Twentieth Anniversary of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. ”  ~ Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

2010 marks the twentieth year of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of stories about the war in which he fought, Vietnam.  The celebrated work (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) is now a staple of both high school and college literature courses. Since 1990, the book has sold over two million copies.

O’Brien began writing The Things They Carried some twenty years after his return from the Vietnam War.  His vivid descriptions of the horrors of war, the abiding camaraderie that soldiers experience,  and the permanent, psychological scars left by combat have all contributed to the longevity and enduring popularity of the work.

It has now been forty years since O’Brien returned from the Vietnam War. In an interview with National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan asked the author what he personally stills “carries” after such a long time. O’Brien responded, “Well, I carry the memories or the ghosts of a place called Vietnam, the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers. More importantly, I guess, I carry the weight of responsibility and a sense of abiding guilt. I carry joyful memories, too, friends I made and the conversations at foxholes where, for a moment or two, the war would seem to vanish into camaraderie and friendship.”

O’Brien confesses that he was initially surprised that his book is so widely taught in high school. He admits the audience he envisioned was composed of “literate people on subways and going to work and in their homes reading the book.” But he is pleased that young readers have found ways to connect to his themes. While they are not on the literal battlefield, they fight their own wars of  broken homes and bad childhoods.

The long wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have also brought new readers to the book. Soldiers called in to the program to thank O’Brien for his truthfulness, and to tell the author what they personally “carry.” Veterans told him about the literal, from dog tags to “wristbands (made) out of 550 cord,” to the psychological. A caller named Terry said, “You know, I’d like to say that one of the things that I still carry is the wonder that people voted to keep us there. I came back and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and I found that you couldn’t tell anybody what you had witnessed. Without having some experience, it just, they either didn’t want to hear it or they couldn’t relate to it.”

Ernest Hemingway instructed writers to “write one true sentence.” O’Brien has written many of them. And that is what continues to draw readers.