Tim O'Brien was born in 1946 in Worthington, Minnesota. He was born at a time when Vietnam and Civil Rights Movements were dominating the American culture (Bloom). In simple terms, he may be described as having been an anti-war personality. This was probably exacerbated by his Political Science studies at the Harvard School of Government. It shall be thus be seen whether his anti war ideology was reflected in his works, especially the short story "The Things They Carried". The story is part of a collection of episodes in the book The Things They Carried which describes what a squad of Alpha Company soldiers 'carried' either literally (materials) or non-tangibles such as war memories and hopes for a better future. It is written that whatever they carried varied by specialty, rank, mission and superstition. So is the excerpt a short story or a topic within a book?
Although the reviewers of the book had a problem in prescribing its genre, the book's message is very clear (Nagel 131). So does the wider theme of the story. It is herein postulated that the setting of the story is a war-filled place and time and that the main character, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, would transform his conception of love versus leadership.
In this brief discussion, the setting of the story and the main character has been analyzed. Bloom succinctly stated that that main character in the story was Jimmy Cross. This is so because most of the activities revolve around him and the fact that the story begins with "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey". In summarizing the whole episode, Bobbie Ann Mason, quoted by Bloom (21), observed that the whole story was an effort by the main character to contain the emotion and to carry it. She stipulated that when Jimmy Cross was faced with 'unspeakable horror', he fashioned a story which enabled him clarify the story. Mason also proceeded to prove that one of the main methods of dealing with pain entailed the organization, categorization and simplification of a difficult situation. It is therefore important to ask how the above processes were applicable to the main character.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is a conflicted leader of a eighteen-man squad. When Ted Lavender is killed, he feels responsible for this death du to the herein outlined reason. He later still felt even more remorseful when Curt Lemon is killed in a landmine and also greatly affected by Kiowa's killing near Song Tra Bong where he had mistakably camped the soldiers. The reason for his remorsefulness was the fact that in most cases, he was thinking about a distant college girl and perpetually wondering whether she was a virgin. However, this changed over time.
It is interesting to note how Jimmy's perception about Martha changed with time. According to Nagel (132), Jimmy Cross changes both as a person and as a leader and was now obsessed with self-recrimination coupled with strict disciplinarian as means of expiation. This is illustrated by the way we see a very passionate man towards a college student. As time went by, the man wonders whether the lady's letters were really about love or a mere description of the school events. The situation is further magnified by the fact that "Lieutenant Cross kept to himself. He pictured Martha's smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her". To demonstrate the main character's change in perspective, 'Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not be loved but to lead' (O'Brien 25). It is crystal clear that Jimmy Cross held himself responsible for Ted Lavender's death- a major ingredient to his change of views towards 'loving' Martha. This is because instead of keeping a closer eye for his men during his patrol, he began to daydream; imagining himself walking along the beach with Martha a thing that led to the shooting of Lavender. The shooting was possible since the environment was war-filled.
In his The contemporary American short-story cycle: the ethnic resonance of genre, Nagel wrote that Tim O'Brien's setting of the story in Vietnam alludes to the situation of violence and death. By reading the other episodes however, there is a shift to the United States and back again which represents the disorienting nature of war (Nagel 131). Even though the short story may sound exhaustive of its theme's relatedness to the setting, O'Brien has authored two more 'war' works. These include the 1973 Combat zone and the 1978 Going after Cacciato. In all these works, The things they carried included, present the author's traumatization by the war (Hebede 6). In another text, he confessed that war made him a writer. This setting also symbolizes the literary hardships for American authors especially during and after the Hermic renaissance.
O'Brien's presentation of the story's setting is almost synonymous with the themes he addresses. Having been an anti-war personality, the author finds it very convenient and applicable to use effects of war on soldier characters to convey the wider message. As a result, the reader easily grasps the subject matter and probably gets to hate war. Some of the effects of war were one's deprivation of love from the significant others. This is well illustrated by Jimmy's non-performance as a platoon leader owing to hi fantasizing about Martha, a girl back in his New Jersey home.
When the tone of the story is juxtaposed upon the real life situation, there is a great simultaneity. To begin with, the author, Tim O'Brien, was an anti-Vietnam war. In fact, it is the war that made him a writer. It was in this spirit that many war illustrational episodes were compiled and dubbed The things they carried. Interestingly, the first episode bears the same name. The thematic activities revolve around the main character, Jimmy Cross, who finds himself torn between 'love' and effective leadership. Both the main character's predicament and the story's setting, time and place, interact reciprocally to build up the other themes.
By the end of the story, the Lieutenant drastically transforms due to the loss of lives for three soldiers. He now prefers to sacrifice unrequited 'love' for the wider national interest. By illustrating the sufferings for soldiers, the author is not necessarily depicting American defeat but he focuses on the bad outcomes of fighting between nations. All this was set to happen at a time when the countries in question had conflicting political interests. The description of the wartime in Vietnam creates a real picture to the reader thus facilitating the dawning of the flow of events.
“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien draws a fine line between courage and cowardice although the difference is small. Courage is the ability to confront fear; in the book, it relates to many things and is described as a skill that must be learned. It is viewed that courage comes with fear as many actions of people are motivated by shame rather than courage. Cowardice simply denotes the lack of bravery in the book.
In his book, O’Brien writes, “Men killed, and died because they were embarrassed not to’’ (21). This text shows that men in the Vietnam War did not go to fight just because they were brave; they did it because they were afraid to be called cowards and to be humiliated in front of their peers. The text suggests that many soldiers are, indeed, cowards and would not stand up to what they wanted if it makes them appear to be cowards.
Assessing O’Brien’s character, we will find both courage and cowardice in his journey. First, we can see that O’Brien portrays courage; if his draft notices that he does not want to go to the war, it would not be right. “.. I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It could not happen. I was above it” (41). Taking off to Canada showed that he had self-courage as he took a stand against the war and did what he could to avoid it especially when everyone else did the opposite.
Cowardice as portrayed by O’Brien himself was evident when he considered entering the war “... and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived but not a happy conclusion. I was a coward, I went to the war” (61). We also see that the main reason that kept him from running from the war was the fear that people in his hometown would call him a coward.
The fact that the soldiers did not march into war not because of their bravery but simply because they did not want to be embarrassed in front of their peers can be illustrated by Curt Lemon’s character. This notion is depicted where he had the dentist pull out a perfectly good tooth in order to prove that he was not afraid.
O’Brien did show that Lemon’s behavior could be explained by the shame rather than bravery. It was known that Lemon was terrified of dentists because of childhood fears; he fainted even before the army dentist examined him. He could not live with such embarrassment among his peers; he further went to fake a toothache and had the tooth removed.
Norman Bowker is introduced as a courageous soldier who is experienced and who fought ‘bravely’ against his enemies. His courage in combat had earned him a number of medals and praise from his father (155). However, he feels that he was not brave enough to save Kiowa from his gruesome death when he drowned in a sewer. The book depicts Norman having a hard time when dealing with Kiowa’s death simply because he kept reminding himself that he could not help Kiowa because of the odor (184). This illustrates that the difference between courage and cowardice is very small like the odor in this case.
Unable to get over the guilt of not being able to save his friend, Bowker is haunted by his own demons and is unable to live with himself. As defined, courage is being able to face fear; bowman depicts cowardice when he is not able to confront what happened in the field when Kiowa died and hangs himself for being unable to find meaning in his life anymore (157).