Looking back at most wars in history, you’ll find lists of the medals won by soldiers and the battles they fought-but these are only part of the story, because really, what’s in a medal? Feelings? Memories? While tangible things may be symbolic of a soldier’s idealized heroism, they really mean nothing in the context of war. War in and of itself is a daunting concept, and as Tim O’Brien suggests throughout his book The Things They Carried, fear is a greater enemy than the enemy himself, which can eventually lead to a savage transformation.
O’Brien’s novel begins innocently enough-apparently just a simple story about items a platoon of soldiers carried while in Vietnam. The topics discussed appear difficult for the narrator to talk about, and he lists them in a way so as to describe the Vietnam War experience in a way distant from the present, presenting himself as no longer greatly affected by the war. But more importantly, the organization and feel of the events listed-beginning from innocent occurrences and progressing to brutal happenings-are to prepare for discussing the emotional burdens that were key factors in their psychological changes encountered during the war. Eventually, it becomes evident that the things they carried aren’t “things” at all:
They carried the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories […and] cowardice…. They carried the soldier’s fear (page 21).
In reading passages like these, one is driven to empathize with the soldiers, who, through the details O’Brien gives, are made to seem like ourselves or people we may know, with real emotions and real issues, real troubles and real changes. Shame, embarrassment, fear, and cowardice are just a few things O’Brien tells us the soldiers carry. Just as carrying a heavy load of bricks can tire one out, so can the burdens and feelings the soldiers have, which are key factors in their character changes. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Mary Anne Bell, Mark Fossie’s love interest, perfectly exemplifies the transformation from innocence to savagery. The epitome of the all-American girl, never expected to fight in a war, Bell arrives in Vietnam with “long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like strawberry ice cream. Very friendly, […] coy and flirtatious” (page 93, 95).
Soon enough, however, Mary Anne adapts to her surroundings, which was far from the friendly environment she was accustomed to. Mary Anne “wasn’t afraid to get her hands bloody […] in fact, she seemed fascinated by it” (page 98). This is surprising, because just a few days earlier, she was still naïve and superficial, and now, she was more willing to kill than many of the other soldiers, even wearing a necklace with the tongues of those she killed. She learned to use an M-16, and became savage, running off with the Greenies and going on ambush in the middle of the night:
[Upon her return the morning after ambush] Fossie took a half step forward and hesitated. It was as though he [Mark Fossie] had trouble recognizing her. She wore a bush hat and filthy green fatigues; she carried the standard M-16 automatic assault rifle; her face was black with charcoal” (page 102).
While Mary Anne’s transformation may be a little extreme, it shows just how influential a violent surrounding of war can be and how quickly it can turn even the most innocent person into a bloodthirsty savage. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a series of stories with most of the events revolving around the Vietnam War, and while it may seem that this scenario is not at all related to our lives, this is not the case. Tim O’Brien said it best: You start off “…clean and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same” (page 114). In our daily lives, we become overwhelmed with our surroundings, and sooner or later, we blend into and become a part of the problems we’re trying to escape. We are innocent and eventually evolve into savages.