The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is basically a war story during the Vietnam War. The war does not revolve around things such as heroism or tactics. It is characterized by boredom and terrific moments.

Apart from that, it is a backdrop that defines the force against the lives of the soldiers. O’Brien lays emphasis on the fact that it is not easy to generalize what is entailed in war. The story addresses different themes but war is among its main themes. Tim O’Brien is among the characters that play important roles in the story.

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There is a close connection between O’Brien and the theme of war. This essay will discuss the connection between O’Brien as a character and the theme of war in The Things They Carried.


O’Brien focuses on telling war stories. The Things They Carried is a work of fiction and throughout the story, there is interplay between fact and fiction. O’Brien tells the story authoritatively due to the fact that he was there during the actual war. With reference to the Vietnam War, no one can actually tell the story better than a person like O’Brien who witnessed the action. Assuming a position of authority, O’Brien goes ahead to define the parameters characteristic of a true war story. He says that a true war story lacks moral.

It never instructs nor encourages virtue and does not even suggest models of the right human behavior or restrain men from doing the things they always do. O’Brien does not agree with the idea that war stories are vehicles for restitution or change. He represents war as hell, mystery, terror and discovery. He adds that it is a nasty and a thrilling experience that makes people men and also leaves them dead. He says that there is need to hold together the irreconcilable opposites because their oxymoronic togetherness articulates the reality of war. He writes that the recollection of the death of Curt Lemon is possible when the ‘surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth is seemed’ (O’Brien 78). Here, O’Brien deals with the challenge of representation, the weakness of language to convey meaning, flavor, boredom and the feelings of war. Inscription and re-inscription are the only ways through which he hopes to appropriately pass the message on the truth of war.

This makes the theme of war in the story circular and repetitive. For every assertion of truth, it is important to qualify and re-present it for it to be considered authentic. O’Brien creates a situation that conveys the message that there is no heroism or morality that is derived from the experiences of war. O’Brien presents war as a disembodied presence with a life of its own, where deadly equipment like napalm and white phosphorus undergo a magical transformation into morally acceptable objects of beauty. He portrays astuteness to the extent that he acknowledges the fact that describing such destruction as beautiful is in itself ugly truth. However, justification for telling of the truth is advanced on the basis of the role the truth plays. Ugly truths like the fascination that war begets are bound to be expressed although in expressing such truths, war is anesthetized and domesticated.

The absolute moral indifference that O’Brien relates to bombing raids and artillery barrages is only defendable if the raids or barrages have no human agencies behind them (O’Brien 80). The fact that there is always human agencies behind war and the eloquent portrayal by O’Brien that war maims and kills make it difficult to uphold an opinion of moral or aesthetic perspective of war. The unleashing of such negative impacts of war trivializes any morality in war. In presenting an alternative moral perspective, O’Brien perpetrates a mythic fascination with the horrific occurrences associated with war. O’Brien says that despite the fact that war is hell, it is comprised of many other contradictions. A firefight is followed by a mysterious experience of surviving the ordeal. He says that war is ambiguous and concurs with a story told by Sanders of men who heard things in the forest during war. He therefore concludes by saying that a true war story does not tell absolute truth.

He recalls the circumstances that led to the death of Lemon as he smiled and talked but was killed within a second. His body was thrown into a tree and they were instructed to retrieve it with Jensen. O’Brien says that true war stories are identifiable by the questions that follow the war. He retells the story of a man who was nearly killed a grenade as he tried to protect his friends.

His message is that war stories that seem true never actually happened.


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a compelling story of the Vietnam War. In the story, different characters are used to express different themes such as emotional and physical burden among others. However, the theme of war runs throughout the story. O’Brien is himself one of the characters in the story and tells the story of the war as a person who witnessed it. He is closely connected with the theme of war in the story such that without him the theme cannot be brought out so clearly.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Print


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