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The Things They Carried | Symbols

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O'Brien uses symbolism throughout the book to convey truths about both the profound and the mundane experiences of war.

What Must Be Carried

The collection and the first story share a title, "The Things They Carried," that points to the importance of what the men carry during the war and afterward, when some of the soldiers find that they cannot lay down the burdens of war. The catalogs of things carried that shape the first story are the most obvious explorations of the literal and symbolic significance of the men's burdens, but the idea of the burdens of war appears in many forms throughout the stories.

The men carry the physical objects that, to them, mean survival. But they carry intangibles too—emotions, memories, and responsibilities to each other, to their allies, and to history. The stories reveal the effect of having to carry these burdens into the years after the war. Things as light as Martha's letters and photos and as heavy as the narrator's guilt over Kiowa's death demonstrate the war's impact on the men's lives.

The Land

The narrator says, in the title story, that the soldiers "carried the land itself"—its jungles, rivers, fog, mountains, even sky. The land of Vietnam is more than a setting; it is another character in the war and thus in the stories, and it haunts the American soldiers: "The whole country. Vietnam. The place talks. ... It truly talks."

The land also takes on symbolic value: sometimes an enemy and other times a seductive force, the land can represent home or tomb, beauty, or brutality. This contradictory symbolism makes sense, given the stories' historical context. The Vietnamese landscape overwhelmed the U.S. military power that had prevailed in earlier wars. In The Things They Carried, Vietnam's jungles, mountains, fog, and rain can be beautiful but deadly too. Even the loveliest stretch of ground can conceal land mines.

The land is so powerful that it consumes several of the characters, including Kiowa, who is swallowed alive in a muddy field, and the narrator, whose "cruelty" toward another soldier briefly causes him to become Vietnam ("I was the land itself."). Mary Anne Bell, who wants to consume Vietnam, is devoured by it instead, when she vanishes into the jungle, never to be seen again.

The Man I Killed

The man whom the narrator killed symbolizes the futility of war and the needless loss of life and potential on both sides of any conflict. The qualities that the narrator imposes on the dead man are similar to the traits he uses to describe himself; it could have been the narrator, or any of his fellow soldiers, lying there. The men are almost interchangeable, thus highlighting that both countries were needlessly losing men who had aspirations and futures.

The Rainy River

The Rainy River, where the narrator experiences his moral dilemma about running to Canada or reporting for duty, sets up the three stories that deal with the death of Kiowa. While it is not raining in "On the Rainy River," the name of the river connects the narrator's prewar dilemma with the moral dilemma faced during the monsoon and the shelling that sucks Kiowa into the muck. The Rainy River comes to symbolize courage. In "On the Rainy River," the narrator decides to go to war because he is a coward; he is too embarrassed not to go: "I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was too embarrassed not to." For him bravery is doing what he believes is right: "the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave." In "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker grapples with similar issues of courage. Despite winning seven medals, he discounts them because they were for "the routine, daily stuff—just humping, just enduring." He almost won the Silver Star for uncommon valor but he let go of Kiowa because he could not stand the stench of the latrine field. Norman wishes he could have explained "how he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be." The Things They Carried has a fluid definition of a hero and what it means to be brave.

The Baby Water Buffalo

The baby water buffalo is one of the book's most poignant symbols of the terrible effect of war on the soldiers. After the death of one of their fellow soldiers, Curt Lemon, the men find a baby buffalo and take it with them. Curt's death has had a strong effect on the men, and one in particular, Rat Kiley, projects his frustrations onto the innocent, young animal. At first Rat offers the water buffalo food, but, when it doesn't take it, he shoots it, not once but repeatedly, in different parts of its body, as the other soldiers look on. Some of them finally pick up the dying animal and throw it down a well. The baby water buffalo is symbolic of the innocence and youth of the soldiers themselves before they were confronted with the horrors of war that have torn them apart psychologically, piece by terrible piece. The baby water buffalo also represents not only what the young soldiers have lost but also how violence has become so much a part of the fabric of the soldiers' lives. They appear almost indifferent to violence, while continuing to suffer deeply below the surface. What happens to the water buffalo symbolizes the soldiers' attempt to express their pain about violence and death—through violence and death—and the futility of doing so.

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