The Vietnam War is one of the most important wars to date. There were over 1 million total casualties, many of whom were innocent civilians. Tim O’Brien was one of the soldiers in this war, and he documents some of his experiences in The Things They Carried. Although he was in the war and there is a character in the book named Tim O’Brien, he claims that this novel is a work of fiction. He has previously stated that some of his inspiration for the book was based on his real-life experiences, but nothing in the book happened. Analyzing the novel through a psychological lens, it becomes clear that this war had irreversible changes on the men that fought, leaving mental scars that will never heal. O’Brien describes his experiences in the Vietnam War and uses his skills as a writer to make it very lifelike and give an actual feel of what it was like to be there. Throughout The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien utilizes deep symbolism and a unique writing style to show that the soldiers in the Vietnam War were changed forever, leaving mental scars that can never heal.
To begin, one of the stories in this book that demonstrates O’Brien’s skill of capturing the soldiers’ emotions is titled “The Man I Killed.” There are multiple occasions in this chapter in which further analysis reveals the mental toll taken on these soldiers. It wouldn’t be easy going to war and seeing hundreds upon thousands of people dying, but O’Brien manages to capture the emotions precisely in this novel. In the story, after Tim accidentally kills a man, Kiowa kneeled.
Tim is struggling to get over the fact that he kills a man; it has a lasting effect on him and it’s very hard for him to relieve himself of the guilt that follows. Even after this reassurance from Kiowa, he is still clearly very shaken by what he has done. Kiowa notices this and approaches him again. Kiowa tries to offer further reassurance that it was not Tim’s fault, hoping that it will help him finally relax and realize that there is nothing he could have done about it. Despite all of this, Tim killing somebody in a war for the first time is a memory that will stay with him forever.
The second example of O’Brien’s craft as a writer is in the chapter “Speaking of Courage.” He can perfectly portray the lasting effects of seeing a close friend die on the battlefield. On page 141, he points out that. He spends an entire paragraph leading up to this, using little bits of repetition here and there. His use of complex diction allows a strong feeling of actually being there. Later in this chapter, Norman Bowker is driving circles around a lake to get his mind clear. He imagines a scenario in his head where he opens up about it with his father, who would be sitting in the passenger seat next to him.
This is one of the points in this novel where after some further analysis it is clear that there is some symbolism. At the point in which he imagines this scenario, he is on his eleventh loop around the lake. This circular road around a lake represents his mind and the fact that no matter where he goes he just can’t seem to get his mind off of Kiowa’s death. He can’t do anything other than blaming himself. He continues to believe that there was something he could’ve done, even though it would be a natural human reaction to let Kiowa go after all that struggling. Norman can’t help but convince himself there was at least a little glimmer of hope at that moment, and this causes him to continue in his life with constant reminders in his mind that he was responsible for the death of a fellow soldier.
Another great example of the symbolism that O’Brien creates is in the chapter “In The Field.” As the book is coming to a close, the focus is on Jimmy Cross. Cross himself symbolizes Jesus Christ, as the soldiers all look up to him, and his initials are JC. He accepts the blame for Kiowa’s death, and most places it upon himself, because he is their Lieutenant, and he is responsible for all of the soldiers. Kiowa’s death is something that haunts Cross for the rest of his life, especially while still in the war. He dreads the thought of writing a letter to Kiowa’s dad, but at the same time, he knows he must do it to relieve the guilt that is weighing down on him and leave a mental scar that can never heal. Before this, Azar and Norman are talking, and they are both blaming themselves for the issue. It had sort of become the elephant in the room, and neither of them can ignore it any longer.
Even after a discussion with Azar, Norman continues to blame solely himself for the death of Kiowa. This weight on his shoulders lasted until he talked with his father, and continued even after that.
In conclusion, The Things They Carried is a powerful piece of literature that not only gives a feeling of actually being in the Vietnam War but also contains extensive symbolism and exquisite writing techniques. O’Brien almost perfectly recreates the pain and damage the soldiers had to go through. Every chapter has its various elements, yet they all still exactly align with O’Brien’s writing style. Every single person involved in the Vietnam War walked away from it with some form of mental scars, but the soldiers were affected the most. Spending day and night with their fellow troopers and then seeing them die right in front of their own eyes is something that haunts them for the rest of their lives.