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

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Henry Dobbins was a good man and a superb soldier, but not the most sophisticated of people. He was like America itself: big and strong, full of good intentions, with a roll of fat around his midsection, and full of sentimentality. Henry used to tie his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck, believing it protected him from the enemy. It seemed to work. He tripped a bouncing betty that didn’t detonate, and survived getting caught out in the open during a firefight. Others in the platoon started to believe.

It was a hard blow when Henry got the letter from his girlfriend stating that she was dumping him. But he just turned to his pantyhose for comfort. “No Sweat” he said, “the magic doesn’t go away.” (Page 118)


Dobbins is symbolic of the United States. Powerful, blundering, but with the right intentions. O’Brien saw Americans clinging to their simplistic notions that the war would bring democracy to Asia just as Dobbins hung on to his nylon stockings. But he doesn’t completely discount the power of this sentimentality. Dobbins remained convinced of the stockings’ protective energy even after the supposed source of that energy, his girlfriend’s love, abandons him. By this time, the pantyhose myth has grown too powerful to be discredited.



One afternoon, the platoon came across a pagoda inhabited by only two monks, and they decided to make it their base of operations. When they dug their foxholes, the monks smiled and made a strange washing motion with their hands. Over the next few days, they developed a relationship with the monks, who spoke very little English. The monks hauled water for their baths and presented them with watermelons out of a nearby garden. The GI’s taught the monks how to clean and assemble their rifles, and gave them chocolate bars and cans of peaches in return.

Over time, Dobbins began to develop a kinship with the monks and talked about becoming a monk after the war. He’d thought about becoming a priest as a kid. He enjoyed being nice to people, visiting the sick. He could be good at that. He’d decided against it because of the need to preach sermons and explain why bad things happened to good people. The brainy part was not for him, but he’d be fine with the people part. If he were a monk, he thought, we could just wear robes, be nice to people, and enjoy the tranquility of the countryside.

Dobbins agreed with Kiowa that it was wrong for the soldiers to be setting up camp in a pagoda. No matter what the religion, it was still a church, and they were violating its sanctity. The most important thing, they concluded, was to treat the people well.


A continuation of the Dobbins-USA metaphor. Church, for him, is not about theology and the eternal questions of the hereafter. It’s about treating people with kindness. He may not understand Vietnamese history, or communism, or colonialism, or what he’s accomplishing in the war, but he’s content to just try and “treat the people nice” and hope things will work out.

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