the Things They Carried By Tim O'brien Literary Analysis

The Things They Carried

The book was written to remind readers of the preparedness of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. In this book, O’Brien discusses the types of items that soldiers led by First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried during the conflict. It describes the soldiers’ experiences on their way to Vietnam. The book’s scope is that it contains the various items that the soldiers carried, the experiences they had during the Vietnam War, the losses and gains made, and so on. the individual fears and burdens that came with being on the waterfront, and the role that the First Lieutenant played as the first commander of the 17-man platoon. The intended audience of the book includes anyone who has an interest in American culture and history, particularly as relates to war and peace including the consequences of these wars.

Main Idea

The main thesis of this book is that the things that the American soldiers carried during the war depended on or were determined mainly by the necessities of the war, the field of specialty, rank, or function, and the mission of the soldiers. The main themes covered by the author in this book include love, war, and peace, guilt and blame, friendship, truth, warfare, reputation, and respect. Another important idea of this boon by Tim O’Brien is that the failure of top leadership or lack thereof can have devastating consequences for an army in the actual war combat. This idea is evident when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s preoccupation with his relationship with or thoughts over Martha makes him incapable of properly carrying out his duty of ensuring the safety and security of his troop, something that led to the death of one of his crew, Ted Lavender. It indicates the significance of focus and composure when leading an army into war.


In this book, the author has accurately brought out the actual things as they took place during the Vietnam War. The author has given a clear and precise description of the things that the soldiers carried, their individual fears, emotions, feelings, needs, worries, and their attitudes towards the war and its necessity. In the book, O’Brien depicts the various burdens and challenges that the soldiers faced as they took part in the Vietnam War. The use of images of the various things that the soldiers carried with their individual weight clearly refer to the various burdens that the war had on them and their own concerns about the costs or consequences of the war. The use of a descriptive narrative to describe the events that took place during the Vietnam war, therefore, indicates the accuracy with which the author brings out the events as they transpired during the war and the soldiers’ experiences.

However, the book does not contain a description of the actual events or activities that took place during the war. Instead, the author’s focus is mainly on the specifics of the soldiers’ preparation for the war, their advances through the Khan Khe village in Vietnam. The author also accurately describes the feelings of the soldiers who were under his command, their movements, and conversations with each other during the war. Moreover, there is accuracy in the manner in which the author tells the sequence of events including the relationship among the soldiers and that with their Lieutenant-in-chief. The content of the book is also accurate since it correctly points out some of the issues that were involved in the Vietnam War in which the soldiers described in the book were engaged. Most of the events and things described in the book such as the killing of one of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s men, Lavender, during the war were also downplayed by some of the fellow soldiers, something that goes against our understanding of the events of the story.

The author has also given pieces of evidence to support his assertions about the things that were carried by the soldiers as they went to the war. For instance, O’Brien has given evidence of necessity which justified some of the things that the soldiers carried to the war. According to him, “the things they carried were largely determined by necessity” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 367). The evidence of these necessities that were in possession of the soldiers included canteens of water, cigarettes, lighters, openers, matches, candy, heat tabs, and chewing gum. Others included wristwatches, salt tablets, Military payment certificates, and dog tags. Besides these, the author has given evidence of various machines and tools that would help the soldiers in their war efforts. These included the 45-calliber pistols, PRC-25 radio and the M-16 machine guns and the maintenance gears. It is this military equipment that made it possible for the soldiers to effectively carry out their mandate on the waterfront even though they faced numerous challenges that they faced. Further, the author has given evidence of the various ways through which the soldiers felt about the war and how it affected their lives.



One of the strengths of this book is that it clearly describes the manner in which the soldiers were prepared for the Vietnam War. In the book, the author has precisely described how the soldiers carried various things as they headed to the war and how these things assisted them in their preparation for the war. Moreover, the book has been written in a clear and precise language that makes it possible for the readers to understand the sequence of events as they transpired during the Vietnam War. The author has not used complex terms in describing the various things that were carried to the war by the American soldiers. Additionally, the book accurately points out some of the dangers involved in the war such as the killing of some of the soldiers like Lavender who got shot during the war. This way, the author has managed to accurately give a description of the costs of the war and the impacts that the war had on the soldiers and their families.

For instance, in the case of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, going to the war separated him from his lover, Martha. This fact is also evident from the author’s statement that some of the soldiers who took part in the war carried pictures of their family members as they went to the war. This indicates that the war had adverse impacts on their social relationships and lives as they had to move away from their families. However, according to O’Brien, despite the challenges that the soldiers faced during the war, none of them was ready to quit the mission as others would see this as a cowardly act. This shows the kind of patriotism that these soldiers showed during the war by not being willing to cede ground despite the challenging nature of the war in which they were engaged.

The other strength of this book is that it does not contain any exaggeration of the soldiers’ experiences and how the events transpired during the war. Moreover, in the book, the author makes use of less complicated language that makes it possible for the readers to understand the theme of the book. Also, the book contains vivid descriptions of the various aspects of the war from logistics to the mission and the required gear for those participating in the war. Moreover, the book does not misrepresent the historical facts as they were involved in the Vietnam War. The firsthand narration of what happened during the war also gives readers the opportunity to understand how the war took place and what it took for the soldiers to prepare for and go to the Vietnam War.

Furthermore, the book contains relevant information on the war and how the soldiers who took part in the war carried various things to help them during the war. This information contained in the book is necessary for understanding the impacts of the Vietnam War on the soldiers. The author also provides important information on the various equipment that was carried by the soldiers to the war and the challenges that they faced during the war. On the surface, it is quite evident that the author clearly developed the various themes that run through the book. For instance, the theme of love has been depicted through the life of Lieutenant Jim Cross and his feelings for Martha. However, according to the author, it is the Lieutenant’s obsession with his love for Martha that might have led to the death of one of his troop soldiers, Lavender. This is because he did not take a lot of time to ensure the safety of his crew and spent most of his time thinking about Martha and his longing to go back and be with her even though he was not sure whether she loved him or not. At times, O’Brien states that the Lieutenant would withdraw from the soldiers and spend time alone thinking about Martha. He, therefore, lacked enough time for his soldiers and even failed to talk to them to give them advice or to address some of the issues they may have had during the war.


In spite of the strengths of the book, this book also has various limitations. The first limitation is that the book does not mention the actual events that took place during the war. Instead, the book puts too much emphasis on the things that each of the soldiers carried to the waterfront. While this underpins the level of preparedness of the soldiers for the war and the fact that war can be costly and demand regarding resources, it does little to convince the readers about the significance of the war itself. Further, in the book, O’Brien restricts the narration to just the things the soldiers carried and does not indicate the other side of the story such as any casualties resulting from the war. Thus, this makes the book somewhat boring as it does not show the readers any encounters between the soldiers and their enemies.

Furthermore, the book has laid more emphasis only on the military artilleries that the soldiers carried with them instead of focusing on the more important aspects of the Vietnam war make the book less interesting and monotonous. There is a lot of preoccupation with the physical things that the soldiers carried as they went to the war while less attention has been paid to the issues of war and peace that matter about the Vietnam war. Moreover, the book is too descriptive and contains no critical analysis of various aspects of the Vietnam war for which the soldiers described in the book were preparing for and took part in. Additionally, the book has failed to take into consideration the various aspects of the war and instead is based on aspects that do not convey the real essence of the war. Further, the book indicates only a limited understanding of the events as they took place during the war as evidenced by the use of descriptive rather than critical and analytic tone and language.

Moreover, in the book, we are told that it is only one soldier who lost his life while it is clear historically that the Vietnamese war led to the loss of lives of American soldiers who participated in the war. This is thus an inaccurate depiction of the impact of the war regarding the number of casualties involved in the war. The author merely talks about the soldiers burning down villages but does not give full details on how the soldiers fought the war and who their main challengers were. It is, therefore, difficult to understand how this book relates to war and peace while there is no clear enemy and the author only describes how the soldiers conducted themselves during the war.

Further, the book has a weakness of telling the story about the war from a more detached position and hence making it difficult for anyone to understand whether the author is really telling a war story or not. The book is full of descriptions that do not in a sense help the audience gain anything out of the many descriptions of the things that the soldiers had carried as they headed to the war. The book gives very little evidence to support the fact that these descriptions of what the soldiers carried were important in the long run in winning the war. Additionally, even though the book details some of the things that the soldiers carried with them while heading to Vietnam to fight in the war, it does not give the audience the ability to reach a conclusion about the essence of this equipment and tools that the soldiers carried. There has been no showing or suggestion of the fact that these tools were ever used in the war eventually.


The book also contains various omissions about the narration of the events that took place during the war. The author has omitted to mention various aspects of the Vietnam War that would have been mentioned. For instance, the author has failed or omitted to mention what the impacts of the war were and some of the reasons the war began in the first place. This might have helped set the framework for a general discussion of the war and the things that took place. Moreover, the book does not mention the fate of soldiers like Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and how they continued to shape the course of the war. In addition to this, the book represents a total failure when it comes to revealing some of the most important aspects of the Vietnam war such as the political factors that led to the war. O’Brien, in this book, has not effectively addressed some of the issues relating to the war like the killing of thousands of American soldiers.


My overall assessment of the book is that it has some historical relevance as it helps in understanding the real events that took place during the war in Vietnam by the American forces. Further, the book has been written in a way that befits the needs of various readers or audiences since the events have been coherently arranged and portray the actual events, however, scantily told or narrated, as they took place. Moreover, from the book, it is evident that the war in Vietnam was costly as it not only led to the loss of lives or injuries to the soldiers, but the government also spent a lot of money to keep the war going and supply then soldiers with the necessary equipment and other necessities like food for the soldiers. Hence, I would recommend anyone who has a key interest in American history to get themselves a copy of this interesting and wonderful book on war and peace.


O’Brien, T. (1994). The things they carried. In Tobias, W., The Vintage book of contemporary American short stories. New York: Vintage Books

Scott, A.O. “Voicing Vietnam: Tim O’Brien’s ‘Thing They Carried,’ Read by Bryan Cranston.” The New York Times, 21 November 2013, by-bryan-cranston.html. Accessed 10 March 2017

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