National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

Abstraction may make your head believe, but a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being.


Tim O'Brien (Copyright Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.”

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can't believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

Reed: That was actor Bradley Whitford reading from Tim O'Brien's novel and stories, The Things They Carried. Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, it's designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, director of The Big Read program, David Kipen.

David Kipen: Today we'll discuss Tim O'Brien's collection of inter-related short stories, The Things They Carried. O'Brien is a veteran of the Vietnam War, a subject he has returned to again and again in his writing.

Tim O'Brien.

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried is in part a book about the Vietnam War. In part it's a book about the power of stories in our lives. In part it's a book about reimagining events and revisiting events thirty years or more after they've occurred. As I say each of these things it's a little bit like pulling a strand out of a piece of cloth, that in the end it's a book about all those things and the human heart as well.

Kipen: The editor of several bestselling books, including Behind the Lines and War Letters, Andrew Carroll is involved with Operation Homecoming—a program created to preserve the writing of U.S. service members and their families.

Andrew Carroll: This is not a war book, it's a book that takes place in the context of war. But it is a book about stories and the importance of storytelling and how essential they are to our lives and what we can learn from them and the power that all of us have to tell stories.

Kipen: Published in 1990, The Things They Carried was a critical and commercial success. Tim O'Brien's writing is both compassionate and unrelenting in its descriptions of the effect of the Vietnam War on American GIs. Writer Richard Currey is also a Vietnam veteran. In fact, O'Brien praised Currey's classic Fatal Light as “one of the very best works of fiction to emerge from the Vietnam War.”

Richard Currey: Even though The Things They Carried falls into that great category of, quote, “war books” unquote, for me it's very much more a book about the American experience, the shared way that Vietnam, I think, really broke this country's heart and has haunted us for years and continues to echo and resonate as we are yet again engaged in military adventures around the globe.

Kipen: Max Paul Friedman is an associate professor of history at American University in Washington, DC.

Max Friedman: There's only one war, there's only one past but there are conflicting histories about it. That is to say the Vietnam War means different things to different people and these different meanings have serious political implications for today.

Kipen: Lasting from 1959 until 1973, the Vietnam War is the longest military conflict in U.S. history, and claimed the lives of more than 58,000 American soldiers and millions of southeast Asians.

Friedman: In the course of the war, two million Americans were drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Kipen: Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: Draftees who hadn't expected to be in the military were then sent to a strange and distant land with very trying physical circumstances, and asked to carry out a task that was not possible, for a purpose that their government could not explain to them in a satisfying way. These are the men that Tim O'Brien writes about so effectively.

Kipen: Andrew Carroll.

Caroll: This is a book that O'Brien wrote actually decades after he served in Vietnam as an infantry soldier, he was wounded. He calls it a work of fiction, but yet it's very clearly based on his experiences in Vietnam.

Kipen: In 1968, Tim O'Brien was drafted into the Army at age 21. Although he opposed the war, he reported for military service, and in February of 1969, was sent to Vietnam. When he returned home, after a stint in graduate school, he became a reporter for the Washington Post. In 1973, O'Brien published his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone. Although Vietnam and its aftermath continued to be his subject, he turned from non-fiction to fiction, winning the National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato, a novel about a soldier in Vietnam who attempts to walk from southeast Asia to Paris. Significantly, The Things They Carried is a work of fiction presented as a memoir, and it's one that keeps differentiating between the truth and the facts.

Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: There is a reason that fiction exists, and why don't we just tell the literal truth about everything, why does anybody make anything up? In fiction you can write about what almost happened but didn't happen, or you can write about what could've happened. I mean, I could've walked away from the Vietnam War and gone to Canada. I didn't, but I could've.

Kipen: Writer and English professor Lan Samantha Chang has frequently taught The Things They Carried to her creative writing students.

Samantha Chang: I think that Tim O'Brien, having been a soldier in the Vietnam War, understood what he was beginning to write The Things They Carried that on some level he would have to persuade and convince people whose experiences hadn't taken them anywhere close to Vietnam.

O'Brien: Even though I knew it would be largely invented I wanted to make it feel true in the literal sense, real, as if when we're reading a memoir, a work of nonfiction.

Kipen: And that's exactly what he did. The book opens with the title story, “The Things They Carried,” and in it we learn precisely what soldiers carried when they trudged through the jungles of Vietnam.

 

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity . Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. [..] Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.

Kipen: Poet E. Ethelbert Miller.

E. Ethelbert Miller I think the opening pages of Tim O'Brien's book is like a list poem of all the various things that a soldier would carry, you know, down to the actual weight.

Kipen: Richard Currey.

Currey: As this list develops over the course of a page and two pages, Tim will insert sentences such as “They shared the weight of memory,” and we began to understand where we're going here.

Kipen: A former captain in the U.S. Army, Craig Mullaney served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004.

Mullaney: He says, “As a first lieutenant and platoon leader Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a forty-five caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light, and the responsibility for the lives of his men.” And that pivoting between the, the facts, the literal truth of what he carried, but then the intangible things that every soldier and leader carries, that have their own weight, you can't measure on a scale.

Kipen: Richard Currey.

Currey: We begin to see that what these young men are carrying is, is memory, is their capacity to understand or not understand what's about to happen to them, their ability to fathom the nature of the experience that they're sharing.

Mullaney: Each of them has a part of them that's distracted, that's, that's always home. You're in two places at once. And that's part of the things they carried. They carry home with them. They carry their memories. They carry their hopes. It's certainly true to my experience as well. I carried Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried to Afghanistan.

Kipen: Craig Mullaney.

Mullaney: You know, a book like this could allow me to have a running conversation with someone who'd, who'd walked in my boots before, and to know that I wasn't alone.

 

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.

Kipen: The media played an enormous role in America's perception of the Vietnam War. Given virtually unlimited access to the entire country, journalists could and did bring the war home with unprecedented realism.

Writer Alice McDermott.

Alice McDermott: I recall so vividly the faces of the soldiers in Vietnam that we saw almost, it seemed to me, on a daily basis in newspapers, on television. We didn't just see their official photographs, if they had been killed, printed in the paper, we saw kids on stretchers being hustled out of the jungle.

Kipen: Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: And so the media brought home the reality of how the war was going to an American public that had no access to that information otherwise. That was important because Americans were becoming increasingly interested in what was happening in Vietnam.

Kipen: Often for the men who served, the extensive media coverage couldn't quite convey the experience in Vietnam, in-country.

Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: The goal of The Things They Carried is to, in a large part, is to make readers feel something of what I felt all those years ago and after returning from the war, in a way that a thirty second clip on CNN can't and doesn't aspire to. The way newspaper stories are not gonna make you feel what it is to be frustrated by never being able to find the enemy, and having man after man die and another man die, and another man lose his legs, and you can't find anything to shoot back at, and you don't believe in the war anyway.

Kipen: As the fighting dragged on, many Americans began to question both the success and the goals of the war. On one hand, the official word from Washington, D.C. was that the war was going well, but night after night Americans were getting a very different message from the pictures on their television screens.

Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: For one thing it was very difficult to measure success. In a war without front lines how do you quantify how well you are doing? Well, the Pentagon came up with a quantifiable measure, which was the number of enemy killed, the famous body counts.

Kipen: E. Ethelbert Miller.

Miller: When you look at the war in Vietnam, the war in Vietnam is this puzzle, it's not clear-cut like World War I or World War II. And so many people did not know why they were there, the enemy was invisible, you know, to some extent, you know, people just shooting into, into the jungle.

Kipen: Writer Alice McDermott.

McDermott: And it felt much more of a place apart. There wasn't a sense that we were all in this together. What O'Brien talks about so much in The Things They Carried and what I certainly heard from the Vietnam vets I knew was that sense of covering the same ground over and over again, and not ever feeling you were coming any closer to succeeding, even if you weren't quite sure what success would look like.

Kipen: Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: The war in Vietnam at times, on the ground, didn't feel literally true. It didn't feel as if it could be true, it felt as if one had tumbled through a black hole and landed in wonderland, and right was wrong, and wrong was right, and civility was savagery, and everything went upside down.

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.

Kipen: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

Welcome back to The Big Read. Today, we're discussing The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

Carroll: The greatest challenge for any veteran who wants to write about his or her experiences, and this might be true for anyone who has gone through trauma, is how do you describe the indescribable?

Kipen: Writer Andrew Carroll is the founder of the Legacy Project, a national initiative to preserve the letters of soldiers.

Carroll: How do you capture the enormity of war? How do you in some ways convey the range of emotions you've experienced, the surreal, almost hallucinatory nature of warfare?

Kipen: Poet E. Ethelbert Miller.

Miller: When writers want to write about this period, how do you present it in such a way that you're not unpatriotic. But how do you still try to deal with the truth? And sometime what happens through storytelling—you present different angles.

Kipen: Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: There are times in life when an event occurs and you go to tell about it, and you're utterly and absolutely factual in your effort to recount what occurred. But when you've finished it feels as if somehow part of the truth is missing even though the facts are there. And there are other times in life when you begin exaggerating and revving up the facts, maybe adding a little bit here, subtracting a bit there, as a way of trying to get at an emotional or spiritual or psychological truth.

Kipen: Historian Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: American draftees would be sent for a single year to Vietnam, and at the end of their calendar year they were sent home, individually, and suddenly sort of parachute dropped back into civilian life without a support network. And that meant that after going through extraordinarily difficult experiences in Vietnam and surviving, they then had no period of adjustment. They didn't have the solidarity of other people who had gone through the same things. And that sort of atomized experience of the Vietnam veteran helps to explain why many of them were psychologically traumatized.

Kipen: Writer Richard Currey.

Currey: And that hovering world of policy and politics is beautifully rendered here. You can sense it even when Norman Bowker is back home, the war is over, he's driving aimlessly around the lake, in the story called “Speaking of Courage.”

Kipen: Norman Bowker has served with Alpha Company in Vietnam and found his reentry into civilian life difficult. He drives around and around the lake in his hometown, and imagines how he would tell the story of watching his friend Kiowa die in a leach field during a late-night firefight.

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

The field was boiling. The shells made deep slushy craters, opening up all those years of waste, centuries worth, and the smell came bubbling out of the earth. [...] The rain was hard and steady. Along the perimeter there were quick bursts of gunfire. [...] He heard the valves in his heart. He heard the quick, feathering action of the hinges. Extraordinary, he thought. As he came up, a pair of red flares puffed open, a soft fuzzy glow, and in the glow he saw Kiowa's wide-open eyes settling down into the scum. Briefly, all he could do was watch. He heard himself moan. Then he moved again, crabbing forward, but when he got there Kiowa was almost completely under. There was a knee. There was an arm and a gold wristwatch and part of a boot. [...]

There were bubbles where Kiowa's head should've been.

Kipen: Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: That sense of being in the waste was, for me as a soldier at least, the greatest memory I hold, that I carry with me from Vietnam; I felt I was enfolded in wastage, the wastage of life, it's centuries old, going back to the time of the first war, I was folded in with all the dead soldiers from all the wars, and all the wars to come.

Friedman: The Things They Carried speaks to the enormous burdens that were laid on the American soldiers, of whom Tim O'Brien had been one.

Kipen: Max Paul Friedman.

Friedman: One of them dies, suffocating in a field of sewage, anything but a heroic death, and a microcosm of what was happening to the whole army, sinking into the quagmire of Vietnam.

Kipen: Lan Samantha Chang.

Chang: It's kind of the black hole of the war effort that people gave up their lives for, turned into an actual physical presence, this giant field of mud and waste that literally sucks up one of the most beloved members of the platoon and does not give him back.

Kipen: Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: So the chapters "Notes," "In the Field," and "Speaking of Courage," which are at the heart of The Things They Carried, right in the middle of the book, are meant to get at this sense I had as a soldier, a personal sense of being stirred in the muck of all wars and all horror.

Kipen: Craig Mullaney.

Mullaney: And so what better way as a storyteller to capture that and to recount the same incident from different perspectives both in the moment and after the fact, and to recognize that over a lifetime you're refighting the same fight, and so are each of the participants, and so are the dead. Those ghosts never leave you.

Kipen: Andrew Carroll.

Carroll: And that's the other thing I think is so important about this book, is he talks about the long-term consequences emotionally of war, and he talks about the end of Norman Bowker, who was someone he knew who wrote him a letter about the difficulties he was going through now that he was back home. And O'Brien felt that he had sort of made the shift rather seamlessly. But obviously not, because he's still writing about these experiences.

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

It's time to be blunt.

I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Niang province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it's not a game. It's a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I'm thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe, I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth, I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Kipen: Today, O'Brien continues to write. He also teaches at Southwest Texas State University. Yet, he still grapples with the experience of military service in Vietnam.

O'Brien And I must say that even thirty, forty years later, I'll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and wonder did, did I really serve as a foot soldier in that war, and did I really get wounded, did I really watch friends die? Or is it a dream?

Kipen: Craig Mullaney documented his own military experience, from West Point to Afghanistan, in his book, The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education.

Mullaney: I mean, The Things They Carried , it's also the things they carried home, that the war doesn't, the war doesn't end with a peace treaty, you bring the war back home with you and you're still wrestling with those same battles over and over and over again.

Kipen: Andrew Caroll.

Carroll: One of the most important parts of the book is he talks about the value of telling stories for the teller, how cathartic it is, and that's something we've seen with so many troops who've come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who've been submitting stories for Operation Homecoming, that it was almost like getting a weight off their chest, to put these stories down on paper, even if no one was gonna read them.

Kipen: E. Ethelbert Miller.

Miller: I think there's a symbolism there, it's a sense of solidarity, love, and what makes soldiers, soldiers, and that bond that they have between them, and the responsibility that you have if someone is no longer with you. You honor their memory.

Kipen: Lan Samantha Chang.

Chang: Things happen and people forget. The most terrible things can happen and people forget. And one of the goals of, one of the missions of any writer is to try to describe something that happened in such a way that it would be memorable, that it will live on as part of our consciousness, because on some level to forget about it would be wrong.

Kipen: Alice McDermott.

McDermott: We tell stories to, to bring back the dead, we tell stories to stand against time, we tell stories because people we love die and, and we're not, we're not very pleased with that, we are gonna find a way to circumvent that unfortunate circumstance.

Kipen: Richard Currey

Currey: We will always translate what has happened to us, with us, on behalf of us, to other people we know, we will always translate that into a narrative.

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there's nothing to remember except the story.

Josephine Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Adam Kampe. The assistant producers were Liz Mehaffey and Pepper Smith. David Kipen hosted the program. Readings from The Things They Carried were by Bradley Whitford.

Excerpts from “Floor of the Forest” composed and performed by Jeffrey Roden, used courtesy of Jeffrey Roden and the Big Tree Music. Excerpts from “Desolation” composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions. Excerpts from “Paint It Black,” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and performed by The Rolling Stones, used courtesy of ABKCO Music and Records, Incorporated. Excerpts from “The Moon is Down” and “Memorial” performed by Explosions in the Sky, used courtesy of Temporary Residence, LTD.

Excerpts from the following used courtesy of Naxos of America, Incorporated: Sir Edward Elgar's Elegy Op. 58, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op 131, performed by the Kodaly Quartet. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Sound effects by Brent Findley at Sonic Magic Studios, Culver City, California.

Thanks to Ted Libbey, Bill O'Brien, Ronald Spector and to our contributors: Andrew Carroll, Lan Samantha Chang, Richard Currey, Max Paul Friedman, Alice McDermott, E. Ethelbert Miller, Craig Mullaney, and a special thanks to Tim O'Brien.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm the executive producer, Josephine Reed.

Thanks for listening. For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org. That's www.neabigread.org

Bradley Whitford reads from The Things They Carried...

They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

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