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The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried

By Tim O'Brien (1990)

"Abstraction may make your head believe, but a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being." —from The Things They Carried


The award-winning author of nine works of fiction and a former reporter for The Washington Post, Tim O’Brien had what some would call a typical 1950s American childhood in rural Minnesota before he was sent to fight in Vietnam as a foot soldier in 1969. Published in 1990 to vast critical acclaim and written with the help of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, The Things They Carried, a novel about his experiences in that war, has sold well over two million copies worldwide and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. More recently, the book was included among’s “List of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime” and was credited as the inspiration for a National Veterans Art Museum exhibit of the same name in Chicago. The book is part memoir, part fiction, and O’Brien―the original master of truthiness―wishes you luck figuring out which is which. It’s a “marvel of storytelling which matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam but to anyone interested in the craft of writing” (The New York Times). It’s “controlled and wild, deep and tough, perceptive and shrewd” (Chicago Sun-Times) and based on how it continues to resonate with audiences, particularly among young readers, it undoubtedly “stands the test of time” (PBS NewsHour).

Introduction to the Book

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) is considered one of the finest books about the Vietnam War. Far from a combat story of pride and glory, it is a compassionate tale of the American soldier, brimming with raw honesty and thoughtful reflection.

The book's narrator follows a platoon of infantrymen through the jungles of Vietnam. We see them trudge through the muck of a constant downpour, get hit by sniper fire, pull body parts out of a tree, laugh while they tell their stories to each other, and fall silent when faced with making sense of it all—both in the moment and twenty years later.

The book is split into a lush mosaic of vignettes drawn from O'Brien's own experiences. The title story describes what the soldiers must lug with them—both literally and figuratively—as they march: food, canteens, flak jackets, and weapons, as well as grief, terror, secrets, and memories. In another story, O'Brien tells of a young medic who brings his high-school sweetheart to his aid station in the mountains of Vietnam, chronicling her transformation from an innocent girl in a pink sweater to a cold night stalker who dons a necklace of human tongues. Yet another story tells of a soldier back from the war who drives his Chevy around his Iowa hometown, struggling to find meaning in his new life.

Central to the book is O'Brien's unique style, which blurs the lines between fact and fiction, then examines how and why he does just that. O'Brien challenges readers to ponder larger philosophical questions about truth and memory, and brings the reader closer to the emotional core of the men's experiences. "For the common soldier," O'Brien writes in "How to Tell a True War Story," "war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true."

The Things They Carried is not just a tale of war, and the book's themes are no less relevant today than they were decades ago. This award-winning work is a brutal, sometimes funny, often profound narrative about the human heart—how it fares under pressure and what it can endure.

"You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever."
—Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried

Major Characters in the Book

Tim O'Brien is the narrator who never wanted to fight in the Vietnam War and remains haunted by memories even 20 years after he returns to America.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is a solitary, pensive platoon leader who cares about his men. He carries photos and letters from the girl he loves back home in New Jersey, who doesn't love him back.

Bob "Rat" Kiley is a likeable and skilled medic who braves danger to keep his fellow soldiers alive. He carries comic books, brandy, and M&Ms.

Kiowa is a kind and moral soldier from Oklahoma, a Native American, a devout Baptist. He carries an illustrated New Testament, worn-out moccasins, and his grandfather's feathered hunting hatchet.

Norman Bowker is a quiet boy from Central Iowa who strives to live up to his father's expectations and finds he can't relate to anyone back home after the war. He carries a diary and a thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse.

Henry Dobbins is a large, strong, dependable, unsophisticated machine gunner. He carries extra rations and wears his girlfriend's pantyhose tied around his neck.

"They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried."
—Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried


Tim O'Brien

Photo © Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin

Tim O'Brien (b. 1946)

Before Tim O'Brien was drafted into the army, he had what some would consider an all-American childhood. He was born on October 1, 1946, in Austin, Minnesota, and raised in Worthington, a small prairie town in the southern part of the state. His mother was an elementary school teacher, his father an insurance salesman and sailor in World War II. O'Brien played Little League, dabbled in magic tricks, and spent much of his youth in the county library daydreaming about such characters as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

At Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he received good grades and became student body president. Occasionally, he'd attend peace vigils and protests against the burgeoning war in Vietnam. He graduated in 1968 with a B.A. in political science and thought of becoming a writer, inspired in part by his father's personal accounts of two World War II battles, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, published in The New York Times. Then O'Brien got his draft notice. He once recalled in an interview that "even getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn't believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles."

O'Brien spent his tour of duty from 1969 to 1970 as a foot soldier with the 46th Infantry in Quang Ngai province. For some of that time he was stationed in My Lai, just one year after the infamous My Lai Massacre. He was sent home with a Purple Heart when he got hit with shrapnel in a grenade attack.

His first writing about his war experiences came in the form of a memoir called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, published in 1973 during his graduate studies in government at Harvard University. Soon after, he took a position for a year as a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post, then turned full-time to writing books.

O'Brien published The Things They Carried in 1990. His many accolades include a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Book Award, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He nearly stopped writing after his sixth book, In the Lake of the Woods (1994), due to a battle with depression. But following a nine-month hiatus, he began work on a new novel, Tomcat in Love, published in 1998. He currently teaches creative writing at Texas State University.

"As a fiction writer, I do not write just about the world we live in, but I also write about the world we ought to live in, and could, which is a world of imagination."
—Tim O'Brien, from a lecture at Brown University

Updated July 2017

An Interview with Tim O'Brien

On November 13, 2008, Josephine Reed, Managing Audio Producer at the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Tim O'Brien. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Josephine Reed: What is The Things They Carried about?

Tim O'Brien: It's a book that centers on Vietnam and a platoon of soldiers. In one sense, it's about the Vietnam War, but it's also about storytelling, how stories rule our lives, how they're told and retold as we look for an elusive truth. And finally, it's about writing itself—writing as an effort to pin down with language the truth about a subject.

JR: What is the distinction between truth and accuracy?

TO: What we see accurately with our eyes can sometimes be very deceptive. We don't see everything. No historian can fit into a textbook the thoughts of every single soldier in every single war and every single episode. Much is being selected and generalized. So in The Things They Carried, I'm trying to get at this sense of how difficult it is to pin down the truth with a capital "T." In a way, it's a warning against absolutism, against black and white declarations of what's true and what's not true. So part of the effort is trying to display through fiction the ambiguous, blurry, complicated, grayish fog of even the most plainly historical events.

JR: I was profoundly moved by the story "On the Rainy River," not only by the character of Tim, but also the old man, Elroy. He seemed as real to me as the man sitting next to me on the train this morning.

TO: That's an example of what imagination can do. He's an imagined character—more so, even, than the Tim O'Brien character, who is also, I must say, imagined. But the old guy is made up out of the whole cloth. And yet, he represents something real that you couldn't put your finger on, which has to do with conscience, or being watched by, say, a dead father—that feeling of someone there with you who's not offering advice but is simply present as a kind of moral witness. Old Elroy is meant to stand for a whole bunch of things: my dad, my mom, my country, God, and conscience, all together.

JR: I'd also like to talk about your story "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." It reminded me very much of Heart of Darkness.

TO: Yes, it was intentionally structured to be the other hemisphere of Heart of Darkness. Because Kurtz is a man, because Marlow's a man, and because virtually every character in the story is a man, the whole structure of my story is meant to be a female flip of it. In a way, I was trying to put a woman in a man's boots and see if she behaves much differently or feels other things than a man might feel. In a way the point of the story (if stories ever have "points"—and of course they don't, or maybe they have a trillion angles on a point) has to do with the image of the woman as nurturer and peaceful and incapable of the conspicuously violent behaviors of men—which, of course, when you look at history, is totally ridiculous. So the story is meant to be inclusive of women in almost all war stories.

JR: You structured this book in such an interesting way. Each individual story is like a small gem, like a pearl necklace. But when you string them together, the cumulative effect is powerful.

TO: That's my goal. I wanted to have self-contained stories that I think all chapters of books ought to be anyway. Yet I wanted each story to receive the light of other stories, the way it would in a necklace. Or one gemstone would receive the light of the ruby next to it. Although they are meant to stand alone, it seems to me that in the end, you aim ambitiously for what all writers worth their salt aim at—of making a book of art, of some sort. And that's the sense of pieces being in position, so that they can reflect. So that the pieces are capable of not just reflecting, but absorbing the light of the others.

  1. The narrator of The Things They Carried has the same name as the book's author. How did this affect your response to the book?
  2. In the title story, how do the things the men carry help define them as individuals? What are some of the more interesting items? Which "things" were unexpected? What would you carry if you went to war?
  3. At the end of "On the Rainy River," the narrator says, "I was a coward. I went to the war." What does he mean by this? Do you agree?
  4. In "How to Tell a True War Story," what does the narrator say on this subject? What do you think makes a true war story?
  5. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," what causes the transformation in Mary Anne Bell? How does Rat Kiley's telling of the story add to the tension? What does the story say about the Vietnam experience?
  6. In "Speaking of Courage," the narrator says, "Sometimes the bravest thing on earth was to sit through the night and feel the cold in your bones. Courage was not always a matter of yes or no." How does the narrator define courage? How do you define it?
  7. In "Good Form," the narrator says, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." What does he mean by "story truth" and "happening-truth"? Why might one be "truer" than the other?
  8. The narrator of the story "The Ghost Soldiers" says, "When you're afraid, really afraid, you see things you never saw before, you pay attention to the world." What might he mean by this?
  9. Even though The Things They Carried is set during the Vietnam War, in what ways is it relevant today, with regard to war and politics as well as our personal struggles?


Tim O'Brien

Big Read author, National Book Award winner


Audio Tabs

Tim O'Brien, who served in Vietnam, talks about his novel (and Big Read selection) The Things They Carried  and how fiction can often tell a deeper truth about war.  [29:34]

Download podcast: 

The Things They Carried Audio Guide


Audio Tabs

The Things They Carried audio guide features Andrew Carroll, Lan Samantha Chang, Richard Currey, Max Paul Friedman, David Kipen, Alice McDermott, E. Ethelbert Miller, Bradley Whitford, and the author Tim O'Brien.

Tim O'Brien on Fiction versus Nonfiction


Audio Tabs

In this excerpt from the podcast, he explains how fiction, if truly written, “makes the stomach believe.” [2:30]

The Things They Carried Author Visits a Community in Ellensburg, WA

“The highlight events during Tim O’Brien’s three days of programs in Ellensburg were beyond our expectations. He was such a big hit. He filled our campus auditorium for his major talk and book-signing. He spent four hours at Ellensburg High School talking with small groups of students. He had an intimate luncheon with local veterans. He held a craft talk with writers and writing students. He was so generous and gracious with all whom he encountered.”

Readers lined up in auditorium with copies of The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien shakes hand of one young man.

Tim O’Brien signed books and talked with program participants. Photo by David Dick, courtesy of Central Washington University

– from a report by Central Washington University, an NEA Big read grant recipient in FY 2016-17.

A Community College Writes and Performs a Theatrical Adaptation of The Things They Carried in Binghampton, NY

Nine students in grey shirts and stage makeup stand in front of a black backdrop

The cast of The Things They Carried: A Dramatic Reading, by Studio 271 productions. Photo by Kate Murray, courtesy of Studio 271

Broome Community college worked with playwright Martin Murray to create and stage an adaptation of the novel. The two-act play, produced by Studio 271 Productions, was performed twice during their Big Read activities. The play, along with other Big Read programming, helped the college build an audience for its programming:

“SUNY-Broome Community College, as a former technical institute, has long suffered from an inferiority complex with regard to our much larger local college, Binghamton University. Our slate of NEA Big Read programming, in fact, was often mistaken as originating from the University and not the community college.

“Nevertheless, I feel that the community college is exactly where such programming should be centered, since our focus is on reaching out to the whole community, not just our campus. Community attendees came away from our programming energized and excited about SUNY-Broome, and I think we are well-positioned to take a more active role in the intellectual life of our community.”

Listen to an interview with director Kate Murray and Big Read coordinator Professor Mary Donnelly about the adaptation.

– from a report by Broome Community College, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2016-17.

Moving Sculpture and Photo Exhibit Connect Veterans with their Community in Elgin, Illinois

“One of the most meaningful and hyper‐local projects was ‘The Things I Carried Photo Exhibit.’ Former Chicago Tribune award‐winning photographer John Dziekan photographed 12 Vietnam veterans and two Laos Royal service vets (who fought alongside the US) with items they literally or figuratively carried with them during the war (a photograph, philosophy book, cross, scars). One veteran shared a private moment of gratitude with us about this being the first time he felt welcomed home. He told us that when he first arrived home from Vietnam, the community was nasty to him, even throwing blood on him. He said participation in this photographic exhibit meant more to him than we would ever know.

“Hector Ocampo, The Big Read Project Coordinator, ended [a] ceremony by saying, “Today I stand here to let everyone know that I am also diagnosed with PTSD and I am not afraid to admit it. Even as my fellow veterans struggle to adjust and gain our true purpose, we are very capable of maintaining jobs, educating ourselves and above all, never forgetting where we come from. I see veterans on a daily basis and I can tell you one thing, the pride to have served will never diminish. My name is Hector Ocampo and I will always be a soldier!” The Vietnam veterans then embraced Hector, and the crowd gave a standing ovation.”

Also a “major arts component” of the library’s NEA Big Read program was “The Wall That Heals (TWTH).” “TWTH, a half‐scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was on display in the Civic Center Plaza in Elgin from Sept. 19‐22, open all day and night. There were 4,170 veterans who came to view TWTH, and the stories of their connectedness are endless. A 90‐year‐old woman pulls a chair to sit next to her 19‐year‐old son’s name. Vietnam veterans tell their stories for the very first time. A woman searches for her brother’s name on The Wall in D.C. for years to no avail only to discover he was listed under Eglin, IL, a typo preventing her from finding him all these years. At last, she feels peace. A 1960 high school reunion meets at TWTH, bringing the yearbook to remember their fallen classmates. Tears are shed, and the healing that comes from releasing tormenting grief after 40 years. Connections, new and old, young and end‐of‐life, are fostered at The Wall That Heals.”

- from a report by the Gail Borden Public Library District, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-14.

Book Discussions Deepen Relationships and Strengthen Cooperation among Community Hubs in West Chester, Pennsylvania

The oral history recording sessions at the West Chester Public Library were extremely rewarding for all participants. One of our students who served as an interviewer, in fact, is now assisting a Vietnam vet in the editing of his memoir about his war experiences.

“Among the communities particularly touched and influenced by our events was the veteran community—both those whose service dates back many years and those who have fought in our recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equally important, the program has been instrumental in building bridges between the university community and the borough as well as strengthening cooperative ties with two local high schools. Despite The Big Read having officially ended, we already have plans with the Senior Area Center, Hickman Center, Public Library, Chester County Art Association, Chester County Historical Society, and high schools for activities that will continue to deepen and expand literacy in our community. For example, we have arranged to cosponsor at least two book discussions in the coming year and to cooperate on special programs such as an upcoming (Spring 2014) panel, “The Future of Reading,” undertaken with our campus library, the West Chester University Center for Book History, and the West Chester Public Library.

“Tim O’Brien’s visit solicited overwhelmingly positive responses. Several people related to us that his final talk brought them to tears, and that it was the cultural highlight of the semester. He drew the largest crowds we’d seen throughout the Big Read, and kept all four audiences rapt and engaged throughout his presentations. His talks, as one student put it, ‘made the book more real’ for the community.”

– from a report by the West Chester University of Pennsylvania, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-14.

The Things They Carried Initiates Healing and Bridges Divide Between Generations in Montana and California

“Montana veterans were present at most programs and lectures and were avid participants in how story telling is a therapeutic, cathartic and vital component of processing war experiences and traumas. Children had an opportunity to learn more about the Hmong, a strong yet private community of refugees in the Missoula area, and their involvement in the Vietnam War and as immigrants relocated to Montana in the years that followed. All fans of storytelling were engaged with The Things They Carried as a catalyst for autobiographical writing and discussions.

“Many high school teachers reported that their students loved reading The Things They Carried, and that even reluctant readers enjoyed the book,” continued the Missoula Public Library, whose program reached an estimated 35,000 participants. “One teacher wrote to say: ‘Students are especially receptive to Tim O'Brien's book because it is accessible, and many have relatives who served in the war. They also love the short story format, and the unpredictable nature of the story. One sixteen-year-old girl loved the book so much, she went out and bought her own copy, and then waited in a long line to get it signed by Mr. O'Brien.’”

“The comments we received from Veterans were the most rewarding,” wrote the Ventura Cultural Affairs Division. “Hearing them talk about the healing that they received from reading the book and from participating in the Big Read events made the program feel worthwhile. Watching a younger generation listen intently to the veterans reliving memories, both good and bad, was inspirational. The book highlighted history for the younger population and brought healing and memories back to the older generation that experienced the events in the book.”

“The Big Read and The Things They Carried prompted serious discussions about war, memory, fiction, and storytelling,” wrote the Santa Barbara Public Library. “Students learned firsthand about a subject they often barely even read about. Local vets shared their stories and felt understood. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was a healing experience that brought elements of our community together in ways that had rarely happen. Peter Bie, President of Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 218, Santa Barbara, wrote us ‘I can’t thank you enough for what the library system has done to raise awareness of the Vietnam War and its aftermath by having Tim and his book highlighted these past few weeks.’”

– from reports by the Missoula Public Library, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-14; the City of Ventura Cultural Affairs Division, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-14; and the Santa Barbara Public Library, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-14.

A Treatment Center for Incarcerated Men Engages with The Things They Carried in Pittsburgh, PA

“Although Renewal Treatment, Inc. is not a new partner, this is the first year that the project director and volunteers worked with the male residents. This facility is designed to assist residents with their re-entry to society after they have been incarcerated. Most of the men also have drug and alcohol addictions and when the volunteers worked with them, the men immediately connected with the themes in the book. The opening ice breaker activity is for the participants to respond in writing on the index cards they are given that includes a word from the book. They wrote two responses on the card. The first was how the word related to the novel and the second response was how the word related to them personally. This activity has proven to be a powerful and simple exercise to get participants engaged in a dialogue about the novel’s themes. The men stood up one by one and read their responses to words, such as war and ammunition. One resident said he was at war with his addiction. Another said he uses his recovery like ammunition to push him forward and so on. The men temporarily suspended their current situations and delved into their creativity and intelligence.”

– from a report by the Community College of Allegheny County, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2013-14.