Study Guide

The Things They Carried Foreignness and "the Other"

By Tim O'Brien

Foreignness and "the Other"

In war, soldiers must make the enemy an "Other" in order to be able to kill them. In The Things They Carried, we see a lot of examples of the Vietnamese as the Other, but O'Brien twists the idea as well.

Sometimes, the soldiers see Americans at home as the Other, since they haven't experienced the war. O'Brien also forces the Viet Cong out of the position of Other on occasion, making them human. And when the soldiers return from Vietnam to America, they discover that they are now Other to America, and America is Other to them.

Questions About Foreignness and "the Other"

  1. What is foreign to the soldiers? What's not foreign? What conclusions can you draw from this?
  2. How does O'Brien show the shift from Vietnam as Other to America as Other? Does America become Other to the soldiers, or do the soldiers become Other to America? Does it matter? Why or why not?
  3. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," who, or what, is the Other? How can you tell? Explain. (Hint: there is more than one answer here.)
  4. How does O'Brien use stories to turn the foreign into the familiar? What purpose does this serve?

Chew on This

The true Other to the soldiers in Vietnam are the civilians back home. While the soldiers may not be able to speak the language of the Vietnamese, it's the Americans civilians with whom the soldiers will truly never be able to communicate.

The Other in Vietnam is not the Vietnamese people themselves, but the war. O'Brien humanizes the Vietnamese time and time again, while presenting the war as a strange and implacable character.