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The Vietnam War was a long, controversial military conflict.

In this lesson, you’ll get a summary of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, including a breakdown of the main characters and major ideas.

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The War in Vietnam

The last decade or so has seen America fight in a series of unpopular wars. Perhaps we find the reality of these conflicts uncomfortable, and so we romanticize the wars of old, particularly World War II, a conflict that we see as a clear battle between right and wrong.

If we call the men and women who served their country during this war the ‘Greatest Generation,’ what does that say about the soldiers who fought and died during one of America’s least popular wars?Tim O’Brien, in his novel The Things They Carried, tells the story of the men of Alpha Company, a squad of soldiers in the Vietnam War. O’Brien cuts through the veil of romanticized war to show these men as heroic, flawed, loyal, afraid, and above all – human.


Here’s a breakdown of each of the main characters in the book.Tim O’Brien is the name of both the author, a Vietnam veteran himself, and a character in the novel, although he clearly states in the opening pages that the book is a work of fiction.

He’s a largely invisible character in the novel, only really appearing in a few of the stories. By the way, the book is written as a series of short stories that could stand alone and add up to some heavy-duty ideas about war in the end, but more on that later. And just when you’re sure that Tim O’Brien the character is Tim O’Brien the author, he mentions some details from his life that are absolutely not true about the book’s author.

So he’s blurring the lines between truth and fiction. More on that in the section on themes!Rat Kiley is like that uncle who tells the same story every year during the holidays, only the fish get bigger each time. He’s the squad’s medic, and he saves O’Brien’s bacon when Tim gets shot.

He’s a light-hearted guy, a jokester, and that makes it more troubling when Rat finally snaps. In a crucial chapter in the book, Rat slowly kills a baby water buffalo to relieve the tension from losing his good friend Curt Lemon.Jimmy Cross is the officer – a young, educated man who is in way over his head. He either spends his time daydreaming about a girl back home or racked with guilt because he believes that his poor decisions have led to the death of some of his men.

Kiowa, a Native American soldier on the team, is O’Brien’s best friend, and he’s probably the nicest man in Alpha Company. Unlike many of the others, he hasn’t let his experiences turn him against the Vietnamese. He calms the other men down and helps them come to terms with their feelings. Ironically, Kiowa drowns in sewage.Azar is not a likable guy. He plays cruel pranks, cracks cruel jokes, and if that’s not enough to make you not like him, he blows up a puppy with a mine.Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon both die before they’re fully developed, but their deaths serve to better characterize the more important players.

Jimmy Cross is off in a fog, thinking about the girl from home, when Lavender is shot, and Cross spends the rest of the novel dealing with that guilt. Lemon is Rat Kiley’s buddy, and Rat takes his death especially hard.There’s one other minor character who is particularly notable.

Mary Anne Bell comes to Vietnam to see her boyfriend who serves in Alpha Company. She’s not a naive teenybopper, though; she’s an independent and inquisitive woman. She tries to learn the Vietnamese language and culture, and she eventually falls in with a group of Green Berets, the Special Forces tasked with waging unconventional warfare. Alpha Company finds her in a cave, wearing a necklace made of human tongues.

Plot Summary

A book like The Things They Carried is difficult to summarize because each chapter works as a stand-alone story.

The men of Alpha Company march, fight, camp, joke, dream, and die. The book tells the story of what the men, particularly Tim O’Brien, did before and after the war so that the reader gets a picture of what makes these soldiers tick and how their experiences in Vietnam affected them later. The reader gets to see them at their best – loyal, heroic, selfless – and at their worst – cruel, petty, and terrified. In The Things They Carried, it’s not so much the plot that ties the book together as it is the major ideas of the book, so let’s take a closer look at these important ideas.

Things That Are Carried

The title of the book ties in with one of the big concepts O’Brien explores. The soldiers in the book have a lot to carry. Physically, they’re lugging rifles, ammunition, food, water, survival gear, and personal gear – comics, candy, letters from home. Emotionally and mentally, they carry much more – the baggage of memories, dreams, demons from the past, hopes for the future.O’Brien writes about the weight of all that the soldiers carry with them each day, ‘They carried the sky.

The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.’ For O’Brien, the weight of what the soldiers carry is what elevates them because it’s only through testing our limits that we truly know what is possible. These men carry so much, and the least of it is the physical weight of their gear.

Some break under that stress, but others pull through. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

Themes – War

In an interview, Tim O’Brien said that he doesn’t think of this as a war novel; he thinks of it as a story of burdens and the role of storytelling. That doesn’t change the fact that the book is set in a war and that war drives the plot. Some war novels glorify battle and others denounce that glorification. O’Brien’s point about war is a little more complicated.

Through the stories of the book, he shows that war can be exhilarating and terrifying and boring and random, sometimes all in one day. For the characters, war can’t be boiled down to glorious or terrible; it’s both, at the same time. He writes, ‘A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.’ Ultimately, the experience of war cannot be accurately described, and only those who have lived it can know the terrible truth of it.

Themes – Storytelling

You can’t escape the power of stories in The Things They Carried.

Not only is the book made up of a series of stories but the characters in those stories stop to tell each other stories. For the characters, stories become the thing that can bind them together and make their reality bearable. Stories can bring lost soldiers back to life, for a few minutes at least, and similarly, stories can bring out the truth, even when the stories themselves might not be true.

O’Brien writes, ‘Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.’ For O’Brien, the author – not the character – this set of stories from the Vietnam War tells the truth of wartime, even if the characters and events are partially fiction.

Lesson Summary

Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, tells the tale of a fictional squad of soldiers, Alpha Company. The main characters are O’Brien, Rat Kiley, Jimmy Cross, Kiowa, Azar, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and Mary Anne Bell. Through a series of short stories, the reader comes to know these soldiers and the things they carried with them into battle.

The soldiers bring the physical items they need to fight and survive, but more importantly, they bring the triumphs and defeats and pain and joy that we all carry with us and that make us human. The reader also learns the stories the men tell, and these stories reveal the truth about war, that it’s both exhilarating and horrific. War brings out the best and worst in people, and the experience is too complex to fully understand.

Learning Outcomes

Your goal at the end of the video should be to:

  • Discuss the plot and setting of The Things They Carried
  • Examine the characters of the book
  • Describe how the title ties into the concept of the book
  • Analyze some of the themes of the book, including war and storytelling

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