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The Things They Carried | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "How to Tell a True War Story" from The Things They Carried, how is the setting of Mitchell Sanders's story symbolic?

The land of Vietnam is full of jungles, mountains, and fog that create a sense of mystery and concealment well-suited to creating a sensation of detachment from reality that the soldiers often experience. The landscape serves a symbolic purpose in The Things They Carried, as it does in Mitchell's story. The soldiers are isolated on the mountain and insulated from each other, by orders of "absolute silence" and the dense fog. The "fog sort of takes you in," Mitchell explains, as if "you don't even have a body." The men merge with the jungle; then they hear sounds of Vietnam's people and history coming from a mysterious location: chanting, "the Haiphong Boys Choir," a talented "mama-san soprano," and Vietnamese voices engaged in "chitchat" as if at a cocktail party. Vietnam "talks" to the soldiers: "Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion," Mitchell says. Mitchell doesn't guess why the sounds drive the soldiers to call down firepower on the wilderness, but he knows that the men heard Vietnam talking—and that the "fatass colonel" didn't and couldn't. Vietnam's powerful and haunting landscape itself is also the "enemy." The landscape symbolizes the confusion of the war. Why was the United States not winning despite all of its military power? Why was the United States even there?

What makes the story of Curt Lemon's death a "true war story" in "How to Tell a True War Story" from The Things They Carried?

The story of Curt's death satisfies the narrator's description of a "true war story" on several fronts: It is actually a love story; it reveals the love Rat has for Curt, his "best friend." It includes "obscenity and evil." Rat's anger that the "dumb cooze" didn't answer the "beautiful fuckin' letter" he "slave[d] over" is obscene, and both Curt's death and Rat's reaction are evil, like an "original" sin, Mitchell says. It is about sunlight—the light that the narrator imagines Curt saw as his "final truth" was not actually sunlight but seemed to envelop him in beauty as he died. It "makes the stomach believe" with gory details about Curt's body and about the torture and death of the baby water buffalo. It does not attempt to teach an uplifting moral. It continues to haunt the narrator, who has told it many times and keeps telling it. A true war story, the narrator says, is hard to tell and nearly incredible; the stories around Curt's death have the characteristics of the "true war story" the narrator values.

In "How to Tell a True War Story" from The Things They Carried, what lessons about soldiers at war does Mitchell's story convey?

Mitchell tries to find meaning in every event. He decides that the moral is that "nobody listens" to the soldiers with field experience, so nobody can understand what the war is like. Readers can also find lessons about the importance of comrades and the dangers of silence in the story. The six men speak rarely and only in a "hush-hush" tone that "revs up the willies." They lie in fog so thick that they can't see each other, each muffled behind cool, wet walls. Isolated, their minds quickly fall prey to mysterious music and voices. They can't identify the sounds or talk back to them, nor can they discuss what they are experiencing with one another. When the shaken soldiers return to base, they "don't say diddly" because "certain stories you don't ever tell." Mitchell is not telling his own story but repeating a story he has heard that disturbs him. Mitchell shares this story with his own comrades to warn them to listen, tell what they hear, and stay connected so that they can endure the sounds and silences of their enemy, Vietnam.

Why is the story of Curt Lemon's death broken up across "How to Tell a True War Story" from The Things They Carried instead of being told all at once?

Curt's story is spread out in five sections, which are not in the order of events as they happened. Instead, parts of his story are broken up by the narrator's ruminations about "generalizing" and "storytelling" and by the story of the soldiers who hear strange sounds in the mountains. His story is fragmented, torn apart; readers must reassemble it after they read the whole selection, just as Curt's body had to be gathered piece by piece from the tree so that a chopper could take the reunited pieces home. The selection's structure suggests Curt's dismemberment, the fracturing of the platoon, the shooting of the water buffalo one piece at a time, Rat's broken heart, and the difficulty of telling stories when the "angles of vision are skewed" by time and trauma.

Describe the tension between the soldiers in the field and the "higher-ups" in command as it is portrayed in "The Dentist" from The Things They Carried.

In "The Dentist" Alpha Company is enjoying some time in a relatively peaceful part of Vietnam in a coastal area with "white beaches and palm trees and friendly little villages." The days feel to them like a much-needed "two-week vacation." But the break is interrupted because, "as usual," distant commanding officers can't "leave well enough alone." Readers may understand why this break is a logical time for a needed service—dental care—but getting "lectured" on oral hygiene is low on the men's priority list. They resent the intrusion and the condescending attitude of the dentist, a captain who treats the men in an "impersonal" manner, his concern more for meeting the schedule than for the men's well-being.

Why is Curt Lemon "all smiles" after having a healthy tooth pulled in "The Dentist" from The Things They Carried?

The relationship of the soldiers to pain often reveals underlying vulnerabilities and struggles they may be having with the war and within themselves, particularly with proving their toughness. Like the narrator and many soldiers, Curt needs to be brave, or at least act bravely, to handle the daily pressures of war. His bragging stories may, the narrator thinks, serve to "erase" Curt's poor self-image and help him endure. When Curt faints in the dentist's tent, shame at this evidence of his cowardice overwhelms him. He must confront his old fears of dental "sadism" to shore up his confidence and reunite with the platoon, from which he has withdrawn in disgrace. Bullying the dentist into pulling the healthy tooth causes Curt physical pain but relieves the emotional pain of appearing weak in front of the other soldiers. The trade-off is worth the pain to Curt, who chooses to make himself suffer rather than expose himself as vulnerable in any way. The fact that the scene takes place in a dentist's tent and not on the battlefield suggests that the need to prove one's toughness is not confined to combat. The soldiers mimic bravery or courage in an attempt to bond with each other. They may also be doing so to cover the intense vulnerability not just physically but psychologically that being in the midst of war inspires. Curt's attempt to show off his toughness by having a healthy tooth pulled shows the desperation and absurdity of such an action.

According to Rat Kiley, how does what happens to Mary Anne Bell in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" from The Things They Carried happen to soldiers in Vietnam?

Rat claims that Vietnam has the "effect of a powerful drug" on all soldiers; it's only a "question of degree." Soldiers arrive "clean" and "get dirty," and they're "never the same" again. Like a drug, Vietnam combines "unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure." The Greenies feel this pull, as their secretive missions and grotesque hootch décor suggest. But even they "balked" at how Mary Anne merged with the enticing jungle. During ambush Mary Anne's face became "smooth and vacant," and she moved in the darkness "like oil, without sound or center." Rat identifies the force that transforms her as the land's wildness. Mary Anne succumbs entirely to this pull, wanting to "penetrate deeper into the mystery of herself." She melts into the fog that confuses and obscures the soldiers throughout The Things They Carried. Like Mary Anne, many of the soldiers become "intimate with danger" through their relationship to Vietnam's land and weather. This intimacy often heightens their sense of self, connecting them to their own life force. In "How to Tell a True War Story," for example, after combat the landscape offers "an immense pleasure of aliveness. ... All around you things are purely living, and you among them ... your truest self." On the other hand, Mary Anne disappears permanently into the jungle as if it has swallowed her whole. Many of the soldiers also become psychologically possessed and transformed by the landscape. In "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker imagines telling his father about the Song Tra Bong River and the seemingly endless rains that create the mud field in which Kiowa drowns. Norman had tried to pull Kiowa out and failed. Years later he can still recall the river's smell, the texture of the mud, and how the landscape swallowed Kiowa. Norman's sense of failure is still fresh in his mind. Tim O'Brien returns to the location of the same muddy field years later in "Field Trip," unable to forget what happened there: "I blamed this place for what I had become, and for taking away the person I had once been."

In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" from The Things They Carried, how does Rat Kiley's view of women change in response to what happens to Mary Anne Bell?

Rat's view of women before his experience with Mary Anne is stereotypical; even Mary Anne shares it. Women get married young to nice guys like Mark Fossie; they have kids and raise them, and they're suited for this because they're "gentle and peaceful." Mark expects this to be true of Mary Anne. He collapses not only because Mary Anne leaves him but also because she becomes something he can't recognize, wild and powerful and dismissive of him. Now Rat sees that he and most people have "blinders on about women." He's heard "all that crap about how if we had a pussy for president," wars would end. Rat says that if he'd heard about a soldier getting "seduced by the Greenies," he'd have thought, "Hey, no big deal." Men get "caught up in that Nam shit." That Mary Anne feels the same temptation and is quite capable of living wild in the mountains convinces Rat that people have to "get rid of that sexist attitude." Women, like men, have the capacity for wildness and violence.

How do Mitchell Sanders's objections to Rat Kiley's story in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" from The Things They Carried reflect their different approaches to storytelling?

Mitchell objects to Rat's story for several reasons. Mitchell thinks that Rat embellishes the story with unnecessary details, such as the "white culottes" and "sexy pink sweater" Mary Anne wears when she arrives. In fact, these clothes later take on symbolic value. Mitchell wants the story to go where it should. Mary Anne must be cheating on Mark with a Greenie, because why else would the Greenies have a hootch with a medical detachment? That's "how stories work." Rat injects "bits of analysis and personal opinions" into the story. Mitchell prefers "the raw material" without "half-baked commentary" because the latter "breaks the spell of the story." These objections reveal differences in why Rat and Mitchell tell stories. For Mitchell, a story needs to have meaning. Throughout The Things They Carried, Mitchell announces the meaning of his own stories and others' stories. Rat's story offers him no chance to say, "There it is," and extract a take-away. Even so, Rat's narrative method lets Rat "bracket the full range of meaning" as he makes sense of events.

How do Rat Kiley's and Mary Anne Bell's points of view differ about her transformation in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" from The Things They Carried?

Rat thinks that Mary Anne "joined the zoo" when she ran off with the Greenies, meaning that Mary Anne became feral and uncivilized. The process happened gradually; she gave up makeup and nice nails, exchanged her civilian clothes for camouflage, and journeyed deeper into the jungle with the Green Berets. Her voice changed, dropping in pitch and finally becoming unintelligible when she sang in a "language beyond translation." Finally she melted into the mountain, at home like a wild animal, "sliding in the shadows." But for Mary Ann, this process is not like becoming an animal. She believes she is discovering the self whom civilization, with its expectations of marriage, the "gingerbread house" by the lake and three kids, had obscured. From the day she arrives at Tra Bong, she becomes more confident, more herself, and less Mark's sweetheart. In the jungle she can "feel my blood moving ... like I'm full of electricity." Nowhere but in the mountains of Vietnam, in that exotic and primal setting, can Mary Anne claim to know "exactly who I am."

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