Literature 110- week 4- assignment 1

This was a difficult assignment for me, for I have read Tim O’Brien and John Updike in the past. I remember in high school, Mr. Colville- my junior level English instructor, reading the story of “A&P.” Tim O’Brien arrived to me under several titles, but mostly I remember “Tomcat in Love.” My ex-husband recommended it to me, and I found it a most satisfying read.


But O’Brien’s story “The Things that They Carry” settled in my heart. His use of precise wording deep within a jungle setting made me feel the sweat of each load that the soldier’s carried. The rule in Alaska (when I lived there) was that every person should be able to carry on their back half their weight; here in Connecticut, parents complain if students are asked to carry their homework, and backpacks are designed to relieve back and shoulder stresses. My ex-husband carried up to 200 pounds on his back as he rescued unprepared mountain climbers from the high altitude peaks of the Brooks, Alaska, Delta, and Wrangell mountain ranges. Back problems were never the issue.


Tim O’Brien allows us to experience the Vietnam War on several different levels: the psychological, the spiritual, and the physical. These soldiers carrying their backpacks loaded with guns and rations, carrying their support systems of dope or a New Testament, or their minds wandering into places that they would rather be than tromping through the disease-infested, bug-bitten, humid terrain of the jungles of Vietnam. “War is Hell” as the expression goes, but O’Brien ensures us that the reader will not only experience the foxholes and the jokes, but also of death. Everyone reacts to death differently, and we are allowed to experience as these men traipse through the jungle, the thoughts and feelings of each one of them.


In particular, Kiowa was important to the story. He not only represented the division of the spiritual world vs. the physical, but he brought with him several elements of his past that made him the soldier he was for the story. Curdled up with his New Testament yet carrying a hunting hatchet and his moccasins, Kiowa was drafted into a war across an ocean into a country of a people fighting a war similar to his own ancestry. His understated comments of “boom-down” lead to a joke of “zapped while zipping,” only proving that in times of stress, it is humor that helps survival. However, Kiowa was faced with more than just survival. Stuck between the past and the present, and the immediate present, he had to somehow reconcile the death of his comrade into his scheme of the cosmos. “Boom-down” was his solution, while the leader of the troop, Jimmy Cross chose to destroy everything intimate to me and become anesthetized to the pain of losing someone under his command.


Today, we face a war with similar controversy, and yet, as Tim O’Brien writes, I am sure that the soldiers of today carry similar burdens that the soldiers of Vietnam. Loaded with equipment and necessities, there are still ghosts and memories that follow us wherever we travel, and when faced with death, we can either rise up as a zombie like Lee Strunk, or we can give up and burn our past/future like Lt. Jimmy Cross and merely live in the present.



One Response to “Literature 110- week 4- assignment 1”

  1. I read The Things They Carried for a class called United States and the Vietnam War. We read it in contrast with When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman who’s life was shaped by the war. It was an interesting contrast. Just a warning: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is a very emotional book, and some of the material is not for the faint of heart.

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