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

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O’Brien remember that he had trouble mourning when Curt Lemon was killed. He thought Curt Lemon either had an inflated opinion of himself, or a very low opinion he was trying to erase. He tells the following story in order to avoid getting sentimental about Curt.

When the platoon finally had some quiet time in an area along the beach, the higher-ups sent in a dentist to check their teeth. The dentist’s tent was a primitive operation, assembly line dentistry, which made Curt Lemon queasy. His reputation for bravery was threatened when he fainted before he could even sit down in the dentist’s chair.

After regaining consciousness, Curt felt ashamed of the incident and separated himself from the platoon for a time. The embarrassment was too much for him. That night he woke up the dentist and asked him to pull out a tooth that was supposedly causing all sorts of pain. The next morning he was back to his usual self.


It is noteworthy that O’Brien wants to avoid lionizing a dead soldier that he didn’t have much respect for when he was alive. His distaste for generalizations and obsession with a ‘true’ war story is such that he relates this comical episode about someone who was supposed to be such a diehard warrior.

We also see to what lengths Lemon will go to avoid the blush of dishonor, even over something as silly as a dentist’s chair. Curt forces the dentist to pull out a perfectly good tooth rather than live with the shame of having fainted at the sight of the drill. It is another example of how bravery can have adverse affects.



Rat Kiley was prone to exaggeration, so when he told a story most guys would estimate the square root of his claims and take that for the truth. But on this next story he never backed down.

When Rat had first come in country he had been stationed at a little first aid station up in the mountains of Chu Lai, near the village of Song Tra Bong. There were no higher-ups around and the place saw very little action, so they spent their days playing volleyball and drinking beer. Aside from the eight medics, there was also a squad of Green Berets that used the camps as a base of operations. They came and went at odd hours and Rat hardly ever saw them.

Things were so quiet the guys joked about bringing their girlfriends over to help kill the time. A guy named Mark Fossie kept coming back to the idea, planning out how it could actually work. Then one day, about six weeks later, Mark’s high school sweetheart actually showed up at the base. Mark and Mary Anne made their house in one of the bunkers along the perimeter, and she spent the days holding hands with Mark, playing volleyball, and learning about surgery and the war. She was young, but extremely curious. She asked tons of questions and learned very quickly. The guys were impressed with her.

But Mary changed as she learned. He face took on a new complexion, she stopped wearing makeup, and she cut her long hair. Mark was proud of her, but the transformation made him a little uncomfortable. Once or twice he suggested it was time for her to go back home. Mary and Mark had always planned on getting married right after the war, but the longer Mary stayed in Vietnam, the more the plans change. Mary seemed more and more sure of herself, and Mark didn’t know what to make of it. She started coming in later and later at night, until one night she didn’t come home at all. Mark and Rat walked the entire perimeter without finding her.

Rat Kiley stops the story there to let the guys guess her fate. A few believe she’s having sex with another soldier, but Sanders realizes that she has to be out with the Green Berets. (Why else would they be mentioned in the story?) Rat confirms it - Mary Anne spent the night out on ambush with the squadron of Green Berets.

When she arrived back at the compound the next morning, Mary and Mark had a discussion that seemed to bring her back to normal for a while. She returned to her usual style of dress and the couple resumed talk of the big wedding they would have when they got back to Cleveland Heights. But behind the cheerful banter there was tension, they held hands as if afraid to let go. The night before Mary Anne was scheduled to leave, Mark came over to Rat Kiley’s bunk and announced that she was gone again. (page 105)

This time she didn’t return for three weeks. One night the six green berets came tramping through the compound and Mary Anne was right behind. She didn’t even look at Mark, just followed the Greenies into their hootch. Rat advised Mark not to mess around with the Green Berets, but eventually he had to go in and try to bring her out. When he saw her she was wearing a necklace made out of human tongues. But the most surprising aspect about her was her face - flat, expressionless, no emotion. She explained to Mark that Vietnam made her feel alive, in touch with herself, and she wasn’t going back. Mark had no choice but to leave the hootch without her.

So Mary Anne stayed on with the Greenies, going on night patrols and ambushes. She enjoyed wearing the camouflage, the adrenaline rush of war. Eventually, she started taking chances as if she had a death wish, doing things that would mystify even the greenies. Finally, Mary Anne walked into the jungle and never came back. The authorities launched an investigation, but found nothing. If you believe the greenies, she’s still out there in the mountains.


Mary Anne represents innocence. She is the hometown girl with her pink sweater and culottes. Her arrival in Vietnam is a clash between the accepted norms and values of Cleveland Heights, Ohio and the ‘Garden of Evil’. Before coming to Song Tra Bong, Mary Anne could never have understood Mark’s experiences in the war. Explaining the war is “like trying to tell someone what chocolate tastes like.” (page 113) But that child-like state us appealing to the soldiers. It reminds them of everything good about the USA, reminds them what they’re fighting for.

Once Mary Anne arrives in Song Tra Bong and begins learning about the war and identifying with its participants, that innocence begins to fade. Mark is disturbed by the change that comes over her, Vietnam slowly seeps into her pores and contaminates his lily-skinned sweatheart. As she figures out the topography, learns how to clamp an artery and clean a rifle, she decides that maybe she doesn’t want to get married right away, have babies and move into the house with the white picket fence. By the time Mark finds her in the Greenies she’s wearing a necklace made of human tongues, unrecognizable to anyone who saw her first enter the country. The war has taken another bright-eyed American teenager and turned her into a killing machine.

On another level, Mary Anne represents the innocence of the country itself. America approached the war with a youthful vigor, flushed with its new status as a superpower and ready to stem the tide of communism. After a decade of fighting guerilla warfare, America was a very different country with a different conception of itself.

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