Tim O’Brien’s ~’The Things They Carried~’ is a collection of short stories written about the Vietnam War. In this lesson, we will learn about Henry Dobbins, the platoon’s bighearted machine gunner.
The Machine Gunner
Have you ever known an individual who’s intimidating on the outside but congenial and sensitive once you get to know him?That’s the best way to describe Henry Dobbins.Dobbins is the platoon’s machine gunner.
He’s a large man who always carries 30 to 40 pounds of equipment with him.
Creating Order in Times of Chaos
Imagine being a soldier during the Vietnam War.While most of the United States’ conflicts have followed traditional conventions used for identifying and attacking military targets possessing large amounts of force, the guerrilla tactics used during the Vietnam War involved executing surprise attacks and planting booby traps.So how does Dobbins combat the unpredictability of his situation?Dobbins and his fellow soldier, Norman Bowker, maintain their sense of order by playing checkers every night. O’Brien describes the sense of peace he, and the others, attained from watching the checkers match.
He says, ‘The playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels or mountains or jungles. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larger strategies.
There was a winner and a loser. There were rules.’While each of the soldiers have their own way of dealing with the war, Dobbins uses the structure of checkers to distract himself from all the chaos surrounding him.
A Metaphor for America
If you were to personify America, how would you describe it?Tim O’Brien compares Dobbins to America, saying, ‘In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.’O’Brien describes Dobbins as both a good person and a good soldier but he doesn’t characterize him as particularly intelligent. However, although Dobbins’ responsibilities as a soldier require him to do some terrible things, he doesn’t allow that to change his beliefs about how others, including the Vietnamese citizens, should be treated.For example, when Azar jokes about the young, Vietnamese girl who dances through the carnage after the death of her family, Dobbins becomes angry and forces him to stop.
The Magic Pantyhose
How does a guy who isn’t particularly intelligent make it through the conflict?According to Dobbins, it’s his girlfriend’s pantyhose that bring him good luck.In addition to simply enjoying her scent on them, Dobbins believes her pantyhose keep him safe. That’s why he wears them around his neck.The pantyhose provide Dobbins with hope for a life outside of Vietnam someday but they also seem to provide him with physical protection through some type of unknown, mystical force.For example, O’Brien recalls, ‘In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty, which failed to detonate. And a week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight, no cover at all, but he just slipped the pantyhose over his nose and breathed deep and let the magic do its work.
‘After that, the entire platoon starts believing in the power of the pantyhose.Eventually, Dobbins’ girlfriend leaves him. Though he’s devastated at first, he soon concludes that ‘the magic doesn’t go away.’
Henry Dobbins, the platoon’s machine gunner, is a big guy with a big heart. Even in the midst of horror, chaos, and destruction, he manages to maintain an even keel, finding comfort in playing orderly games of checkers to combat the disorderly life of a soldier in Vietnam. Author Tim O’Brien describes Dobbins as a metaphor for America because he’s virtuous, strong, hardworking, and full of good intentions.
When given the option, Dobbins sets high standards for treating others with respect – even the citizens of Vietnam.Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck, not just for reassurance that he will have a life beyond Vietnam, but because he believes they have the power to protect him. There are several situations in which he should have been left dead, or seriously injured, but miraculously comes out unscathed. Dobbins attributes his luck to the power of his girlfriend’s pantyhose.
Even after she breaks up with him, he continues to believe in their magic.