Friday, July 22, 2011

The things men carry

Book cover image from npr

At a recent Writers' Studio Salon, we examined "The Things they Carried," a short story first published in 1986.

In this brilliantly structured work, Tim O'Brien develops his characters, American soldiers in Vietnam, through a detailed list of what each man carried, and what it weighed. This first enumeration reveals the individual characters of the soldiers.

The story moves relentlessly forward with the weight borne by the "grunts." In addition to their own belongings -- letters, pictures, dope -- they carry food, equipment, and the supplies required by the SOPs -- standard operating procedures -- of the platoon.

Mid-list the author begins to slip in some of the men's emotional baggage: racism, fantasy and fear. A bizarre trophy carried by one soldier conjures up grisly war scenes the story does not portray.

Sounding the heavy rhythm of walking, O'Brien then lists what the men must heft in common: machine guns with ammo, other equipment, and sometimes, one another, living or dead.

The goods and supplies dropped nightly by the U.S. choppers are more weight for the soldiers who walk through the jungles and "burn the villages or not." They get more supplies and ammo than they need or can carry -- to reduce their burdens, the men throw away food and explode grenades.

Artifacts from the culture of stuff are also delivered: easter eggs, watermelons, woolen sweaters and sparklers for the Fourth of July. "Indictment though listing," poet Jen Currin called it, a critical portrayal of American excess.

Without a hint of moralizing, the story reveals the burdens borne by men who go to war. Along with the physical weight, these men bear the burdens of their national and social definitions of manhood. They will never, the narrator chillingly tells us, run out of things to carry.

O'Brien's ordinary soldiers must equally bear burdens of responsibility, grief and fear. The men attempt to overcome the shame that war exacts with a brotherhood, humanity and drugs. One dead soldier's buddies smoke his dope while they wait for the chopper to come for his body.

Ironically, war has generated much great literature. The author's words "shoulder the sky" allude to a line in a war poem by A. E. Housman: "Shoulder the sky, my lads, and drink your ale." These words were also used as the title of a mystery novel by Anne Perry, set during World War I.

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