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The Things They Carried | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How do "ghost soldiers" represent the particular challenges of the Vietnam War, as described in "The Ghost Soldiers" from The Things They Carried?

The platoon calls North Vietnamese fighters "ghosts" because of their ability to move through the countryside unseen. To get "spooked" by a ghost can mean to be frightened but also to be killed by the enemy. The ghost soldiers inhabited a "spooky" land of "shadows and tunnels," dense jungles and mined paddies—"ghost country." Vietnam seems "shimmering" with soldiers who can't quite be seen but are always a threat. The soldiers condense these qualities into a mythical figure, "Charlie Cong," the main ghost, who haunts soldiers at night, just out of their sight. He's a shape-shifter, taking on forms of "trees and grass." He can "levitate" and slip unseen into fenced-off areas. He represents the real Viet Cong and the guerilla method of fighting that proved hard to overcome during the Vietnam War.

Why does the narrator miss the dangers of combat after he's assigned to a supply base in "The Ghost Soldiers" from The Things They Carried?

The "real war," of which the narrator is no longer a part, carries risks; the deaths of platoon members make that clear. Yet the narrator misses not only the camaraderie of being with his "tribe" but also the danger to life and limb. The "presence of death" awakens the soldiers to life. They become more aware of little details of being alive, as Kiowa does in "The Things They Carried." After witnessing Ted Lavender's death, Kiowa becomes exquisitely aware of tiny sensations, such as the smell of the ink and paper in his New Testament, and admitted "he felt pleased to be alive." When the narrator was shot in the butt and going into shock, he saw with startling clarity Bobby Jorgenson's new boots, "factory fresh," not even dusty because he'd just arrived in the bush. The possibility of death and the presence of fear make soldiers "pay close attention to the world."

In what way do Rat's hallucinations in "Night Life" from The Things They Carried disturb him, and why?

When Rat sees healthy soldiers as if they're missing limbs or imagines how heavy their heads would feel as he carried them to a chopper, he's not scared. He hallucinates a soldier's "actual fucking liver," and it "doesn't even give me the willies." He doesn't see "the real person" but rather a "mechanical" problem to be solved or written off. He sees the soldiers as "meat for the bugs." What first disturbs Rat is that these things no longer scare him. He becomes even more disturbed when he imagines "chunks" of his own body, saying that "it's too much. I can't keep seeing myself dead." He realizes that he, too, is part of the same horrifying process: war itself is eating all the soldiers alive.

In "The Lives of the Dead" from The Things They Carried, how does Linda's explanation of what it's like to be dead support the importance of storytelling?

Linda's explanation of what it's like to be dead occurs in one of the narrator's dreams about her. His dreams are stories that he imagines to keep her "alive" in his mind. In one dream they had been ice-skating and were warming up by a fire. When the narrator asks what it's like to be dead, Linda finds the question "silly" and asks, "Do I look dead?" Of course she doesn't; in the narrator's dreams, Linda is vibrantly healthy, and in death, she says, she can "just be herself." Linda points out that any time the narrator dreams of her or tells a story about her, she's not dead. The truth of who she is exists in those moments. At other times "it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading." Linda is "safe" in the book and hopes that someone will read her book soon so that she can live again. Linda's comments lead the narrator to imagine the place she inhabits, "where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes" or bodies. In this world, the world of story-truth, the narrator will "never die," nor will the people he knows. He saves his own life as he writes about it.

How do the soldiers use storytelling to deal with the deaths of the old man and Ted Lavender in "The Lives of the Dead" from The Things They Carried?

The narrator says that "you dream" a story "as you tell it." If others "dream along with you"—that is, read or hear the story—then "memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head." The story comes to life when it's shared. When Dave Jensen tells the narrator, "Be polite now. ... Go introduce yourself," he's inviting the narrator to participate in joint story-telling. The soldiers drink toasts from their canteens to the dead man's "family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death." They acknowledge a long story, of which they're now a part; the narrator never forgets the dead man near the pigpen. The same thing happens with Ted Lavender's body. By conversing with the body, with one of the soldiers speaking for Ted, the platoon creates "the illusion of aliveness." Mitchell Sanders tells Ted that the chopper flight will "alter your whole perspective on this sorry, sorry shit." Ted replies, "I'm ready to fly." His life ended too abruptly for good-byes, but the soldiers collaborate to create the story's ending.

The narrator says readers can't generalize about war because it is full of contradictions. What are some examples of these contradictions about war in the book The Things They Carried?

Examples of the contradictions of war, as exhibited in The Things They Carried, include: War is "terror" and "discovery." In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," Mary Anne doesn't find out what possibilities her life holds until she goes on ambush with the Greenies. War is "immense pleasure" and "despair." Kiowa feels the pleasure of being alive in response to Ted Lavender's death in "The Things They Carried," while Rat Kiley can hardly bear his grief about Curt Lemon's death in "How to Tell a True War Story." War is "drudgery" and "fun." The soldiers endure days of monotony, "just humping" heavy loads, but also experience days of camaraderie, as among the soldiers of Eddie Diamond's medical detachment. War is "grotesque" and "beautiful." Mary Anne wears a necklace of shriveled human tongues, and several stories describe terrible wounds. Yet the vast land around the soldiers is beautiful, and tiny moments of beauty—flowers by a trail, watermelons grown in the monks' garden—punctuate various stories. War promotes "evil" and "decency." Rat Kiley tortures a baby water buffalo in his anguish over Curt Lemon's death but carries M&Ms for "especially bad wounds"; he risks his safety to check on wounded soldiers in combat situations. Almost "everything" and "nothing" is true of war, the narrator says; the usual rules of human behavior are "no longer binding."

How does the epigraph of The Things They Carried apply to the themes in the book?

John Ransom, the Civil War soldier who wrote Andersonville Diary, implies in the work that he expects readers to doubt his descriptions of what he experienced. He feels that he must insist on the truth of his account: People who know anything about the prison will "see its truthfulness at once," and those to whom his account is new and shocking must trust that he "experienced" these events "to the fullest." O'Brien's fiction, like Ransom's diary, attempts to convey "to the fullest" degree possible in words what he and other soldiers experienced in Vietnam. The book is "lovingly dedicated" to the men he served with. These men, the epigraph suggests, will recognize what Ransom calls "truthfulness" and O'Brien calls "story-truth." The epigraph both reveals the narrator's method and vouches for the result. It assures readers that the book contains "actual things" that soldiers know, even if the narrator notes, on occasion, that some of the stories are partially, or entirely, untrue.

How does O'Brien's choice to use a fictional version of himself as a character in and narrator of The Things They Carried create both challenges and benefits for readers?

Challenges: Readers must remind themselves at many points that the narrator, when he speaks in first person, and the "young soldier" the others called Tim, share traits but are not the same person. In "On the Rainy River," the author is not writing of his own near-escape to Canada. The author didn't attempt to dodge the draft. In "The Man I Killed," the narrator, who obsesses over the dead man's remains, is not the author either. Readers must resist the urge to think of the fictional Tim O'Brien and the author as the same person, despite the autobiographical feel of the work. Benefits: By creating a fictional version of himself to serve as narrator and character, the author captures what he did actually feel, do, and think while in Vietnam and then translates these into, not actual events, but "story-truth." He writes in "Good Form" that his goal is not to tell exactly what happened to him but to help readers "feel what I felt" and to give the dead back their bodies and faces so that he can recall them clearly. Story-truth gets beyond details about where a fight occurred, how many rounds were fired, and who prevailed. It gets at the nature of any war, any battle—a more encompassing truth to which the author can attest because the narrator is very much like him.

What does the portrayal of Vietnamese characters in The Things They Carried suggest about the narrator's view of the people of Vietnam, especially during the war?

Though the soldiers experience fantastic fears about "Charlie Cong," an imagined Viet Cong soldier who is nearly "magical," melding with the landscape and "levitating," most of the Vietnamese mentioned in the stories receive sympathetic treatment. Even the young soldier whose body, with its eye in the shape of a "star," fascinates the narrator and is treated sympathetically. He is an enemy, but the narrator imagines the "constellation of possibilities" the young man's life may have contained before war came. Similarly, the girl who dances by her burning home in "Style," as her families' bodies are carried out, receives something like respect from Henry Dobbins. When Azar mocks the girl's dance, Henry picks him up and threatens to toss him in a well unless he agrees to "dance right." The "old poppa-san" who guides the soldiers through mined landscapes, the monks who share their pagoda with the platoon, and the villagers who try, frantically but unsuccessfully, to explain that the field where Kiowa dies is not safe, all appear as positive characters. Only the people the narrator does not come face to face with—the mythical Charlie Cong in particular—remain wholly enemies. He appreciates the common humanity he shares with most of the Vietnamese characters.

What are the traits of a "true" or "good" war story, and why they are important in the book The Things They Carried?

The narrator discusses what makes a good war story in three selections: "How to Tell a True War Story," "Notes," and "The Lives of the Dead." A good war story is honest. When Norman Bowker critiques one of the narrator's stories by saying, "You left out Vietnam. ... Where's the shit?" the narrator admits that he avoided writing honestly because honest war stories are "hard stuff to write." The stories hit the gut as well as the heart because they don't hide the truth. Writers need courage to write these types of stories. A good war story is not concerned with teaching virtue or pointing out a moral. Instead, it demonstrates "absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." What should offend about a war story is not a filthy word but the horror of war. A good war story "embarrasses" readers by revealing the truth of war. A good war story may also seem unbelievable to those who've never experienced war, where "incredible craziness" happens, and it may seem to have no end, because the events continue to reverberate in the lives of those who lived through them. A good war story may seem "beyond telling," but it needs to be told. War stories, like other stories of loss, give the dead their bodies and faces back and let them live again and help those who survive grieve their loss.

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