This paper compares and contrasts two works, namely “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. This is an interesting challenge, since the works in question are very different in form, one being a collection of short stories and another one being a poem. However, as subsequent analysis clearly shows, there are more commonalities between the two than dissimilarities.
The first apparent commonality is the thematic preoccupation of the two works, namely the shocking disparity between the rhetoric of patriotism and horrors of war. Both in the times of the First World War and Vietnam War, idealistic young men were persuaded by their governments that taking up arms and killing whoever that government designates as an enemy is an honorable task. However, all of them turned out unprepared for the cruel realities of war, such as death, suffering, and mayhem.
Another similarity is the rich symbolism of the titles of both works. “Dulce et Decorum Est” is the first part of the phrase that was often heard during the First World War, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”. These are the “lines from Horace’s second roman ode proclaiming the sweet propriety of death for one’s country” (Ziolkowski 2005, p. 184). In other words, the title of the Owen’s poem means that it is sweet and right to die for the motherland. The literary device used here is irony: there is nothing sweet and right about war; instead, war is ugly, inhumane, and meaningless.
The title “The Things They Carried” is symbolic in its own way. When soldiers first arrive to Vietnam, there carry small things that remind them of home, like love letters from a girl back in America. Yet as experiences of war main them, physically and psychologically, the list of things they carry begins to change dramatically. Now they need to carry “assorted weapons, dog lags, flak jackets, ear plugs, cigarettes, insect repellents…jungle boots, medical supplies, and explosives…” (Calloway 1995, p. 249). One of the characters, Norman, even carries a thumb of a dead Vietnamese soldier.
However, the title’s symbolism relates more to the emotional baggage of soldiers who have been though Vietnam, something they will never be able to let go of. As the author writes, they carried “grief, terror, love, longing…[and]…shameful memories” (O’Brien 1998, p. 21). This baggage will later become a serious obstacle for their going back to civilian life and reintegrating into their communities. Memories of dead friends and their own suffering will be haunting them for a long time upon their return from the battlefield.
Yet another similarity is the powerful use of personalization by both authors. While war exists as a rather general phenomenon in modern imagination, Owen and O’Brien are giving a human face to it. O’Brien, though partly biographical narrative, shows how it feels like to be sent far away from home to a strange and dangerous place, how it feels like to loose a friend, and even how it feels like to kill a man. Owen describes his own torment at the battlefield and also the death of one of his companions-in-arms from poisonous gas; the poet describes “the dying man’s final moments in harrowing detail” (Winkler 2000, p. 183). Through personalization, both authors make their readers “imagine, despite their romantic illusions, the physical effects of a machine gun upon a cavalry charge or the consequences of mustard gas” (O’Reilley 1984, p. 107).
The amount of similar themes and literary devices in both works can be explained by the fact that both authors have first-hand experience of war. As Winkler (2000) informs, “Owen was killed at age twenty-five by machine-gun fire one week before Armistice Day” (p. 183). O’Brien’s is a Vietnam survivor, and his work is considered to be partly autobiographical and partly fiction.
The major dissimilarity, however, is that Owen’s only preoccupation is to persuade the public of the fact that war is cruel and unacceptable. As Campbell (1999) observes, his “emphasis on the sheer ugliness of front line conditions…[is necessary]…in order to destroy the complacence of a sheltered civilian readership” (p. 205). The closing lines of “Dulce et Decorum Est” contain a powerful message, a moral lesson that if people experience the horrors of war themselves, they will never succumb to the “old lie” that it is honorable to die for one’s country:
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori” (lines 25-28).
Thus, the poem is addressed to “rabidly pro-war activists who were eager to send men to die in a hellish war” (Campbell 1999, p. 206), and its main purpose is to prevent such horrible events from happening again.
On the contrary, a much greater variety of themes is explored in “The Things They Carried”, such as friendship, love, guilt, remembrance and repression of painful memories, empathy, and power. It does not teach readers any lessons, allowing them to come to independent conclusions. As O’Brien (1998) himself writes, a good war story “is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men…” (p. 68). In such a way, quite surprisingly, the author writing in the genre of poetry manages to present a certain agenda, while the author working in the prose genre simply tells a story, a fascinating narrative that allows the audience to reflect on the issues of war, death, and memory themselves.
Calloway, Catherine. “‘How to tell a true war story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36.4 (1995): 249-257. Print.
Campbell, James. “Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 203-215. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried, Reprint Ed. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.
O’Reilley, Mary Rose. “The Peaceable Classroom.” College English 46.2 (1984): 103-112. Print.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” Lost Poets of the Great War. Ed. Harry Rusche, n.d. Web. 5 May 2010. <http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Dulce.html>.
Winkler, Martin M. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori? Classical Literature in the War Film.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 7.2 (2000): 177-214. Print.
Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Uses and Abuses of Horace: His Reception since 1935 in Germany and Anglo-America.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 12.2 (2005): 183-215. Print.