The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Speaking of Courage | Summary



Norman Bowker is home in Iowa after the war. On the Fourth of July, he drives around the lake, watching people going about their day. Norman feels "safe inside his father's big Chevy." He remembers driving around the lake, before the war, with his girlfriend, Sally Kramer, and Max Arnold, with whom he'd discussed "the existence of God." Max drowned in the lake before the war, and Sally married while Norman was deployed. The town now seems "remote somehow" to Norman and "Max ... just an idea."

As Norman drives around the hot, dry town, watching people tend lawns and fish and work on boats, he knows that the "town could not talk" about the war, having no experience of it, and "would not listen" either. Norman still thinks about how he "almost won" the Silver Star for uncommon valor and considers talking with his father about it. The seven medals he did win are for "common valor ... just enduring" the patrols, "the routine, daily stuff." He is proud of these medals because they prove he had done "all the things soldiers do," and "therefore it wasn't such a big deal that he could not bring himself to be uncommonly brave."

Norman recalls Kiowa's death. The platoon camps by the Song Tra Bong during monsoon season, although "a dozen old mama-sans" tell them the field is "evil ground." By midnight rain turns the field into "deep, oozy soup" that stinks horribly because, without realizing it, the soldiers have camped on the village's latrine. Suddenly the field is hit with mortars and gunfire. The field erupts in "slop and shrapnel." Shells unearth "years of waste." Norman hears Kiowa scream and crawls toward the sound. When he reaches Kiowa, only a knee, arm, and boot are visible above the mud. Where Kiowa's head should be, Norman sees "bubbles." Norman pulls on Kiowa's boot, but he can't dislodge him. Sinking and overwhelmed by the stink, Norman gives up and pulls himself out of the ooze. If he had saved Kiowa, he thinks, he'd have won the Silver Star.

Norman eats at the A&W. The person who takes his order over an intercom tries, and fails, to get Norman to converse. Norman circles the lake for the 10th time, remembering how Kiowa was "folded in with the war ... part of the waste." Norman parks and walks into the lake, still dressed, to watch the fireworks.


Interwoven into the story of Kiowa's death are more comments on telling war stories. Many would have and could have verb phrases occur in the story. Norman knows what he would say and how he would say it, if he could tell the story that haunts him. He'd describe the setting and then confess that, on the night of Kiowa's death, he "wasn't very brave." He would pause dramatically at the right places and keep his voice "cool, no self-pity." He would have described what he saw when he reached the spot where Kiowa should have been and found a boot and bubbles instead. He would have acknowledged his guilt.

The town, which in this story stands in for much of the United States, doesn't want to hear the kind of war story Norman has to tell. The town wants "good intentions and good deeds," not mud and stench. It wants pleasant fables of idealized valor, or at least bearable fictions—not the horrid truth. The town had "no guilt" over the war because it had "no memory" of the war. It didn't "know shit about shit, and did not care to know." Norman forgives the town, with its "neat houses" and "sanitary conveniences" and "brisk, polite" city business. The town won't suffer for not hearing Norman's story, but it's clear that Norman is suffering because he can't tell it.

"How to Tell a True War Story" defines a good war story as one that has "uncompromising allegiance to obscenity" and "embarrasses" listeners. True war stories have "surreal" elements, may turn the stomach, and can be hard to believe, but they help listeners and readers feel what the people involved felt. By this definition Norman's story is as true as it can be.

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