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Plot Summary: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Free Study Notes

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED: PLOT SUMMARY / STUDY NOTES

CHAPTER 20: THE GHOST SOLDIERS

Summary

O’Brien was shot twice. The first time he was right next to the medic, Rat Kiley. Rat took good care of him, checking on him several times during the firefight. It was a side wound, and O’Brien just lay there holding down the compress and thinking, “I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot.” It was dark before the chopper came to get him. As they loaded him up, Rat came by and hugged him - a rare display of affection.

When O’Brien returned to the company Rat had been wounded and shipped off to Japan, replaced by an incompetent newcomer named Bobby Jorgensen. When O’Brien got shot the second time, Jorgensen was late getting in to treat him, and when he finally arrived he forgot to treat for shock. O’Brien almost died. Jorgensen also bungled the patch job, giving O’Brien a case of borderline gangrene. Instead of feeling proud of being shot, O’Brien felt humiliation. Especially since the nurses joked about his butt-wound as diaper rash. He hated Jorgensen with a hate so deep it stays with you in your dreams.

After he was released from the hospital, the higher-ups transferred O’Brien to a headquarters station. It was safe and easy compared to the boonies, but he missed the deep camaraderie associated with the danger out in the boonies. The pain of his wounded butt was still with him, and made him hate Jorgensen all the more. He wanted Jorgensen to feel what he had felt. In March, he got his opportunity when Alpha Company came into the base for stand-down. As they partied together, O’Brien realized that his clean clothes and neat haircut separated him from the rest of the soldiers who were still out there fighting. Norman tells a story about a guy who used up his luck, but O’Brien only wants to know where Jorgensen is.


But he doesn’t ever run into Jorgensen, and the guys in Alpha company tell him to just forget about it. The guy messed up bad, but he’s got it together now. And, after all, he’s with the company now, while O’Brien is more of a civilian. Even though he understands how loyalties work in the army, O’Brien feels betrayed that Sanders defends Jorgensen instead of supporting his style of revenge. The next morning Jorgensen approached O’Brien as he was finishing loading the helicopters. Jorgensen admitted to botching the job and asked for O’Brien’s forgiveness. O’Brien almost felt guilty, but not quite.

As he pondered his revenge, O’Brien realized that the daily routine and harsh reality of war had changed him. He was mean inside; all the civilizing influence of higher education had eroded. Jorgensen had almost let him die, and there had to be consequences. Sanders refused to help him though, so he enlisted Azar’s help. When the day of the attack came, O’Brien had softened a little and was looking for a reason to call it off, but when he saw Jorgensen sitting at the table with Alpha Company, laughing with all his old friends, he decided to go through with it. That night he followed Jorgensen to his sentry post spot. He reminded Azar that this wasn’t for real. Azar replied that sometimes he can’t remember what’s real and what’s not.

O’Brien waited for the night to fall, when the darkness winds itself inside you and start to hear and see things that aren’t really there. He and Azar had set up ropes and wires connected to noisemakers. Every few minutes they would pull on one to try and startle Jorgensen. Slowly they increased the frequency and level of the noises, then took a break to let the tension subside. At three AM they returned a lit a series of trip flares outside the compound that had Jorgensen diving behind his sandbags. At that point, O’Brien was satisfied and wanted to call it off. Azar, however, was just getting started. He criticized O’Brien for being a has-been, whereas Azar loved the game, the thrill of Vietnam. As O’Brien watches Azar continue the prank he starts to have flashbacks about getting shot. Azar lobbed a few smoke grenades and brought out the white sandbag on a pulley that O’Brien had rigged up. Jorgensen fired a round into the sandbag, much to Azar’s delight. Azar continued to light up flares while Jorgensen trembled on the ground, until finally Jorgensen figured out what was happening and yelled out “O’Brien!” Once he realized the joke was over, Azar kicked O’Brien in the head, muttered what a sorry case he was, and walked away.

As Jorgensen stitched up O’Brien’s head, he talked about how convincing the prank had been, saying that he should work on a movie set. For a moment O’Brien feels closer to him than he does to Alpha company. He suggests to Jorgensen that they ‘kill’ Azar, and Jorgensen replies it would be fun to scare him good. “Sure,” O’Brien responds, “Or just kill him”.

Notes

The war may have deprived O’Brien of many things, but it also gives him a sense of camaraderie deeper than anything he’s ever known. When he’s shot the second time and has to be transferred down to the base because the medic bungles the patch job, he’s deprived of the one meaningful thing in his life - the companionship of Alpha Company. This is what fuels his hate of Jorgensen more than anything. He misses the close relationships he developed out in the boonies. After Jorgensen tries to apologize for screwing up the treatment of O’Brien’s wound, the hate over that incident dies away - but it is quickly replaced. O’Brien almost call off the prank, but when he sees Jorgensen eating with his old platoon, a new animosity swells within him. He feels as though Jorgensen has replaced him in the platoon, which helps him commit to going through with the joke.

This quest for retribution, which is really just a search for companionship, causes O’Brien to make an unholy alliance. He enlists the help of Azar, who he detests. As they begin to enact the prank, O’Brien feels the thrill of the hunt and realizes how much he misses the action. The war has changed him; he almost enjoys the fear and the rush of adrenaline that accompanies it. For a moment he feels close to Azar, but that changes the instant he decides enough is enough. Azar cares nothing for O’Brien, he loves the kill and doesn’t plan on stopping until he gets it. O’Brien undertakes the practical joke out of a need to feel camaraderie. Instead, it causes him feeling more isolated. In a moment of irony, O’Brien actually feels closer to Jorgensen while getting stitched up than he ever did with Azar.


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