The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien does for the reader what standing at The Wall does for the person standing in front of it. The author calls it a work of fiction, but it is the closest that any book has come to summing up the men who fought in Viet Nam. This collection of short fiction takes the reader inside the everyday infantryman’s experience and wins over the reader’s heart and mind completely.
The title story lists in detail everything that the foot soldier carried in Southeast Asia. It explains the military words they used as well as some of the less professional terms that were part of the vocabulary. Through the soldiers’ possessions, the reader learns who these men are and how similar they are to the rest of us. The number of things on the backs of the men grows un
til the reader realizes that all of these things are not the true burden. The burdens of caring for another soldier and trusting him to care for you are what they really carried.
O’Brien weaves his stories so tightly that the reader is caught off-guard by how deeply involved they become in the soldiers’ lives. The men of Alpha Company, although they are fictional, are as real to readers as the people they sit next to at work. In the short, “How To Tell A True War Story,” O’Brien expounds on this idea and how sometimes a lie is closer to the truth than facts can be.
His ability to capture the voices of soldiers in the field is unbelievable. When Rat Kiley calls the sister of a dead squad member a “dumb cooze,” it’s in no way offensive. Instead, it sounds perfectly natural for a heartbroken nineteen-year-old. When O’Brien revisits the old battlefields, towing along his young daughter, her voice is as true as those of the men he captures so well.
If someone wants to understand the men who were sent to Viet Nam, this is the book that will let them. Never preachy, almost no combat scenes, and without discussions of politics and battle tactics, it allows the reader to come away knowing what our soldiers had to endure and overcome. The reader grows to know and cherish the men of Alpha Company, and that’s something that few other books on the Viet Nam War have done.