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Essay/Term paper: Rose for emily

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Papers

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The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is not a novel about the Vietnam

War. It is a story about the soldiers and their experiences and emotions that

are brought about from the war. O'Brien makes several statements about war

through these dynamic characters. He shows the violent nature of soldiers

under the pressures of war, he makes an effective antiwar statement, and he

comments on the reversal of a social deviation into the norm. By skillfully

employing the stylistic technique of specific, conscious detail selection and

utilizing connotative diction, O'Brien thoroughly and convincingly makes each


The violent nature that the soldiers acquired during their tour in Vietnam is

one of O'Brien's predominant themes in his novel. By consciously selecting

very descriptive details that reveal the drastic change in manner within the

men, O'Brien creates within the reader an understanding of the effects of

war on its participants. One of the soldiers, "Norman Bowler, otherwise a

very gentle person, carried a Thumb. . .The Thumb was dark brown, rubbery

to touch. . . It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or

sixteen"(13). Bowler had been a very good-natured person in civilian life, yet

war makes him into a very hard-mannered, emotionally devoid soldier,

carrying about a severed finger as a trophy, proud of his kill. The

transformation shown through Bowler is an excellent indicator of the

psychological and emotional change that most of the soldiers undergo. To

bring an innocent young man from sensitive to apathetic, from caring to

hateful, requires a great force; the war provides this force. However,

frequently are the changes more drastic. A soldier named "Ted Lavender

adopted an orphaned puppy. . .Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel

mine and squeezed the firing device"(39). Azar has become demented; to kill

a puppy that someone else has adopted is horrible. However, the infliction of

violence has become the norm of behavior for these men; the fleeting

moment of compassion shown by one man is instantly erased by another,

setting order back within the group. O'Brien here shows a hint of sensitivity

among the men to set up a startling contrast between the past and the present

for these men. The effect produced on the reader by this contrast is one of

horror; therefore fulfilling O'Brien's purpose, to convince the reader of war's

severely negative effects. In the buffalo story, "We came across a baby

water buffalo. . .After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose. . .He

stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. . .He shot it twice in the

flanks. It wasn't to kill, it was to hurt"(85). Rat displays a severe emotional

problem here; however, it is still the norm. The startling degree of detached

emotion brought on by the war is inherent in O'Brien's detailed accounts of

the soldiers' actions concerning the lives of other beings.

O'Brien's use of specific and connotative diction enhances the same theme,

the loss of sensitivity and increase in violent behavior among the soldiers. The

VC from which Bowker took the thumb was just "a boy"(13), giving the

image of a young, innocent person who should not have been subjected to the

horrors of war. The connotation associated with boy enhances the fact that

killing has no emotional effect on the Americans, that they kill for sport and

do not care who or what their game may be. Just as perverse as killing boys,

though, is the killing of "a baby"(85), the connotation being associated with

human infants even though it is used to describe a young water buffalo they

torture. The idea of a baby is abstract, and the killing of one is frowned upon

in modern society, regardless of species. O'Brien creates an attitude of

disgust in the reader with the word, further fulfilling his purpose in

condemning violence. Even more drastic in connotation to be killed is the

"orphaned puppy"(39). Adding to the present idea of killing babies is the idea

of killing orphaned babies, which brings out rage within the reader. The whole

concept is metaphoric, based on the connotations of key words; nevertheless,

it is extremely effective in conveying O'Brien's theme.

O'Brien makes a valid, effective antiwar statement in The Things They

Carried. The details he includes give the reader insight into his opinions

concerning the Vietnam War and the draft that was used to accumulate

soldiers for the war. While thinking of escaping to Canada, he says: "I was

drafted to fight a war I hated. . .The American war seemed to me

wrong"(44). O'Brien feels that U.S. involvement in Vietnamese affairs was

unnecessary and wasteful. He includes an account of his plan to leave the

country because he did not want to risk losing his life for a cause he did not

believe in. Here O'Brien shows the level of contempt felt towards the war;

draft dodging is dangerous. He was not a radical antiwar enthusiast, however,

for he takes "only a modest stand against the war"(44). While not condoning

the fighting, he does not protest the war except for minimally, peacefully, and

privately doing so. His dissatisfaction with the drafting process is included in

his statement, "I was a liberal, for Christ's sake: if they needed fresh bodies,

why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age-hawk?"(44). O'Brien's point of

drafting only those who approve involvement in the war is clearly made while

his political standpoint is simultaneously revealed. The liberal attitude O'Brien

owns is very much a part of his antiwar theme; it is the axis around which his

values concerning the war revolve.

The antiwar statement is enhanced by O'Brien's use of connotative and

informal diction to describe the war, its belligerent advocates, and its

participants. The connotation in the adjective American in describing the war

seems as though O'Brien believes the Americans are making the war revolve

around themselves, instead of the Vietnamese. While also criticizing

Americans, he manages to once again question the necessity of United States

involvement in the war. Also connotatively enhancing the antiwar theme is

the word bodies to describe draftees; while an accurate evaluation

scientifically, it gives the reader the impression that the young men that are

being brought into the war to become statistics, part of a body count. O'Brien

shows very effectively the massive destruction of innocent human life brought

on by Vietnam. In contrast with his sympathy toward draftees, O'Brien

utilizes informal, derogatory diction to describe the war's advocates. He labels

his stereotype belligerent a "dumb jingo"(44), or moronic national pride

enthusiast. By phrasing his views in such a manner, O'Brien is able to convey

the idea that there is enough opposition to the war that a negative slang has

been implemented frequently, hence the term dumb jingo. The skill with which

O'Brien illustrates his views is very convincing throughout their development

in the novel; his antibelligerence focus is very effective.

The social deviance that has become the accepted norm in The Things They

Carried is brought out by O'Brien in the form of the soldiers' drug usage.

O'Brien wants to convey the idea of negative transitions brought about by the

war with a statement about marijuana's public, widespread, carefree use in

Vietnam. He includes several anecdotes that illustrate to which degree the

substance is abused. A friend of O'Brien's, Ted Lavender, "carried six or

seven ounces of premium dope"(4), which indicates not only the soldiers'

familiarity with the drug, but their acquired knowledge of the quality of the

drug. The discouragement of marijuana, as well as other drugs, was

previously the accepted view of Americans; however, according to O'Brien,

is has become the norm for Americans in Vietnam. The war has completely

reversed their morals. Once they carried a corpse out to "a dry paddy. . .and

sat smoking the dead man's dope until the chopper came. Lieutenant Cross

kept to himself"(8). Even the squad's supervisor, the platoon leader Lieutenant

Cross, is unaffected by the soldiers' blatant use of an illegal substance; he has

become so used to the occurrence that he no longer condemns its use. For

even a leader of men to be morally warped by the war is an effective idea in

O'Brien's discouragement of war.

As George Carlin once said to a New York audience, "We love war. We are

a warlike people, and therefore we love war"(Carlin 1992). This view is

common today among Americans since the advent of long-distance warfare

and bright, colorful explosions; however, in the guerrilla warfare of Vietnam,

the grudging participants loathed the idea. Tim O'Brien very effectively

portrays their hatred and the severe negative effects the war had on

American soldiers in his excellent, convincing novel The Things They Carried.

The skillful choice of details and several types of diction that reveal his theme

of induced violence, his anti-war statement, and his view of the reversal of

morals among GIs are effective in presenting O'Brien's views in this, "The

Last War Novel"(McClung 96). 

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