Eyes of a Soldier Due to the rise of reform and fear of communism undulating throughout the United States during the 1960’s, Americans had gradually begun to transition from traditional values. Unequal rights had finally come to a conclusion legally and the voice of young Americans grew audaciously. At that time war also plagued the nation with polarization as result of media exploitation and political corruption. The young Americans spoke out against the miserable Vietnam War that had drafted numerous American men into both a violent and ambiguous battle against a foreign third world country.
Also a young American, the veteran, Tim O’Brien elaborated much of his experience in the Vietnam War through his short stories. Mr. O’Brien illustrated in words his side as a surviving American soldier who trudged through a war he also disfavored. Significant experiences from Tim O’Brien’s past had influenced him into a writing career. Born the first of October in 1946, the author grew up far away from the urban cities in a rural town of Minnesota called Worthington. The highly celebrated occasion, ‘Turkey Day’, was a local tradition that first sparked the taste for writing during his childhood (Shuman 1120).
Just as an annual trip to the carnival may inspire some artistic children at an early age, this event greatly opened his imagination. It wasn’t until after his graduation from Malacaster College in 1968, that his draft into war ignited his drive to write (Williams 1790). At this point during the revolutionary sixties, society began to see a new trend in literature as seen from O’Brien. This new trend became as vivid and engaging as the time of the Gilded Age in America regarding the birth of realism and local color. War, which had been seen plenty throughout the century, tended to provoke those effected by expressing themselves.
For some there may have been those who painted out their feelings regarding the lingering impact of war. For those who were severely compressed by combat, unhealthy behaviors may have developed as a result. However, O’Brien found his sanction through writing literature based primarily on the Vietnam War and following in the footsteps of famous war writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Heller (1792). From such works as Going after Cacciato to his famous The Things They Carried, he vividly illustrated to the world the emotional and physical struggle young conscripts like him faced in the war (1793).
The short story The Things They Carried uses a great deal of symbolism in order to express the voice of young soldiers. After opening up about a platoon leader’s infatuation to a college girl back home, the story goes into a list regarding the physical equipment and necessities each man must lug along. O’Brien uses this kind of symbolism to indirectly reveal to readers a message and link to the fresh thoughts and feelings of the soldiers as they continue embarking on their mission. During a war soldiers tend to take with them items from home in lieu of a security blanket: . . . nd Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RT0, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, Carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father . . . (O’Brien 1) O’Brien points out various items carried by soldiers in which symbolize their link back home and offer a way of coping through the vile jungles of Vietnam.
Readers can also easily perceive the type of person these soldiers are when stripped of their military status and attire. However, it can be seen that such a close attachment to these personal items in the condition of war can lead to poor and regrettable outcomes as seen in The Things They Carried after negligence from Lieutenant Cross is believed to lead to Ted Lavender’s death (Korb 1). Finally, weight itself becomes an item of symbolism as seen in the story, when it later translates into a massive load of emotional complications each soldier must bear through and masked behind a coarse, bitter language (Palmisano 1). Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage usually in the helmet for easy access,” (1). As a writer and veteran, O’Brien brilliantly uses symbolism to reveal to readers the psychological impact of the Vietnam War in soldiers (Hacht and Hayes 1206). The significance of weight that covers Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, makes up a majority of the soldier’s burden and freedom. Just as most Americans realize, veteran or not, soldiers carry extensively substantial loads.
There is even a training session that trainees must pass before entering battle that involves carrying heavy loads. But even those rigorous tasks do not express to one beforehand of the inevitable internal load each one endures once flown thousands of miles away with little control over it (Toutonghi 301). Because the weight extends far beyond the physical reminder in the story, it cannot simply be relieved through discarding or lightening (1). O’Brien’s mentioning of a bird after the death of Ted Lavender represents freedom in which the soldiers fantasize over being whisked away and out of Vietnam (1).
The war-based story gains substantial recognition for its portrayal of soldiers through ingenious symbolism in physical and emotional burdens. A unique writing style spices the flavor of the alluring short story, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Like any master of literature, one must be able to sensibly and successfully structure a piece of literature. For Mr. O’Brien, he cleverly arranges his story like a jig-saw puzzle with styles of oddities and juxtapositions (1792). Visual artists may see this as some sort of abstract collage perhaps in order to keep the audience interested.
Like Ernest Hemingway, he also indicates details and implied messages in the story through showing and not simply telling his readers. In addition, realism is reflected in some parts of his writing in regards to the portrayal of Ted Lavender’s death and how it is seen as not a heroic act but a random accident (Moore and Akers 323). Most importantly, however, O’Brien introduces a special technique of writing through this story known as metafiction. A question that rises in most readers regards the level of truth versus fiction that plays at the end of the short story.
Metafiction emerges in storytelling and emphasizes the close relationship between fact and fiction (2). The very opening of the story reveals to readers the fictional character that is the author. The point of this allows the author to both reflect on his real experience as a soldier and his wishes to what had happened from solved quarrels to wrong actions being explained, (1124). One can easily comprehend its purpose when looking upon past situations that could have been resolved or upsetting outcomes that could’ve been explained. In his story cycle, the technique blurs the line between story and truth (Burke 324).
As a result, it does often confuse readers in distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction (2). Regardless, O’Brien successfully achieves illustrating the voice of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It goes so far, in fact, that readers may find themselves overwhelmed by the true horrors in the eyes of a soldier. Chills run down readers’ backs when reading such morbid sights from a fellow soldier, Ted Lavender, being killed off right before his platoon, to the one soldier who carries with him a thumb of a Vietnamese corpse (1).
The insight of his technique provides a deeper meaning into the lives and battles of these soldiers (1). Like any other entertaining story, an abundance of themes entwine in O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried. These messages are vaguely implied but provide further insight into the Vietnam soldiers. Obviously, there is a central theme regarding war, such as courage, heroism, brutal violence, and the emotional burden in the face of death (1208). When it is not observed in a myopic way various messages can be interpreted in the story (23).
When one dares to delve deeper into the story, more empowering, complex messages can arise. One may compare this to the discovery of an ancient artifact of some sort because there is a feeling of pride and thrill once something hidden sheds first light to a viewer. For example, a theme of redemption in masculine power can be formed in regards to the dynamic character, Lieutenant Cross (2). O’Brien addresses numerous themes that can branch out from the world of Vietnam following The Things They Carried in themes ranging from betrayal, family conflicts, loss of faith, and social ideology (1208).
Generally acknowledged, a soldier often does not return home after battle without some internal damages. In vivid detail, O’Brien captures the essence of the soldier from his experience and reflects it into this story so that readers can find an understanding in the world of an armed soldier. Especially at this time when many Vietnam soldiers were treated poorly upon their return, O’Brien provides a way of influencing sympathy and appreciating from his audience toward the soldiers.
Works Cited Burke, R. Andrew. “O’Brien, Tim. The Facts On File Companion To The American Short Story. Ed. Abby H. P. Werlock. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000. Print. Hacht, Anne, and Hayes D. Dwayne. , ed. Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature. 4 vols. Detroit: Gale Press, 2009. Print. Korb, Rena. “The Things They Carried. ” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gales, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. Moore, Jerry and Akers Tim. , ed. Short Stories for Students. Vol 5. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999. Print. Shuman, R. Baird. “Tim O’Brien. Great American Writers Twentieth Century. Vol 8. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2002. Print. “The Things They Carried. ” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 74. Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 23. Apr. 2012. Toutonghi, Pauls. “Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. ” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Ed. Jay Parini. Vol 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print. Williams, Donna. “Tim O’Brien. ” Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol 5. California: Salem Press, 2001. Print.