Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is not a novel about the Vietnam War. It is a story about the soldiers and their experiences and emotions that are brought about from the war. O’Brien makes several statements about war through these dynamic characters. He shows the violent nature of soldiers under the pressures of war, he makes an effective antiwar statement, and he comments on the reversal of a social deviation into the norm. By skillfully employing the stylistic technique of specific, conscious detail selection and utilizing connotative diction, O’Brien thoroughly and convincingly makes each point.
The violent nature that the soldiers acquired during their tour in Vietnam is one of O’Brien’s predominant themes in his novel. By consciously selecting very descriptive details that reveal the drastic change in manner within the men, O’Brien creates within the reader an understanding of the effects of war on its participants. One of the soldiers, “Norman Bowler, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a Thumb. . .The Thumb was dark brown, rubbery to touch. . . It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen”(13). Bowler had been a very good-natured person in civilian life, yet war makes him into a very hard-mannered, emotionally devoid soldier, carrying about a severed finger as a trophy, proud of his kill. The transformation shown through Bowler is an excellent indicator of the psychological and emotional change that most of the soldiers undergo. To bring an innocent young man from sensitive to apathetic, from caring to hateful, requires a great force; the war provides this force. However, frequently are the changes more drastic. A soldier named “Ted Lavender adopted an orphaned puppy. . .Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device”(39). Azar has become demented; to kill a puppy that someone else has adopted is horrible. However, the infliction of violence has become the norm of behavior for these men; the fleeting moment of compassion shown by one man is instantly erased by another, setting order back within the group. O’Brien here shows a hint of sensitivity among the men to set up a startling contrast between the past and the present for these men. The effect produced on the reader by this contrast is one of horror; therefore fulfilling O’Brien’s purpose, to convince the reader of war’s severely negative effects. In the buffalo story, “We came across a baby water buffalo. . .After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose. . .He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. . .He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill, it was to hurt”(85). Rat displays a severe emotional problem here; however, it is still the norm. The startling degree of detached emotion brought on by the war is inherent in O’Brien’s detailed accounts of the soldiers’ actions concerning the lives of other beings.
O’Brien’s use of specific and connotative diction enhances the same theme, the loss of sensitivity and increase in violent behavior among the soldiers. The VC from which Bowker took the thumb was just “a boy”(13), giving the image of a young, innocent person who should not have been subjected to the horrors of war. The connotation associated with boy enhances the fact that killing has no emotional effect on the Americans, that they kill for sport and do not care who or what their game may be. Just as perverse as killing boys, though, is the killing of “a baby”(85), the connotation being associated with human infants even though it is used to describe a young water buffalo they torture. The idea of a baby is abstract, and the killing of one is frowned upon in modern society, regardless of species. O’Brien creates an attitude of disgust in the reader with the word, further fulfilling his purpose in condemning violence. Even more drastic in connotation to be killed is the “orphaned puppy”(39). Adding to the present idea of killing babies is the idea of killing orphaned babies, which brings out rage within the reader. The whole concept is metaphoric, based on the connotations of key words; nevertheless, it is extremely effective in conveying O’Brien’s theme.
O’Brien makes a valid, effective antiwar statement in The Things They Carried. The details he includes give the reader insight into his opinions concerning the Vietnam War and the draft that was used to accumulate soldiers for the war. While thinking of escaping to Canada, he says: “I was drafted to fight a war I hated. . .The American war seemed to me wrong”(44). O’Brien feels that U.S. involvement in Vietnamese affairs was unnecessary and wasteful. He includes an account of his plan to leave the country because he did not want to risk losing his life for a cause he did not believe in. Here O’Brien shows the level of contempt felt towards the war; draft dodging is dangerous. He was not a radical antiwar enthusiast, however, for he takes “only a modest stand against the war”(44). While not condoning the fighting, he does not protest the war except for minimally, peacefully, and privately doing so. His dissatisfaction with the drafting process is included in his statement, “I was a liberal, for Christ’s sake: if they needed fresh bodies, why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age-hawk?”(44). O’Brien’s point of drafting only those who approve involvement in the war is clearly made while his political standpoint is simultaneously revealed. The liberal attitude O’Brien owns is very much a part of his antiwar theme; it is the axis around which his values concerning the war revolve.
The antiwar statement is enhanced by O’Brien’s use of connotative and informal diction to describe the war, its belligerent advocates, and its participants. The connotation in the adjective American in describing the war seems as though O’Brien believes the Americans are making the war revolve around themselves, instead of the Vietnamese. While also criticizing Americans, he manages to once again question the necessity of United States involvement in the war. Also connotatively enhancing the antiwar theme is the word bodies to describe draftees; while an accurate evaluation scientifically, it gives the reader the impression that the young men that are being brought into the war to become statistics, part of a body count. O’Brien shows very effectively the massive destruction of innocent human life brought on by Vietnam. In contrast with his sympathy toward draftees, O’Brien utilizes informal, derogatory diction to describe the war’s advocates. He labels his stereotype belligerent a “dumb jingo”(44), or moronic national pride enthusiast. By phrasing his views in such a manner, O’Brien is able to convey the idea that there is enough opposition to the war that a negative slang has been implemented frequently, hence the term dumb jingo. The skill with which O’Brien illustrates his views is very convincing throughout their development in the novel; his antibelligerence focus is very effective.
The social deviance that has become the accepted norm in The Things They Carried is brought out by O’Brien in the form of the soldiers’ drug usage. O’Brien wants to convey the idea of negative transitions brought about by the war with a statement about marijuana’s public, widespread, carefree use in Vietnam. He includes several anecdotes that illustrate to which degree the substance is abused. A friend of O’Brien’s, Ted Lavender, “carried six or seven ounces of premium dope”(4), which indicates not only the soldiers’ familiarity with the drug, but their acquired knowledge of the quality of the drug. The discouragement of marijuana, as well as other drugs, was previously the accepted view of Americans; however, according to O’Brien, is has become the norm for Americans in Vietnam. The war has completely reversed their morals. Once they carried a corpse out to “a dry paddy. . .and sat smoking the dead man’s dope until the chopper came. Lieutenant Cross kept to himself”(8). Even the squad’s supervisor, the platoon leader Lieutenant Cross, is unaffected by the soldiers’ blatant use of an illegal substance; he has become so used to the occurrence that he no longer condemns its use. For even a leader of men to be morally warped by the war is an effective idea in O’Brien’s discouragement of war.
As George Carlin once said to a New York audience, “We love war. We are a warlike people, and therefore we love war”(Carlin 1992). This view is common today among Americans since the advent of long-distance warfare and bright, colorful explosions; however, in the guerrilla warfare of Vietnam, the grudging participants loathed the idea. Tim O’Brien very effectively portrays their hatred and the severe negative effects the war had on American soldiers in his excellent, convincing novel The Things They Carried. The skillful choice of details and several types of diction that reveal his theme of induced violence, his anti-war statement, and his view of the reversal of morals among GIs are effective in presenting O’Brien’s views in this, “The Last War Novel”(McClung 96).