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Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Oct 15th, 2021

Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories “The Things They Carried” is often being referred to as such that contains a strong anti-war message. However, we can only agree with such point of view to a certain extent, because author does not describe the concept of war as being wicked in its essence, but rather as something that helps people affected by it to realize their true selves. During the time of war, the artificial notions of Christian morality that are being instilled into soldiers, when they were growing up, loose their value, within a matter of an instant.

This appears to be the main motif of O’Brien’s book and it is readers’ existential mode that prompts them to look at “The Things They Carried” as literary piece that promotes an anti-war sentiment or as something, which actually glorifies violence, as an essential component of manhood. In his book, O’Briens does describe the horrors of war, but it cannot escape our attention that he only discuses these horrors within a context of how civilian population is being affected by hostilities.

The sight of soldiers executing their duties at the frontline does not appear as utterly unnatural to the author. For example, when Ted Lavender gets shot in the head, while being high as a kite from smoking marijuana, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross refers to this incident as being beneficial to Lavender, because it did rid him of his drug addiction once and for all. This shows that, despite the fact that “The Things They Carried” cannot be discussed as truly autobiographical account of one’s war experiences, author does know how it feels dealing with the prospect of being shot on daily basis. At the frontline, the value of individual’s life is being adjusted to its actual worth.

The classical anti-war novels and movies portray soldier’s death in terms of universal tragedy, because the pacifism, as ideology, has its roots in Liberalism, which sanctifies one’s life as something that has value in itself. O’Brien’s book, on the other had, does not promote such philosophy.

While reading “The Things They Carried”, we get to look at soldier’s death in the line of duty as something quite natural. It is only when we get to read about civilians being tortured and killed, which strikes us as something truly horrible. This is because, during the time of war, civilians become war’s objects, whereas soldiers remain war’s subjects – they give and accept death as part of their work. O’Brien seems to be well aware of this fact, which is why “The Things They Carried” can be referred to as anything but pacifist in its essence.

As it is being revealed in the book, the only reason why O’Brien decided not to escape to Canada, in order to avoid draft, is that he realized that, had he acted otherwise, he would have to be dealing with the feeling of guilt for the rest of his life. Apparently, author was perfectly aware that there could be no justification for man’s cowardly behavior, regardless of circumstances.

Even though he thought of Vietnam War as such that did not make any sense, O’Brien did not consider it being a good excuse for acting like a lowly coward. Even though that author does not say it openly in his book, it appears that he considers his time in Vietnam as the most meaningful part of his life, because it was in Vietnam, where he learnt how to appreciate life’s precious moments. It is only while walking on the thin edge between life and death that one gets to experience the full spectrum of existential emotions.

According to O’Brien’s book, those soldiers that were afraid of loosing their lives more then others were the ones to be killed first. Such observation does correspond to the objective reality. It also entitles military valor with rational properties. This is the reason why we cannot talk about “The Things They Carried” as book that promotes cowardice, which is the most important feature of what we refer to as anti-war literature.

O’Brien describes war as ugly business, but he is far from suggesting that one’s willingness to avoid serving its country at any cost represents a highly moral deed, unlike those Liberals who consider themselves being fully qualified of discussing “war horrors”, despite the fact that they have never been at the frontline in the first place. Thus, we cannot say that “The Things They Carried” as the classical example of anti-war literature, because it clearly lacks pacifist pathos.


O’Brien, Tim “The Things They Carried”. New York: Broadway Publishing, 1998.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Tim O'Brien's “The Things They Carried”." October 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/tim-obriens-the-things-they-carried/.


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