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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
At first glance, The Things They Carried may read like an autobiographical account. Tim O’Brien is the main character, but it is a version of Tim O’Brien invented by the author. The fictional O’Brien receives his draft notice in the summer of 1968 and faces an ethical dilemma. He must decide whether to do the seeming honorable thing and report for the war, or whether he should obey his conscious and either go to jail or to Canada. This process teaches him a great deal about the nature of courage and about himself. He learns that people who do brave things are often motivated only by embarrassment of shame.
Unable to stand against the pressures of God and Country, O’Brien goes to Vietnam and carries a new sense of shame with him. Once there he finds a war where soldiers carry all manner of weaponry, none of which is as heavy emotional baggage. They carry fear, hate, guilt, love, dreams, and blame. They used tough, coarse, language to make the war seem less real, thereby trivializing their involvement in it. They struggled with the knowledge that they were alive while their buddies were dead. Most of all, as they marched from village to village, they carried the question ‘what’s it all for?’
Looking back now, he realizes that the war is now reduced to stories. Stories put a spin on the war, make it seem less painful, less real. Stories get at the truth of war by avoiding generalizations, transcending the boundaries of actual events. Story-truth can often be more real than happening-truth, you can have a true story that never happened. A true story makes the stomach believe. The detail of the war may be embellished, but the moral still applies.
No one involved with the Vietnam conflict emerged without being transformed. Mark Fossie’s sweetheart came to visit him as an All-American high school girl from Cleveland. The war swallowed up her innocence. She began to enjoy the specter of combat and the thrill of the hunt. O’Brien himself is still haunted by the memory of killing a Viet Cong soldier, a man which he imagines to be a student like himself. A fellow platoon soldier, Norman Bowker, returns home but is unable to make the transition from soldier to civilian. His experiences have isolated him from his family and friends. He spends his day driving around the lake in his hometown, obsessing over an incident where he was unable to save a dying friend. Eventually, he commits suicide.
In an effort to heal past wounds and find closure, O’Brien returns to the field in Vietnam where his friend Kiowa died. In a symbolic act O’Brien immerses himself in the field and buries Kiowa’s moccasins back in the mud where he died. He sees the war is over for the Vietnamese and this helps him to stop the conflict within himself. He thinks back on a grudge he carried for a young medic named Jorgensen, and how his attempt to get even only caused more pain. He realizes that sometimes the burdens of the dead are too heavy to carry around with us, but a story can briefly bring that person back to life. More importantly, stories are a method for releasing these burdens and dealing the hurt of the past.