Absolute Justice in “The Things They Carried”

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In society today, we live by tired cliches, swearing that “justice is blind” and preaching “equal justice under law” at every opportunity. We accept justice as something both natural and deserved, assuming that being fair is the same thing as being right, but only rarely do we realize the idealism of this mindset. Try as we might to ignore it, universal justice cannot exist in and of itself—there is no natural law that mandates an action be met with equal compensation.

Instead, the idea of justice is a human invention, one based on reimbursement and retribution, and it is, in short, no more than the flawed idea of flawed people, inseparable from all of our tangled subjectivities and inequalities. As a result of these inherent inconsistencies, society must ask itself how powerful justice really is—where its limitations actually lie.

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In his novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien discusses these confines, using his satirical portrayal of morality to suggest that absolute justice is actually incapable of existing—that justice which is dependent on human perception and circumstance can never truly be considered just. Justice at its most basic level stems from the idea of human morality—that any action should be met by a fair and equal consequence, whether reward or punishment, because that is what is right; because in a perfect world people should experience exactly what they deserve.

This moral basis however is one of the main things that make the realization of justice inherently impossible. Morality is innately subjective—there can be no single moral standard when we apply our judgments so inconsistently. Tim O’Brien illustrates this ambiguity frequently throughout The Things They Carried, satirizing both the perceived immorality of soldiers and the demand for single-story ethical standards. Throughout the novel, Mitchell Sanders repeats “there’s a moral here”, in response to stories that are tragic and grotesque.

One such example of this is following Ted Lavender’s death when, after having recovered his maimed body, the other men in the platoon sit smoking his marijuana. Mitchell Sanders laughs—despite the fact that his friend is dead—and says “The moral’s pretty obvious” (O’Brien 19). The moral Sanders references has nothing to do with the pain or suffering of war and death, but instead he claims it is “stay away from drugs” (20). In this way, O’Brien uses satire—the irony of pointing out the morals of immoral situations, and the incongruous response o Ted Lavender’s death—to not only suggest that immorality is omnipresent, but also to build the overall theme of the innate ambiguity of morality. This theme is seen throughout the entire novel and is what builds O’Brien’s comment on justice. Ambiguous morality is extremely prevalent throughout The Things They Carried, though one of the most notable examples is perhaps the soldier’s response to the dancing Vietnamese girl.

After burning an entire village to the ground, O’Brien writes that a single girl remained—dancing alone in the wreckage. Azar immediately begins to mock her—imitating her dancing and questioning how she could possibly find it appropriate to dance. As Azar becomes progressively more offensive, “[dancing] sideways for a while, and then backwards, and then [doing] an erotic thing with his hips”, Henry Dobbins steps in—lifting Azar up, dangling him over a well, and asking him if we wanted to be dumped in (130).

While Dobbins clearly shows more sensitivity to the girl’s plight, however, there is no way of escaping the fact that he was part of the initial problem as well—he participated in the burning of the village, just as Azar did. He is thus similarly guilty, though portrayed as less so. While the earlier comments about “morals” suggest that immorality trumps all—that even in so called morality, there will always be injustice—the soldiers’ inconsistent ethics are equally instrumental in building this idea.

By suggesting that the same crime (the burning of the village) merits different responses (sympathy for Dobbins vs. hatred for Azar), O’Brien suggests that justice cannot exist in absolute terms—it is subjective and entirely dependent on circumstance. While O’Brien demonstrates that justice at its core is flawed—even in theory it is inconsistent and thus unequal—he also suggests that absolute justice cannot exist in practice. Even outside of the legal system, justice has been corrupted—mostly by the sheer fact that total equality is impossible to achieve.

Our entire lives are dependent on the interaction of chance, genetics, and environment, and there is no way for society to create a world that is fair and equal for all people. Even within the legal system, where the Supreme court preaches “equal justice under the law”, it is commonly accepted that money buys freedom—that truth is often less effective than an expensive defense attorney. It is also widely recognized that people who are part of minorities and lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to face adversity.

In the criminal justice system, for example, there is a huge gap in the incarceration or white versus black males. Whether this stems from racist or elitist attitudes, or other factors (such as education), there is no denying that the inequality exists—that to be born into a majority group offers natural benefits, which are often not shared among other classes. This idea was also reflected in several of the American Dream projects presented in our class.

In many of the projects, the presenters divided students into specified groups—into “haves” and “have nots”, usually, though some also accounted for race—and in each project they reflected the idea that this social standing determined the course their life would take and the justice the person would see. Simply speaking, our world breeds inequality—and this inherent inequality destroys any possibility of universal justice, as it prevents the equal (and thus fair) treatment.

Whether in theory or in practice, fictional or real, the case against absolute justice is damning to say the least. For though our society preaches the necessity of fairness and equality, claiming to dispense justice with an even hand, there is no way for absolutes to exist when this “fairness” depends entirely on circumstance. Integrity that is subject to genetic and environmental factors is weak, but when placed in the fickle hands of humans it is clear that the justice system is not broken—society’s entire concept of justice is.

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Absolute Justice in “The Things They Carried”. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from


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