have never seen the war will view it.



Tim O’Brien tells a story about how he faced his first real test of courage in June, 1968 when he was drafted to fight in a war he thought was wrong. Or rather, he didn’t understand how it could be right. There were too many questions that the government hadn’t answered to his satisfaction. This war was not right for him. He was too smart, too ambitious, too compassionate. He hated camping and boy scouts. He decided to just wait.

During the summer of 1968 he worked in his hometown of Worthington, MN in a pork factory removing the blood cots from pig carcasses with a water gun. As the summer wore on, the smell of pig fat, the attitudes of small town patriots, and the draft notice tucked in his wallet all pressed down on him with increasing weight. He finally snapped, left his job in the middle of the day, packed up his clothes, and drove north.

After driving for two days he stopped at a fishing lodge on the Rainy River, which forms the border between Minnesota and Canada. He spends the next week there as the only guest. The proprietor, an old man named Leroy, accepts his presence in silence. He Never asks him where he’s going, why he’s alone, or why he’s so preoccupied. Looking back, O’Brien feels certain the old man already knew all the answers. He spends six days at the Tip Top Lodge, hiking, fishing, playing Scrabble with Leroy, and all the time keeping his eyes and his mind fixed on Canada.

During that time, a battle raged within O’Brien. Intellect fought with emotion. He knew what he should do, cross the river into Canada, and never look back. But an irresistible force was holding him back and dragging him towards the war. Shame. He felt “ashamed of my conscious, ashamed to be doing the right thing.” (Page 52)

Finally, he decides that he needs to get moving again, write a letter to his parents asking them not to be mad, cross the river and make his way into Canada. On his final day at the resort, Leroy takes him out fishing on the river. He pulls the boat within a few yards of the Canadian side, all O’Brien has to do is jump out and swim for it. This unexpected opportunity forces the young man into a decision before he’s quite ready for it. In his mind, he imagines himself in a stadium with various figures shouting at him to choose one side or the other. At that moment he finds himself unable to do what he feels he must do. He was unable to be brave and follow his conscience. It wasn’t possible. He sat down in the boat and sobbed while Leroy continued fishing.

Later that day, he packed up his things, drove home, reported to the draft board, and went to Vietnam. “I was a coward. I went to the war.” (Page 61)


Chapter four is perhaps the most interesting and readable section of the book. O’Brien tells the story of his struggle over whether or not to report to the war in a first person narrative, inserting himself as a character in the book for the first time. Within this conflict several ideas emerge.

First and foremost among these is the nature of bravery. Before the war, O’Brien admits thinking that courage was something you stored up, something that is finite. You place it in a trust, and it slowly amortizes until the critical day when you need to make a withdrawal. If you waste it on the small challenges, there is nothing left for the larger trials. But this theory falls apart once he is faced with his first real dilemma and finds he hasn’t the strength to follow his conscious.

Secondly, there is a serious discussion about where a person’s duty lies. His parents, his government, and the town of Worthington all expect him to do his duty to God and country by accepting his call to arms. He hesitates to disappoint them. In the end, however, he concludes that the highest duty, the standard by which courage should be measured, is to one’s own conscious. He calls himself a coward because he relented in his decision to go to Canada, and reports for the draft. But he is not saying that all soldiers were cowards and all draft dodgers courageous. It is far more personal matter. Even though he survived the war, by going to Vietnam in the first place he betrayed his own convictions that the war was wrong. He failed the first major test of his young life.

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