February 6, 2015

“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, The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien served in the Vietnam War and has written a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, based on his year fighting in Vietnam. Although The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, O’Brien blends real details of his time in Vietnam with fiction to convey his war experience, and how it changed him.


The book is a series of short stories that all make up a larger story of a man’s service in Vietnam and the aftermath of returning home. O’Brien talks a lot about the men he served with and the invisible scars of war. The stories are raw and jarring.

“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. ” 

One of the things I found most interesting about the book was the way O’Brien talks about writing, and his need to keep telling stories about Vietnam For him, writing is a mix the story-truth and the happening-truth. By writing story-truth, something that maybe didn’t necessarily happen the way he describes or even at all, O’Brien can convey the emotion of Vietnam, the way he felt when he was there. He is not trying to give a historically accurate account of the things that happened to him in Vietnam, but to convey the experience of war, the things that these men saw and carried with them for the rest of their lives.


“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth.”

I feel like this is the real purpose of telling stories – to make someone feel the way we felt. And O’Brien does it masterfully. I read The Things They Carried as part of my journey to read all of Amazon’s 100 books to read in a lifetime, and I recommend this book to everyone.

Have you read The Things They Carried, or anything else by Tim O’Brien?

What did you think?

4 responses to “The Things They Carried”

  1. Melanie says:

    I read this book in High school! I remember liking it, but that it was also a little intense/ sad.
    Melanie @ meandmr.com

    • carolann says:

      It is really intense, heartbreaking at some points. I still really enjoyed it. I love reading books about the military, probably because my husband is in the Navy. Thank God, he has never been in a combat zone.

  2. Christy says:

    I read this for a class in college…it was so good! We only read some of the stories, but I want to go back and read them all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *