“The Things They Carried” by William Timothy O’Brien: True Wartime Experiences


Consisting of twenty-two interconnected stories, the Things They carried by William Timothy O’Brien is regarded as one the best fictional works on the true experiences of the American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The novel has received a huge commendation from reviewers because of the innovative application of memoir, non-fiction, and fiction that making it one of the best war novels of the time. The novel focuses on the war experience the soldier’s face and the traumatic aftermath. According to Bloom (1) “The opening piece, The Things They Carried, is a list that focuses on everything carried into battle by each soldier in the book, ranging from such items as jungle boots and personal letters to feel like grief, rage, and shame”.

Story truth and the real truth

The separation of the story truth from the real truth or happening truth has always remained a very important factor in storytelling. The central reason for this is not particularly hard to discern. Real events in the course of war have been considered secretive to safeguard the integrity of the combat soldiers in the war. In O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”, aspects of truth form the major theme. Critics have argued that O’Brien is simply trying to relay the real truth of the trauma and sufferings of the soldiers in combat by story truth. This point is perhaps well illustrated by Bloom (2) in stating that “Critics assert that the central theme of The Things They Carried is the relationship of storytelling to truth in that in this vein, they often discuss O’Brien’s interest in transcending reality to represent the truths of his traumatic Vietnam War experience as a defining characteristic of the book”.

This point is also echoed by Bloom (2) in illustrating that “Commentators note that for O’Brien, the question of authenticity and verisimilitude when relating war experiences is ambiguous; instead, a story’s authenticity is often based on its effect on the reader; O’Brien states, a story is true if it makes the stomach believe.” These arguments and the analysis of The Things They Carried portray how O’Brien has tried to defend the concept of the existence of two different truths and the literal experience this novel has on the reader. I view that the collection of stories in The Things They Carried is a clear presentation of the trauma soldiers go through during wartime and their eventual struggle for redemption and recovery. This is illustrated by the fact that O’Brien presents several paradoxes in the war and has the capacity as a soldier to present the real truth to the reader. However, this does not happen. The belief is that the reader must be lied to because a story is true if it makes the stomach believe.

The paradoxes of truth in the analysis of The Things They Carried are best illustrated in this work. According to O’Brien (71).

Facts are truth. Okay. But how we perceive these facts happening is also the truth. So a true story of the very same event from multiple perspectives may be different depending on how the person saw it happen. But it’s still true, and more true than just the facts.

O’Brien asserts that the true story may have many perspectives and primarily depend on the perspective under which it is presented. In war, this often presents several challenges in that the authors of war documentaries fall short of presenting the absolute truth to the readers. O’Brien, therefore, admits in this collection that there are two truths (the story truth and the happening truth) and defend the existence of these truths by justifying that they arise due to perspectives in which the person presenting the story saw the events unfold. This raises the role of memory in the entire story in that O’Brien has achieved much in his attempt to justify the existence of the two truths especially in the presentation of events that take place during combat. In addition to the above, O’Brien has made use of literal techniques to justify the fact that these two truths exist more in war stories because the reader must be influenced to stomach the truth.

The theme of cowardice is also presented in the truth paradox in that the author has failed to present the real types of fear that soldiers face in combat. According to Bloom (2) “Another major thematic concern in The Things They Carried is cowardice: not only in combat but also in the narrator’s choice to participate in what he feels is an unjust war”. This is intertwined by truth paradoxes in that the analysis of the story reveals that another notable fear that soldiers remain wary of due to the feeling of displacement from their normal lives before the beginning of combat.


In conclusion, this collection of short stories is a resounding success that has been considered as a valuable contribution to the intrigues that have surrounded the Vietnam War for decades. I, therefore, applaud this book because of the ability of the author to memorize wartime experiences and present them most explicitly.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Tim O’Brien’s The things they carried. London: Chelsea House Publishers. 2005.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2009.