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The things they brought home

The things they brought home
Made with
Made with

by Aja Landolfi, editor-in-chief

Wars, they have been going on for generations, destroying homes and lives. The public believes that the soldiers want to go to war, that they go willingly, and are proud to fight for and protect their country. What happens though when healthy young men are recruited and shipped off to war whether they want to go or not? War is not pretty, it is sad, dirty and rough and it can destroy people mentally, physically and emotionally. The soldiers who do make it back suffer from many complications readjusting to life after the war. Tim O’Brien is an American author who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Like O’Brien, many authors are influenced to write based on their past and what they have experienced. These past factors can have a strong effect on the works of these authors and how the public views them. This can be seen in three of O’Brien’s novels: The Things They Carried, Going after Cacciato, and If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.

The Vietnam War was a war fought between North and South Vietnam from November 1955 to the fall of Saigon in April of 1975. There is no exact event that started the war but it was a proxy war between the north and the south. The north was controlled by Ho Chi Minh who wanted a communist state and was backed by pro-communist countries like the Soviet Union and China while the south was originally ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem who created an anti-communist government in Saigon. The United States along with other anti-communist countries supported the south. President Harry S. Truman sent US soldiers into Vietnam to try and help the French win back their Indochina colony. One main reason that Truman decided it was a good idea to help with the war was because of the fear of Ho Chi Minh winning and taking control of Vietnam and turning it into a communist state. The American and French military forces were unsuccessful in winning the war and the war was officially over when the North conquered and took over Saigon, which was the capital of South Vietnam (Rotter 1999). The Vietnam War impacted the American government to make many changes after the war was over. Some changes that were made was congress replaced the military draft with an all-volunteer force and they also lowered the voting age to 18 (Mintz 2016). It was believed that if a young man at the age of 18 could be sent off to war, he should have the right to vote. Another outcome of the Vietnam War was the economic impact it left for the United States. The United States was unwilling to raise taxes to help pay for the war, so the result of the war sent the United States into a period of Inflation (Mintz 2016). All of these combined factors led the American people to be scared and afraid of what was to come next.

As a Sergeant of the Vietnam War himself, O’Brien knows the fears that the American people had of what might happen to the world if Vietnam became a communist country. Even though O’Brien is mainly a fictional writer he uses real events to attempt to inform the reader about the real happenings and the internal horrors of past events. In the novel The Things They Carried, O’Brien develops his characters in a way that the reader feels connected to them. Jimmy Cross is one of the few characters in the novel that readers really get to know and feel for. From the first page readers learn that he is not only carrying the responsibility of being the Lieutenant but that he is also carrying love with him for someone back home. Cross carries around a picture of his lover Martha with him as well as letters that she has written to him. If the reader was not given this information they probably would have never known, they probably would have just viewed Jimmy Cross as another poor soul that has to face the brutal war. Getting to know Jimmy Cross is important to readers because it helps show that he was a normal person who was going into the war. Jimmy Cross was just like the rest of the soldiers being drafted into the war. They were scared, confused and hoping that they would survive. By allowing the reader to connect to Jimmy in such a way helps the reader understand that Jimmy had emotions too and that he just like everybody else he wished he did not have to go through what he did. It highlights the real feelings of a young man who wanted out of the war and to go back to the ones he loved. To O’Brien, it was important that he share the things that he had experienced, the feeling of having to leave family and loved ones behind to fight in a war he did not support. In an interview with the Chicago Review given by Larry McCaffery, O’Brien states:

Although I did feel that the war was wrong, I also realized that I was a twenty-one-year-old-kid – I didn’t know everything…The “gravity” I was referring to in that passage was a feeling of emotional pressure -a fear of exile, of hurting my family, of losing everything I held to be valuable in my life (2012).

This helps to reader to connect to Cross on a deeper level. It opens their eyes a little more to what the soldiers are going through when they go to war. The soldiers not only have the weight of the war on their shoulders, they also have the weight of the stress of trying to stay alive. The memories of the time spent with their families and friends are sometimes the only thing they have to hold onto, the only sense of hope that they have that maybe they will one day be able to return home safely to their families. By getting this point across, readers can understand why they should be a little more understanding about why soldiers may not actually want to go to war and why they should be thankful to the ones who do make that sacrifice.

Along with learning about Jimmy Cross readers also learn the stories of ten other soldiers all fighting alongside Jimmy in the war. They learn about where they are from, how they were raised, and what they believe in. Readers learn about different events that symbolize important moments in these soldier’s lives that help them to understand why they are the way they are. For example, Kiowa, carried a copy of the New Testament that his father gave him, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet and his grandmother’s disgust for the white man. He was a devoted Baptist who was extremely nice to the other soldiers. He was always someone to talk to and when appropriate to joke around with. His items personified how he was an all-around good person. This helps build characterization and put the reader into the story. When Kiowa died in combat, the reader felt like they were standing there with the rest of the soldiers that were grieving the loss of Kiowa too and they too felt the pain of what it was like to lose a brother to the war and how hard it was to have to continue on without them. Without this sense of connection to the characters the novel wouldn’t have had as strong of a sense of comradery and courage, instead it would have been boring and pointless. O’Brien’s ability to make these strong connections is attributed to him incorporating himself and his experience into his novels.

Not only does O’Brien use The Things They Carried as a way of describing the everyday happenings of the war through his characters but he also makes himself one of the characters in the novel as well. He talks about his first hand experiences from his time in the war to show the reader that he knows what the soldiers that are fighting go through on a daily basis. O’Brien recounts this by saying “And I remember sitting at my foxhole that night, watching the shadows of Quang Ngai, thinking about the coming day and how we would cross the river and march west into the mountains, all the ways I might die, all the things I did not understand” (1998). O’Brien understands that the soldiers who are at war are frightened by the unexpected, of not knowing what is going to happen, if they will ever make it home or even live to see the next day. By inserting himself into the novel it makes him a reputable source and someone that people can believe and learn from. O’Brien also recounts going to talk to people who were in his squadron during The Vietnam War. When he decided to write the novel he wanted to talk to his fellow comrades about what happened during the war and to get any thoughts and feelings that they believed were important for people to know.

…and in the glow, he saw Kiowa’s wide-open eyes settling down into the scum. All he could do was watch. He heard himself moan. Then he moved again, crabbing forward, but when he got there Kiowa was almost completely under…He could not describe what happened next, not ever, but he would’ve tried anyway. He would’ve spoken carefully so as to make it real for anyone who would listen. There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ve been (O’Brien, 1998).

This part of the novel helps O’Brien make the connection with the reader stronger by providing insight from people O’Brien actually knew. This allows him to show that even though his writing is fictional, he definitely incorporated real, raw emotions of others into the plot line. He also knows what those soldiers are going through and feeling because he was once in the same place and position as they are in the story. Along with showing the readers that the soldiers carry more than just the weight of the war with them, he also illustrates the thoughts the soldiers have when they first get drafted. How the war can make these young men contemplate things like running away just to escape the draft. He also illustrates the actions these men took to get out of the war, like a soldier shooting their own arm so that they could be discharged and sent home. These things may sound ridiculous and absurd to the reader at first but it shows just how much a young man is willing to sacrifice when faced with the fear of being sent off to war.

When O’Brien was first drafted into the Vietnam War he did not want to go. As stated in the interview with the Chicago Review, O’Brien says: “Would I be happy? Could I get across the border? What’s it going to be like sitting on the bus as I go across there?.. The decision to run or not run is based on that process” (2012) O’Brien is referring to how he thought about going and running away to Canada so that he would not have to go and fight in the war. This fear of the war and the thoughts of running from it are shown in The Things They Carried, when O’Brien writes a chapter about how he thought of running, and even made it to the Canadian border before he stopped at an old fishing resort and met the man that would ultimately help change his mind to stay in the United States and be drafted.

I drove north…I had no plan. Just hit the border at high speed and crash through and keep on running… On my last full day, the sixth day, the old man took me out fishing on the rainy River…then it occurred to me that at some point we must’ve passed into the Canadians waters… and I remember a sudden tightness in my chest as I looked up and watched the far shore come at me. This wasn’t a daydream. It was tangible and real… All I could do was cry. Quietly, not bawling, just the chest-chokes. (O’Brien, 1998).

This fear that O’Brien had is common within most soldiers because they don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Going into war they have no idea whether they will make it out alive, what they will see or what they will have to do, so they grasp onto the idea that if they can escape the war before they are sent into it maybe everything will be okay in the end. Another fear that many soldiers have is how they are going to explain what happened to them to their families and children later in life.

When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone… It was a difficult moment, but I did what seemed right, which was to say, “Of course not,” and then to take her onto my lap and hold her for a while. Someday I hope she’ll ask again. But here I want to pretend she’s a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened… and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right (O’Brien 1998).

The fact that O’Brien struggled to tell his daughter what happened is something that many other soldiers can relate to. Although the children know that they fought in the war often times they feel the need to shelter them from the truth. They leave out stories of extreme duress and horror because they don’t want to scare their own children or expose them to that type of fear and violence. They especially don’t want to express feelings of cowardice by telling the people they love that they wanted to run away because they were scared.  

Unfortunately though, most soldier will realize that the idea of running away is not something that can be easily accomplished and they feel defeated and have to “man up” and go to war. Many will try and few will succeed. Most soldiers will think about running from the war but when they think about it there are consequences to face either way. If they go to war they have to worry about not the possibility that they will never return home but if they run away they will also never be able to see their family again. At least if they go and participate in the war and survive, they will get to come home to their loved ones and they will not have to worry about never seeing or talking to them again. “And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do.” (O’Brien, 1998) By O’Brien adding this part into the novel it helps the readers understand what the soldiers felt when they realize that there is no escaping the war, that the inevitable is bound to happen and hopefully they will get to live to tell their story.

While some soldiers try and escape the war before they ever step foot on war grounds, others are shipped to their base and only after spending time in this new place and experiencing the war first hand realize that they cannot handle the pressure and must escape it. This is shown in the novel Going after Cacciato, in this novel O’Brien writes the story of a young man named Cacciato and how he flees from his squadron to go and run away from Vietnam to Paris, and about the rest of his squadron who now have to go after him. While at war soldiers have to take things one day at a time. A lot of the time they did not really know what day or month it was or how long they had actually been at war for. Some would try to keep track but eventually it gets hard and they have to come up with other ways to keep themselves occupied. In the novel it is not clear at first why Cacciato runs away, whether it was from boredom, or it was from fear, maybe both but all the men really know is that they must go after him and bring him back. Along the way as they try to find Cacciato, one of the other main characters Paul Berlin (who is new to the war) must go along with the squadron. At first he thinks that they should just let Cacciato go off and do whatever he wants to do, but as the days go on he starts to have hope that they will not catch up to him and that he will lead them all the way to Paris. “You’ll see some terrible stuff, I guess. That’s how it goes. But try to look for the good things, too. They’ll be there if you look. So watch for them…Think about the good things, keep your eye on Paris” (O’Brien 1998). It is at this point Paul realizes that maybe Cacciato was not as crazy as he once thought he was, and all he wanted to get out of running away was an escape from the war and maybe a chance to return home alive. Cacciato running away shows how the war made soldiers do crazy things and sometimes they would act before they thought their plan through. As crazy as Cacciato’s escape may be to the reader, when looked at from a different angle or a soldier’s point of view it can represent the desperation to get away from it all, to escape the horror, and to return home back to a normal life or to as much of a normal life as they can because the things that they see are sometimes too shocking and ultimately change them forever.     

Some people may believe that anybody can write a war story or write about a war and that they know exactly what it is like to be at war. They think that people could just make up the thoughts and feelings of these soldiers and package it as something authentic. This factor can upset a lot of people, but readers of O’Brien’s works should not be upset or worried that he is making up what goes on. As a veteran of the Vietnam War O’Brien documented some of the events that actually occurred to him while he was on the battlefield. These accounts were documented in his novel If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. This novel is a personal memoir where the real events of O’Brien are documented. The highs and lows of war are accounted for and readers can feel a closer connection to the soldiers at war because they are able to read these accounts and know exactly what happened, nothing hidden or fabricated and how O’Brien really felt as a soldier during these times. “Another explosion, fifty yards away. Then a succession of explosions, tearing apart huts; then yellow flashes, then white spears… Men were scrambling. Slow motion, then fast motion, and the whole village seemed to shake” (O’Brien 1975) By writing this novel, O’Brien shows how the war can be physically and mentally exhausting to soldiers and how going is actually the easy part, it’s coming home that can be the most difficult.

All soldiers who go to war eventually have to come home. When the war ends and all is done there is no reason for the soldiers to stay where they were fighting. They come home to families and friends who didn’t have to encounter such traumatic events and they have to try and readjust to life after the war surrounded by people who cannot fully understand what they have been through. They are just expected to put everything about the war behind them and return home as if nothing had happened. This is easier said than done. A lot of soldiers struggle with this readjustment and can end up coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “A PTSD diagnosis is restricted to individuals who have experiences or witnesses at least one traumatic event in their life” (Martz 2010) for soldiers this one traumatic event was the war. Before 1970 PTSD was not an official diagnosis. Terms such as “shell shock” and “Combat neurosis” were used to explain the symptoms of post war veterans. According to an article written by Eric Dean “The Vietnam Veterans’ movement of the 1970s and 1980s had drawn a great deal of attention to the phenomenon of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” (2013). It was actually not until 1980 that PTSD was accepted into the third volume of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM III) as an official diagnosis. The horrors that were witnessed during the Vietnam War affected some soldiers so badly that they have trouble living the life they left behind to go to the war.

Estimates suggest that between 500,000 and 850,000 Vietnam veterans experience e a wide range of stress-related symptoms as a result of their exposure to combat” (Lawson 1995). It was not until after the war was over and soldiers started to return home that doctors started to see a trend of the number of soldiers coming home with PTSD. Some of the symptoms that soldiers can have as a result of PTSD are “flashbacks, recurrent dreams, intrusive memories, constricted affect, startle response, and survival guilt (Lawson 1995).

Symptoms like this can be very hard to treat, soldiers may have to attend rehab or therapy to try and get help while others may never be able to recover and have to live with this condition for the rest of their lives. A lot of the time it is hard for the soldiers themselves to understand why they feel the way they do and sometimes recounting these memories to others who did not go through the same struggle can be difficult. This lack of personal understanding and not wanting to relieve the trauma makes it harder for professionals to treat these soldiers because they are unwilling or unable to actively seek help.

I am a thrice wounded combat veteran of the Vietnam War and I suffer from PTSD. For many years, I could not explain my sudden outbursts of anger for no reason, or my uncontrollable depression, or my inability to trust anyone but other Vietnam veterans…For nearly twenty years I denied the effects of my Vietnam experience… Still, after more than ten years of psychotherapy, I surlier great bouts of depression, have vivid combat nightmares, and have difficulty with any stressful situation, particularly any that remind me of Vietnam or war (Mosley 1998).

All three novels are examples of events that happened and how those events have affected the soldiers in the novels. These ideas, even though they are mainly works of fiction give readers an idea of the struggles that current combat soldiers of war go through today that may make returning home to regular life difficult for them and help open readers eyes to the similarities of soldiers both past and present.

Many works of fiction are taken as exactly that, fiction, not real, and completely made up from the author’s imagination. Without further background knowledge, many readers may believe that O’Brien makes up all of his work. When learning the truth behind O’Brien’s real life encounters it becomes more difficult for the readers to grasp the text and the message. On the surface it may seem like it is easier for the reader to pretend that this was completely a work of fiction because for them to pretend that it is not real it is easier than coming to terms with the harsh reality behind these true stories.

Literature consistently shows that post-traumatic stress reactions are not transitory entities, but rather persist over time…we know that the suffering felt by survivors of violence will last a few months, but a countless number of severely traumatized individuals… could suffer for the rest  of their lives (Martz 2010).

If readers would stop for a second and realize that many of the same mental health issues the soldiers face in O’Brien’s novels are faced by soldiers in real life, it may change the perspective of the people who are not fighting in the war. People may not talk bad about soldiers, or try and belittle their struggles. They might not try to make war out to look fun like they do in video games and in movies. Maybe people will finally be able to see war for the terrible tragedy that it truly is.

When a reader can look past the fictional part of the stories and look at the bigger picture, one will realize that there are real men and women out in the open fighting for the freedom and the rights of the American people. They are fighting a war in the hopes that the US can both aide their allies while maintaining our own freedom. They are scared soldiers wishing every day that they will get to come home, but are often times greeted by the harsh reality that the life they lived no longer exists. The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat  Box me up and Ship Me Home all demonstrate the turmoil that must be faced to protect this country. Soldiers are known to be the heroes, the ones who selflessly put themselves out there for the sake of others. But at the end of the day once these soldiers come home they need their own hero’s, someone who will step up to be there for them when they need to go to rehab or need help readjusting to civilian life. People often tend to turn a blind eye to them and say that they will be fine, but people need to remember they stepped up and fought for the country, they saw and did things they could have never imagined, they deserve the same respect that we give them when they are fighting when they come home and need to receive help. So maybe being educated through novels about this issue will help open the public’s eye to give a helping hand to the ones who have helped them.

Works Cited and Consulted
Dean, Eric T. Reflections on “The Trauma of War” and Shook over Hell. Civil War History 59.4 (2013): 414-18. Web.
Lawson, David M. Conceptualization and Treatment for Vietnam Veterans Experiencing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 17.1 (1995): n. pag. Academic Search Complete. Web.
Martz, Erin. Introduction to Trauma Rehabilitation After War and Conflict. Trauma Rehabilitation After War and Conflict (2010): 1-25. Web.
Mintz, S., and S. McNell. The Veitnam War. Digital History. N.p., 2016. Web.
Mosley, Chuck. The Invisible Scars of War. Peace Review 10.3 (1998): 463-68. Web.
O’Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me up and Ship Me Home. New York: Delacorte, 1975. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. Going after Cacciato: A Novel. New York: Delacorte/S. Lawrence, 1978. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.
Rotter, Andrew J. The Causes of the Vietnam War. The Causes of the Vietnam War. N.p., 1999. Web. <>.
Smith, Patrick A. Conversations with Tim O’Brien. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2012. Print.
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