The Things They Carried is a set of connected short pieces that tell the stories of the men of the Alpha Company (foot soldiers in Vietnam) before, during, and after the Vietnam War. Among other things, it deals with the surreal and ambiguous nature of this war, the inadequacy of plain facts in communicating certain essential truths, and the alienation of the Vietnam War vet.
Tim O'Brien, the author, served in Vietnam as a foot soldier from 1968 to 1970 in between getting his B.A. in Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and doing graduate work at Harvard University. The vast majority of his books deal with the Vietnam War in one way or another, and The Things They Carried is probably his most famous work. It was published in 1990 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.
Before you read it, we want you to look at something, though. Turn to the title page. What does it say right after the title, and right before the author's name? That's right: "a work of fiction." Right now we're not going to tell you any more than that O'Brien's versions of truth and fiction have been making readers' brains explode since this book was first published in 1990. And those explosions, if anything, encapsulate the book in a nutshell.
Chances are, you have known, will know, or will be someone who serves in the armed services. And wars tend to be a matter of historical record. You may have heard of the Battle of Thermopylae, the American Revolution, and World War I, but how much do you know about the individual soldiers who actually fought in them? We owe it to soldiers to try to understand them and to acknowledge them as humans, not machines. And this is not a political statement, guys. Whether you're for all wars, against all wars, for some wars, or against some wars, almost no one is against soldiers.
At its heart, The Things They Carried is about a soldier who's trying to communicate with non-soldiers. He's trying to tell us (civilians) what he went through, and what war did to him.
What's more, O'Brien is telling us that the image of war as shown through Hollywood movies, video games, and even grim, humorless war novels is a false one. If you like that stuff, that's totally fine, but Tim O'Brien's trying to show you what war is really like, beyond the glamour of Hollywood or the excitement of a game. Some of it is going to make you laugh, and some of it is going to make you want to throw up. But if we're going to send soldiers to war, then we need to know exactly what it is we're sending them to.