"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien: A War Memoir - 1181 Words | Essay Example (2023)

“The Things They Carried” is a short story written by Tim O’Brien to present to the readers his own autobiography and a war memoir. O’Brien complicates the narration by creating the protagonist who actually shares his real name. The story is about a platoon of soldiers from the American soil fighting in the Vietnam War.

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The title of the story “The Things They Carried” is effective for it describes the soldiers and the kind of valuables they brought along in their missions. This is evidenced by the introduction of the story where Tim O’Brien gives a detailed description of the main characters and what they carry from the physical items to emotional ones as well. This paper will focus on the title of the story “The Things They Carried” and how it acts as a guide to the meaning of the story.

Through the use of literary techniques, the author gives detailed accounts of the tangible and intangible things which the soldiers take with them and which most of the times burden them. Each of the soldier’s possessions defines the kind of people they really are. The things that the soldiers carry depend on several factors like their constitutions, priorities, missions, necessity, and sometimes superstition.

The narrator says “they carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28 pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, and each other.” If the soldiers happen to arrive home safely and sound, “they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war” (O’Brien, 2009). The title of the story fits well with its meaning as evidenced by the first point of view of the narrator when describing the things they carry.

Jimmy Cross the Lieutenant of the company carries letters written by his girlfriend Martha everywhere he goes. Even though the girl has not given Jimmy a sign or an indication of love, he still carries the letters as a reminder of his love for her. Jimmy’s backpack carries each letter written by Martha and his mouth carries “her good luck charm” (O’Brien, 2009).

After marching the whole day, Jimmy would sit down, unwrap the letters and fantasize that Martha will one day come to her senses and returning his love. Apart from the letters, Jimmy does carry Martha’s photographs to serve as a memory of her. It was only once that he got the chance to go on a movie date with Martha.

During the movie, he had touched her knee and the look she gave him made Jimmy withdraw his hand fast. O’Brien explains that, while on mission, Jimmy wishes that “he had carried her upstairs, tied her to the bed, and touched her knee the whole night” (2009).

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The description of the physical items carried by the men on their day to day events give the story a meaning. The narrator O’Brien makes it possible for the reader to realize this; he explains the physical items as mosquito repellants, chewing gums, and pocket knives among others (2009).

Henry Dobbins one of the platoon members carries a large machine gun and extra rations of food to nourish his huge body. At the same time, Dobbins superstitious nature makes him carry and tie the pantyhose of his girlfriend around the neck. Ted Lavender who is ever nervous carries tranquilizers and marijuana to use when he need to calm down. Kiowa who is a religious man carries the New Testament Bible given to him by his father in all missions. The things that these men carry are highly determined by the kind of necessities they have.

One Dave Jensen is a very hygienic man and as a result, he carries his tooth brush wherever he goes together with dental floss and bar soaps stolen from Sydney, Australia. As a matter of necessity, the men are required to carry important items like wrist watches, mosquito repellants, can openers, heat tabs, pocket knives, lighters, sewing kits, matches, salt, cigarettes, water, food rations, and Military payment Certificates among other items.

Steel helmets and camouflage covers are equally a necessity which each man has to carry. For clothing, the men would carry fatigue trousers and jackets, boots, socks, and foot powder to protect them against foot diseases. While Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, Norman Bowker carries his diary, and Rat Kiley values his comic books and carries them everywhere.

According to O’Brien, the land is full of booby traps, therefore it is a necessity for every man to carry “steel centered, nylon covered flak jacket” (2009).

With the cold nights, it is a requirement that the men carry plastic ponchos which are green in color, to use as raincoats during the monsoons or makeshift tent or even a groundsheet. All these items are universal and essential as evidenced by Ted Lavender’s situation after he is shot; using the poncho, the men wrap him well and carry him across the paddies to the chopper which takes him away for treatment.

Depending on psychology and topography, the men carry the right kind of weapons and enough ammunition. According to the type of mission, the men carry varied weapons to suit the varied situations. They carry M-14S, shotguns, Simonov carbines, bayonets, Smith and Wesson handguns, and silencers among the many types of weapons.

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In most situations, Lee Strunk carries his slingshot which he calls “the weapon of last resort” (O’Brien, 2009). Kiowa would carry the hatchet which his grandfather was fond of using and Mitchell Sanders carries brass knuckles. Each man is required to carry grenades; the grenades could be smoke grenades, white phosphoric grenades or tear gas grenades.

Tim O’Brien explains that “they carried all they could bear, and then some; including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (O’Brien, 2009).

The things they carry also vary with the kind of mission to attend; on a mountainous mission, the men carry machetes, tarps, mosquito nets, and bug juice. On night and ambush missions, each man carries the most valued item in their lives. The title the things they carried gives meaning to the entire story as evidenced by the stuff the soldiers carry.

Superstition plays a role in the things the men carry; Jimmy Cross does not leave his good luck charm in the form of a pebble given to him by Martha. Dave Jenson carries along a rabbit foot and Norman Bowker carries the thumb given to him by Mitchell Sanders.

The men carry stationary, pens and pencils, safety pins, signal flares, razor blades, candles, fingernail clippers, trip flares, wire, hats, statuettes of the Buddha, and so much more.In conclusion, the things the men carry change after Ted Lavender’s death. With Lieutenant Jimmy Cross blaming himself for fantasizing about Martha instead of saving Ted, he burns everything that reminds him of her.

The title of the story gives its meaning; of all the things the men carry, the greatest burden is their emotions. They carry loads of desires, memories, and fears as well. To show the seriousness of the intangible burden, the lieutenant Jimmy Cross says “it is very sad the things the men carried inside” (O’Brien, 2009).


O’Brien, T. (2009). The things they carried: A work of fiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

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