Vietnam is a place that will make you angry and bitter, and there is no one back home who knows what you are going through; only the soldiers right there in the paddies could possibly understand.
All the men hump, or carry, different things into a battle. It might be a solid object like a backpack, or they might be carrying emotions or memories. One soldier wears his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck for good luck, one sleeps with a bible for a pillow, and another carries a slingshot--just in case.
Lieutenant Cross carries letters from a gray-eyed English Literature student named Martha, yet he also carries responsibility for the lives of all the men in his platoon. He isn’t sure which burden is heavier, but he knows without a doubt which is more present.
The Things They Carried presents a different way of viewing its characters. Through its interconnected short stories, the reader can enter their minds and figure out how their life stories affect their perspectives. We see what kind of people these soldiers are, what they have been through, and what they think about during the daily hump.
O’Brien talks about how he almost dodged the draft by fleeing to Canada, yet his lack of bravery forced him to return and go to war.
We hear about Norman Bowker and his guilt over the death of fellow soldier Kiowa, his longing to share his experiences, and his failure to do so.
The author gives advice on telling stories, and points out that it doesn’t matter if a story is true or not, what matters is how deeply the audience feels, maybe even experiences, what the author felt.
O’Brien goes back to the place Kiowa died twenty years later, and he brings his daughter with him. There, he takes time to place Kiowa’s moccasins, and his own memories of the event, in the mud at the bottom of the river.
O’Brien gets shot. He is helped by Rat Kiley, and nearly killed by Bobby Jorgensen’s ineptitude. When he tries to get revenge on Bobby, his own lack of impulse control reveals that he too is a “sorry, sorry case.”
The book finishes on the story of a girl the author loved when he was young. She died of cancer, but by talking about her, writing stories about her, he keeps her alive.
All the men walk around in a state of constant boredom and constant tension. They are aware that they might die at any moment. O’Brien describes how they try to cover their fear through tough talk and making up stories. Unfortunately, O’Brien is the only one able to share those stories with the real world through his writing. They all secretly long to do the same, but are too embarrassed, too alienated, or too ashamed to try.