The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried Warfare: The Vietnam War Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Story Title.Paragraph)
The war wasn't all terror and violence. Sometimes things could get almost sweet… You could put a fancy spin on it, you could make it dance. (Spin.1-3)
Notice that O'Brien says "almost sweet" here. The story about Azar and the little boy isn't exactly sweet. Azar does give a chocolate bar to the little one-legged kid, but then he sympathizes with the soldier who shot the child, ran out of ammo, and couldn't finish the job. The war isn't transformed into sweetness and light, it's spun. All of the happy, funny moments that the men have—and some of them really are happy and really are funny—are rooted in the inevitable fact that the men are at war.
If you weren't humping, you were waiting. I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and heat and endless paddies. Even deep in the bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist that caused stomach disorders. […] Well, you'd think, this isn't so bad. And right then you'd hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you'd be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom. (Spin.12)
War is boring, but it's a nervous, terrified boredom. Hollywood often presents war as a Stallone-fest, complete with Uzis ripping through the air and lots of screaming and blood and gore. It's not that there isn't a lot of blood and gore in The Things They Carried, but mostly the war is presented as it is in this quote—as a lot of downtime and marching during which you could unexpectedly die.
You're pinned down in some filthy hellhole of a paddy […] but then for a few seconds everything goes quiet and you look up and see the sun and a few puffy white clouds, and the immense serenity flashes against your eyeballs—the whole world gets rearranged—and even though you're pinned down by a war you've never felt more at peace. (Spin.17)
We have a feeling that this quote is part of O'Brien trying to use story-truth to convey something that civilians just can't understand. In the middle of a firefight, you've never felt more at peace? Yeah, all right. But we'll buy it—it's not like O'Brien's the first former soldier to write about the inherent contradictions in war or the first to use nature as a medium. Erich Maria Remarque did it more than sixty years earlier, in All Quiet on the Western Front.