In many ways, The Things They Carried is a cathartic exercise in exorcising the demons created by Mr. O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam. He lays the ghosts of his fellow soldiers to rest by sharing their stories; he knits together the wounds made by their losses and his inexplicable participation in a war to which he was opposed. The stories are powerful, made more so by the simple fact that so many people forget about the battles fought and the death toll inflicted on both sides during the conflict. Mr. O’Brien does not attempt to soften the images or extrapolate his experiences to the greater conflict. They are his own personal stories, and he holds no one accountable for them but himself.
What makes The Things They Carried different from other Vietnam War memoirs is the dream-like quality with which Mr. O’Brien infuses all of his stories. They happened, and they remain painful memories. They are not pleasant stories to hear – gruesome in their details and the callousness they show. Yet, they have a hallucinogenic quality to them that makes it easy to see why no one talks about the Vietnam War in the same way World War II still gets mentioned. Mr. O’Brien, with his political and philosophical opposition to the war, represents all of the soldiers fighting at that point in time. He is not proud to be fighting for his country; he does not understand the political aim of the fighting. It is as if his lack of convictions towards the political machinations of the conflict prevents him from seeing his past as little more than vivid, trauma-inducing dreams.
There is a bitterness to his stories that is difficult for readers to overcome. His feelings of futility while trekking throughout the Vietnam countryside, the senseless deaths of his friends and comrades, the guilt at surviving as well as the guilt for wanting to go back out into the bush combine with his feelings of disgust with the government for putting kids in harms’ way like that and allowing them to commit murder in the name of democracy to create a poisonous stew that is difficult to swallow. It is particularly prevalent in Mr. O’Brien’s self-narrated essay “The Vietnam in Me”, although the same tone persists throughout The Things They Carried as well.
Bryan Cranston proves himself to be just as good a narrator as an actor as he lends his voice to Mr. O’Brien’s heartfelt and gut-wrenching words. Mr. Cranston’s voice is the perfect blend of gruffness and earnestness, and it is easy to get lost in his performance. The pictures Mr. O’Brien paints of his war experiences are at times tough to experience, but Mr. Cranston’s performance is soothing and yet extremely effective in showcasing the frustration, confusion, impotence, anger, loneliness, loss, macabre humor, and fright every soldier experienced in and after the Vietnam War.
The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes of the Vietnam War as experienced by a grunt and told as a method of seeking atonement for being one of the lucky few to walk away from the experience with a few physical scars and much-deeper psychological ones. It is not flashy; it does not seek to justify one’s actions. It is a humble story in that the author seeks not glory but closure. His desire to lay down his burdens shouldered during and after the war as a survivor is palpable, making a bleak collection of stories that much more powerful and poignant. The Things They Carried is a profound indictment against the futility of the war and a tremendous testament to those who disagreed with the reasons for fighting but went ahead and fought anyway.