Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war,
hacked to pieces under a slashing bronze blade
he lies there dead. . .but whatever death lays bare
all wounds are marks of glory. (Homer 22.83-87)
As students we are brainwashed by ancient myths such as The Iliad, where war is extolled and the valorous warrior praised. Yet, modern novels such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (THINGS) challenge those very notions. Like The Iliad, THINGS is about war. It is about battles and soldiers, victory and survival, yet the message O'Brien gives us in THINGS runs almost contradictory to the traditional war story. Whereas traditional stories of war take place on battlefields where soldier battles soldier and the mettle of man is tested, O'Brien's battle occurs in the shadowy, private place of a soldier's mind. Like the Vietnam War itself, THINGS forces Americans to question the foundations of their beliefs and values because it calls attention to the inner conscience. More than a war story, O'Brien's The Things They Carried is an expose on personal courage. Gone are the brave and glorious warriors such as those found in the battle of Troy. In THINGS, they are replaced by young men who experience not glory or bravery, but fear, horror, and a personal sense of shame. As mythic courage clashes with the modern's experience of it, a battle is waged in THINGS that isn't confined to the rice-patties, jungles, and shit-fields of Vietnam. Carrying more than the typical soldier's wares, O'Brien's narrator is armed with an arsenal of feelings and words that slash away at an invisible enemy that is the myth of courage, on an invisible battlefield that is the Vietnam veteran's mind.
An analysis of structure in THINGS is important to our exploration of courage within the narrative, because it creates an atmosphere in which belief must be suspended. What the reader experiences while reading the novel, is entirely different from what he expects from a typical war story. Absolutes must be absent from the text, if O'Brien is to illustrate how any of our mythologies, including courage, frequently fail to meet up to actual experience.
As many have noted, O'Brien ingeniously facilitates a mood of incongruity, or disconnection, between fiction and fact in The Things They Carried through sheer structure. By blurring lines between fantasy and reality, THINGS truly becomes a contradiction of itself. As Catherine Calloway notes, one of the ways in which O'Brien achieves this blurring of lines, is to model the narrator of THINGS after himself, a drafted Vietnam war veteran, a Harvard graduate, and a writer with the same name of Tim O'Brien (para. 3). O'Brien is aware that the practiced reader knows not to confuse the narrator with the author, and yet the reader is encouraged to do just that. The purpose, of course, is to keep the reader as unbalanced, as unsure, of what we are told to be truths, as is the Vietnam soldier.