12 Harrowing Facts About The Things They Carried
By Jeff Wells
Fact and fiction blend together in Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories about the Vietnam War. A character named “Tim O’Brien” fights alongside his comrades, while another soldier tells a story that gets revised later in the book. As O’Brien (the real O’Brien) has said, sometimes fiction tells the truth better than nonfiction. Here, we take a look at the facts, and only the facts.
1. IT’S BASED ON HIS OWN EXPERIENCES ...
O’Brien served close to a year of active combat as part of 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, including a stint in My Lai just months after the notorious massacre. He was injured by a grenade explosion, worked a desk job for a while and was sent home in 1970.
2. ... AND YET HE CLAIMS MOST OF IT IS MADE UP.
O’Brien maintains that the majority of the events in The Things They Carried come from his imagination (it is labeled as a work of fiction, after all). Which isn’t to say they have no basis in truth. There are, O’Brien writes, “story-truths” and “happening-truths,” the distinction being fictional reality versus factual reality. Yet “story truths,” O’Brien believes, often convey emotional and philosophical truths in more effective ways. A fictional account of a soldier’s death may better convey a sense of fear and loss than a factual account. “That’s what fiction is for,” O’Brien said during a lecture at Brown University. “It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient.”
3. HE EDITED A MILITARY JOURNAL WHILE IN VIETNAM.
After several months in the field, O’Brien secured a clerk’s role that included filing paperwork, typing reports, and overseeing the publication of the divisional newsletter. It was called “The Professional,” and it included regimental reports and other news sanctioned by the Army. Of course O’Brien loathed it: “I despised that job, and I especially despised that ridiculous newsletter,” he wrote. “But it beat getting shot dead.”
4. HE DEDICATED THE BOOK TO FICTIONAL CHARACTERS.
At the beginning of his book, O’Brien offers a dedication to the soldiers of Alpha Company, and a few in particular: Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa. These are, the reader comes to learn, some of the main characters from O’Brien’s stories. And they’re all made up. In an interview with NPR, O’Brien says he spent more time with his characters than he did with any soldiers in combat, who were constantly cycling in and out. He also wanted to emulate the conventions of a memoir. As he told The Austin Chronicle, “I was hoping I could seduce the reader into thinking, ‘Maybe I’m reading nonfiction.’”
5. THE STORIES FIRST APPEARED IN ESQUIRE, PLAYBOY, THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY AND HARPER’S.
O’Brien worked briefly as a reporter at The Washington Post before turning his attention full time to writing fiction. In addition to his novels and stories, O’Brien also wrote a memoir for The New York Times titled “The Vietnam In Me” that discussed his battle with depression and his return to Vietnam in 1994.
6. IT’S NOT HIS ONLY BOOK ABOUT THE WAR.
O’Brien wrote a memoir about his time in Vietnam called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. He also wrote a novel titled Going After Cacciato about a soldier who leaves Vietnam and travels to Paris. It won the National Book Award for 1978, beating out John Irving's The World According to Garp and The Stories of John Cheever. O’Brien says the book is based on a fantasy he always had about going AWOL.
7. HE DIDN’T INTEND IT FOR HIGH SCHOOLERS.
The Things They Carried has become a staple in high school and college curriculums across the country—a fact that surprises O’Brien, who always thought the themes of trauma and the shifting nature of truth to be unappealing to all but a small group of adult readers. “I had imagined an audience of literate people on subways and going to work and in their homes reading the book,” O’Brien told NPR.
8. HE DOESN’T CONSIDER IT A WAR BOOK.
Although it’s a novel about the Vietnam War, O’Brien prefers to think of it in terms of larger ideas. It’s about storytelling and the shifting nature of truth. It’s about the things all of us carry. “The book was meant to be a bridge between the experiences of all of you, the things you carry through your lives,” O’Brien says.
9. IT’S BEEN ADAPTED NUMEROUS TIMES FOR THE THEATER.
Including a critically acclaimed one-man play in St. Paul, Minn.
10. AND BEEN OPTIONED AS A MOVIE SEVERAL TIMES.
But it has yet to be made into a major motion picture, according to O'Brien.
11. IT INSPIRED AN EXHIBIT AT THE NATIONAL VETERANS MUSEUM.
The exhibit includes artwork and artifacts from more than 20 artists who are veterans of the war. There’s also a re-creation of a soldier’s tent shelter fully decked out with equipment and personal effects.
12. BRYAN CRANSTON NARRATES THE AUDIOBOOK.
Spend six hours listening to the Breaking Bad star’s smooth, somewhat menacing voice as the narrator, and you'll get a real feel for the book. Take it from critic A.O. Scott: “Cranston attacks O’Brien’s sober, sinewy prose with a slightly scary authority.”