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The Things They Carried | Quotes


They carried the land itself—Vietnam ... the whole atmosphere.

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

The narrator describes the little things soldiers carry—canteens, knives, photos—and gradually expands to larger items such as the M-60, to intangibles like grief, and finally to the vast setting of Vietnam itself. All of these weigh on the soldiers.


The war was like a Ping-Pong ball. You could put fancy spin on it.

Tim O'Brien, Spin

The narrator often talks about telling war stories. Here, he asserts that the war wasn't all horror and that soldiers could reshape events into funny or ironic stories. Remembering, he says, is "rehappening," and the storyteller can decide on the spin he prefers to put on a story.


I would go to the war ... because I was embarrassed not to.

Tim O'Brien, On the Rainy River

After days of being pulled between the impulse to flee to Canada and the impossibility of disappointing his family, the narrator decides to report for the draft, but he makes clear his reasons—not courage or patriotism but shame.


A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue.

Tim O'Brien, How to Tell a True War Story

The narrator objects to war stories that serve as propaganda or that glorify war to inspire young men to sacrifice their lives. True war stories, he says, exhibit an "absolute ... allegiance to obscenity and evil" because war is obscene and evil.


The young man would not have wanted to be a soldier. ... [He] would have feared performing badly in battle.

Tim O'Brien, The Man I Killed

The narrator imagines ever more detailed personal histories for the young Vietnamese soldier he kills, and each history includes details that the narrator might use to describe himself. He identifies with the dead man out of guilt and fear.


The bravest thing ... was to sit through the night and feel the cold in your bones.

Norman Bowker, Speaking of Courage

Norman drives around the lake and thinks that "there was so much to say" but no one to say it to. He imagines describing what it means for soldiers to be brave on a daily basis, which is often a matter of endurance and is often overlooked.


'It's not terrible ... but you left out Vietnam. Where's Kiowa? Where's the shit?'

Norman Bowker, Notes

Norman asks the narrator to write his story, including the story of Kiowa's death. When he reads the result, he offers this "somewhat bitter" criticism, which compels the narrator to face his own memories of Kiowa's terrible death. "It was hard stuff to write," he says, but the story has to be told.


I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Tim O'Brien, Good Form

The narrator hopes that readers will "feel what I felt" in Vietnam, but, to achieve this goal, he can't be utterly factual or loyal to "happening-truth," events as they actually occurred. What matters more is "story-truth," which can "make things present" to the writer, when memory fails, and to readers, who can "feel what" the narrator felt.


This whole war. ... Just one big banquet. Meat, man. ... Everybody. Meat for the bugs.

Rat Kiley, Night Life

Rat Kiley sums up the war for Mitchell Sanders with this statement. The idea of "goddamn bugs chewing tunnels" through his body is "too much" for Rat, the result of a medic's exposure to broken, bleeding bodies, and he expands it into a metaphor for whole war.


We kept the dead alive with stories ... bringing body and soul back together.

Tim O'Brien, The Lives of the Dead

The narrator explains that stories helped the soldiers remember and grieve their dead, even when the stories were "exaggerated" or false. Even now, at age 43, he is telling such stories to keep the dead alive. The stories are life-saving for the dead and for the living.

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