The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | The Ghost Soldiers | Summary



Rat Kiley treated the narrator the first time he was shot, moving under fire to check on him and joke about the wound. By the time the narrator recovers and gets back to platoon, Rat has been replaced by a new medic, Bobby Jorgenson. When the narrator gets shot again, Bobby freezes, then botches the treatment so that the narrator almost gets gangrene. Stuck in bed, the narrator fantasizes revenge. He can't take pride in his wound; it's in his butt, and the nurses tease him about it. He comes to hate Bobby "even in his dreams." His next posting is at a "cushy" supply station; but the narrator misses his "tribe," the men from Alpha Company.

Alpha Company comes to the supply station for stand-down, and the soldiers party. The narrator hears about Morty Phillips, who "wasted his luck" swimming in filthy water. When the narrator complains to Mitchell about Bobby's earlier botched treatment of his wound, Mitchell says that Bobby was "green" then but now "knows his shit." Bobby has joined the platoon's brotherhood, but Mitchell says the narrator is no longer part of it.

The next day Bobby apologizes for his lapse, but the narrator rejects his apology, hating Bobby all the more for being so decent. The narrator's "civilized trappings" are gone; he has "turned mean" and cold. Mitchell refuses to help him "spook the fucker" to take revenge, so he enlists Azar. The narrator and Azar rig up "ghosts" to scare Bobby while he's on night watch. Azar and the narrator deploy an elaborate system of ropes, noisemakers, and flares to "spook" Bobby. As they go about their plan, the narrator realizes he is "capable of evil," but he feels powerful and imagines himself a ghost soldier, merging with the land and the war: "I was Nam—the horror, the war."

When they set off flares, Bobby crouches tensely by the sandbags. The narrator has had enough. Now he empathizes with Bobby's fear. But Azar is fired up. He calls the narrator a "has-been" and lobs a tear grenade toward Bobby's post. The narrator begs him to stop, but, for the final prank, Azar swings a rigged white sandbag toward Bobby. Bobby fires into it, then goes to inspect it. He shouts the narrator's name and fires again into the sandbag. Azar calls the narrator a "sorry, sorry case" and kicks him in the head. The next day Bobby and the narrator reconcile, joking about killing Azar.


The narrator experiences a moral crisis in "The Ghost Soldiers." He is surprised to realize what has happened to him. After seven months of combat, the "simple daily realities" of war have made him cold, even cruel. He now has something "dark and beyond reason" inside. He thinks evil thoughts and can carry them out coldly, motivated not by "outrage and passion" but by a hard equation: Bobby's errors harmed the narrator, and there must be consequences.

The narrator replays the events of getting shot and nearly dying from shock repeatedly, dwelling on details to fuel his drive for revenge. He prepares his prank like a "professional," yet he feels as if he's "gearing up to fight somebody else's war." The narrator goes about his plan in a cold, calculating manner. Soldiers standing watch alone at night think they hear "spooks laughing" and imagine ghosts all around. These are vulnerabilities that the narrator has experienced himself and yet is willing to exploit to punish Bobby.

As he and Azar execute their plan, the narrator feels a "swell of immense power" sweep through him: He's like a "puppeteer" who can make "the silly wooden soldier jump and twitch." When he manipulates Bobby's fears, the narrator identifies with ghost soldiers and then "the land itself," all of Vietnam, the "cool phosphorescent shimmer of evil." He is an "atrocity," the war itself.

Azar would rather die than become what the narrator is. He condescendingly pats the narrator's cheek as if he's a child. He and the narrator seem to be on opposing ends of a spectrum: on one end, Azar acts heartlessly; at the opposite end, the narrator, although he tries to withhold emotion, can't escape the world of feeling, of empathizing with others.

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