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The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried Summary


Here you will find a The Things They Carried summary (Tim O'Brien's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Things They Carried Summary Overview

The tale starts with the main character, given the name Tim O’Brien, who recalls a significant event during his time in Vietnam. He lists the various items, both physical and emotional, that his comrades in Alpha Company carried during their assignments. Physical items ranged from matches, morphine, rifles to M&M’s candy, while emotional burdens included feelings of guilt and fear. The narrative consistently features the same characters. Ted Lavender, a low-ranking soldier in Alpha Company, is the first to die. Lavender, who managed his war anxiety with tranquilizers and marijuana, was shot dead while returning from the restroom. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, his superior, blames himself as he was preoccupied with thoughts of Martha, a college crush, at the time of Lavender's death. Cross’ feelings for Martha, whom he had briefly dated before being deployed, were unreciprocated, a fact that even after twenty years, along with his guilt over Lavender’s death, still haunts him. The narrator, O’Brien, shares the events that led to his deployment in Vietnam. Having received his draft notice in 1968, he was confused and considered fleeing to Canada to avoid the war he didn't believe in. However, his guilt of evading the war and fear of disappointing his family outweighed his political beliefs. He returned to his hometown in Minnesota, before eventually heading to Vietnam. During their time overseas, a few other Alpha Company members also lost their lives, including Curt Lemon and Lee Strunk. O’Brien vividly remembers how Lemon fainted during a routine dental checkup with an army dentist and insisted on having a perfectly good tooth pulled to save face. Strunk was fatally injured by a landmine, despite a pact with fellow soldier Dave Jensen to quickly end the other’s life if either were gravely injured. When Strunk is wounded, he pleads with Jensen to spare him, which Jensen does, only to be relieved when Strunk dies quickly on his way to treatment. The death of Kiowa, a treasured member of Alpha Company and a close friend of O’Brien's, is given the most attention. Its retelling is through the memory of Norman Bowker, years after the war, who blames himself for not saving Kiowa. Bowker, struggling to find meaning in life after the war, prompts O’Brien to tell his story along with Kiowa's. O’Brien grapples with his guilt over Kiowa’s death, finding it different than Bowker's. O'Brien also confronts his guilt over killing a man outside the village of My Khe. He imagines the life of his victim, from his childhood to what his life could have been, had he not thrown a grenade at him. He also imagines how he would confess this to his daughter, Kathleen. O’Brien uses these stories to reckon with his guilt and confusion, believing in the power of stories to bring salvation.

chapter 1

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross of the Alpha Company holds mementos of Martha, his unrequited love from college. He carries her letters and a pebble she once gave him. After a tough day's march in Vietnam, he craves for her love while rereading her letters. Martha's letters are poetic, but devoid of any mention of war. Despite her letters ending with "Love, Martha", Cross realizes it gives no assurance of shared affection. He compulsively wonders about her purity, and cherishes her photographs and memories of their single date. He regrets not being more assertive with her and is tormented by the knowledge that his love may never be reciprocated. Tim O'Brien, the storyteller, talks about the physical and emotional baggage the men in the company carry. Each man's luggage is a reflection of his priorities and personality. For instance, hefty Henry Dobbins carries extra rations due to his size and his girlfriend's hosiery for luck. Ted Lavender, characterized by his nervousness, carries marijuana and tranquilizers, while the devout Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament. Certain items are carried by all, such as a compress for serious injuries and a multipurpose two-pound poncho. The common soldiers carry standard M-16 rifles and ammunition. Some carry grenade launchers. Everyone carries the emotional weight of their memories and the collective responsibility for each other. The very essence of Vietnam, with its heavy climate and dusty terrain, feels like a burden they carry. Their individual roles also dictate their load. Lieutenant Cross carries maps, compasses, and the burden of his men's lives, while medic Rat Kiley carries medical supplies. One day, while on a tunnel mission, Cross fantasizes about being trapped with Martha and becomes preoccupied with her purity. During this mission, Lavender is shot and killed. Cross, however, continues to be absorbed in thoughts of Martha. As they wait for the helicopter to retrieve Lavender's body, the soldiers smoke his remaining marijuana. They joke about Lavender's tranquilizer habit and convince themselves he was too numbed to feel pain when shot. Following this, Cross leads his men to Than Khe, a nearby village, where they burn everything and shoot livestock. In the evening, Cross isolates himself in a foxhole, weeping. Kiowa and Norman Bowker, in the darkness, discuss the swift transition from life to death. The day after Lavender's death, Cross burns Martha's letters and photographs in the rain. He decides to stop daydreaming and assumes responsibility for Lavender's death. He resolves to be a stronger leader, understanding that his role demands respect, not affection.

chapter 2

Long after war's end, Jimmy Cross drops by Tim O’Brien's Massachusetts home. Over coffee and cigarettes, they gaze at old photos and recall past times. A picture of Ted Lavender surfaces and Cross admits his lingering guilt over Lavender’s death. O’Brien soothes him, sharing his own regrets. The atmosphere loosens and they progress to stronger drinks, shifting the conversation to lighter moments, like Henry Dobbins carrying his girlfriend’s pantyhose for luck. As the night wanes, O’Brien gently broaches the topic of Martha. Cross reveals that he reconnected with Martha during a 1979 reunion. She was now a Lutheran missionary and had done work in Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Mexico. She never married and couldn't explain why. Despite the lack of reciprocation to his expressions of love and intimate desires, Cross admits he still loves her, but refrains from further discussion. As Cross prepares to leave, O’Brien proposes writing a story on their shared experiences. Cross agrees, hoping it might invoke a response from Martha. He requests that O’Brien portray him favorably and omits certain details, to which O’Brien consents.

chapter 3

O'Brien relates a series of fragmented war memories, sometimes more peaceful than violent. Azar offers chocolate to a child with a prosthetic leg. Mitchell Sanders plucks lice from himself and mails them to his Ohio draft board, while Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker play checkers in their foxhole each night. Pausing his recollections, the narrator, now a 43-year-old writer, admits that these haunting memories replay constantly in his mind. Despite his daughter's advice to write about other topics, he sees writing as a method to manage the unforgettable incidents from his past. The Alpha Company employs an elderly Vietnamese man, affectionately called "poppa-san," to help them navigate minefields on the Batangan Peninsula. When their time together ends, the soldiers feel a sense of loss. Mitchell Sanders shares a tale about a soldier who went missing to be with a Red Cross nurse, then returned longing for the battlefield. Norman Bowker confides his desire for his father to stop pressuring him about earning medals. Kiowa shows Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen a rain dance, and when questioned about the absent rain, he wittily answers, “The earth is slow, but the buffalo is patient.” Ted Lavender adopts a puppy, which Azar kills, blaming his own immaturity. Henry Dobbins contentedly sews on his new buck-sergeant stripes while singing to himself. Over-medicated Lavender describes the war as “nice” and “mellow.” Following Curt Lemon's death, his remains hang from a tree. The chapter ends with a recurring image of a dead boy and Kiowa's voice assuring O’Brien that he had no other choice.

chapter 4

O'Brien admits to never sharing this narrative with his loved ones due to the guilt it brings him. The events unfolded in the summer of 1968 when he got his draft notice to fight in the Vietnam War, only a month after graduating from Macalaster College. To O'Brien, the war seemed unjust and its reasons and outcomes vague. Despite staunch opposition to the war during college, he felt conflicted about being drafted. His hometown pressured him to serve, but he spent the summer working in a local meatpacking plant, conflicted about his choices. Mid-summer, O'Brien contemplates fleeing to Canada. Despite fearing the potential disgrace it could bring upon him, he strongly considers this option as he finds himself frustrated with those who influenced him. Suddenly, he reaches a breaking point. He hastily leaves work, writes a cryptic note to his family, and drives towards the Canadian border. He ends up at the Tip Top Lodge, a run-down fishing resort, where he meets the elderly owner, Elroy Berdahl. During his stay, O'Brien works odd jobs and feels that Elroy, despite never questioning him, knows his predicament. When settling his bill, Elroy insists on overpaying O'Brien for his work. O'Brien refuses, but finds money left for him by Elroy the following day. Reflecting on this time, O'Brien feels a sense of naivety. Elroy takes O'Brien fishing on the Rainy River on his last full day at the lodge. They drift into Canadian waters, and O'Brien, faced with the reality of his situation, breaks down in tears. He resolves to go to war out of shame. Elroy silently turns the boat back to Minnesota. The following day, O'Brien leaves the money on the kitchen counter and drives back home, ready to go to war.

chapter 5

Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk engage in a brawl one day because Jensen suspects Strunk has taken his jackknife. Without holding back, Jensen shatters Strunk's nose. Post the fight, Jensen grows anxious, fearing Strunk's retaliation and keeps a constant eye on him. Overwhelmed by fear, Jensen discharges his gun aimlessly, yelling Strunk's name. Later that evening, he borrows a gun and fractures his own nose, hoping this would settle things. The following day, Strunk reacts to the incident with humor, confessing that he indeed pinched Jensen's jackknife.

chapter 6

Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk come to an understanding, promising to end the other's life should they suffer grave injuries. However, when Strunk's leg is destroyed by a mortar round in October, he pleads with Jensen not to end his life. After Strunk is airlifted away, Jensen later finds out he didn't make it on the helicopter ride, much to his relief.

chapter 7

In this part of the story, O’Brien affirms the authenticity of the events. Following the death of his friend, Rat Kiley pens a letter to a sister of the deceased, portraying her brother as a hero and expressing his affection for him. The sister does not respond, which irritates Kiley. O’Brien emphasizes that true war stories lack morality and should not be trusted if they appear to have a moral compass. He illustrates this idea with Kiley’s behavior. The deceased friend is revealed to be Curt Lemon who died in a playful smoke grenade toss with Kiley, after stepping onto a booby-trapped mortar shell. In O’Brien's perspective, real war stories can be unbelievable due to the harsh realities they depict, while their ordinary parts can be fabricated. He mentions a tale told by Mitchell Sanders about a troop that embarked on a mountainous operation. The men began hearing eerie sounds and panicked. They ordered airstrikes and decimated the surroundings, but the noises continued. Once they descended the mountain, they couldn't explain to their colonel what they had heard. Sanders later admits to O’Brien that he made up some parts of the story. When asked about its moral, Sanders suggests the silence is the moral. O’Brien argues that the morality of a war story is inseparable from the tale itself and hinges on whether it resonates with the listener. He recounts Lemon’s death and Kiley’s subsequent frustration, which led him to repeatedly shoot a local water buffalo, although it remained alive. Eventually, Kiowa and Sanders disposed of the buffalo in a village well. O’Brien discusses the paradoxical nature of war, describing it as hellish but also multifaceted. He refers to the eerie feeling of being alive after a firefight and the ambiguity of war. He recalls Lemon’s sudden death and how he and Jensen were ordered to retrieve Lemon’s remains from a tree, with Jensen singing while performing the grim task. According to O’Brien, a real war story prompts questions after the narration. He emphasizes that the truthfulness of a war story isn't always determined by whether it really occurred. He imagines a scenario with four men, one of whom jumps on a grenade to shield his friends, but they all end up dead. O'Brien believes Lemon must have thought the sunlight was his end. He wishes he could correctly depict the scene for readers to understand Lemon's final moments. O’Brien mentions that women often tell him his story is heartbreaking and suggest he find new stories. O’Brien wishes he could tell the woman that the story was a love story, not a war story. He resolves to continue telling it, enhancing its truth by adding more details.

chapter 8

O'Brien recounts dealing with Curt Lemon's death, a comrade he was not close with. To steer clear of nostalgia, he shares a short anecdote about Lemon. In one February, while working near the South China Sea, an Army dentist arrives to inspect their teeth. Observing his friends getting checked, Lemon starts to get nervous, revealing a past trauma with dentists. He assures everyone he won't let the dentist touch his teeth. Yet, upon his turn, he stands up and walks towards the tent, only to collapse in fear. Later that same night, Lemon returns to the dentist, claiming he's suffering from a severe toothache. Despite the dentist not detecting any problem, Lemon insists on having his tooth extracted. Eventually, the dentist gives in, administers an injection, and extracts a perfectly healthy tooth, much to Lemon's satisfaction.

chapter 9

O'Brien reflects on the enduring nature of Vietnam stories that balance the fantastic with the everyday. He recounts Rat Kiley's tale of his early days in Chu Lai, running an aid station in a secluded location by the Song Tra Bong river. Eddie Diamond, his superior, jokes about the peacefulness of the place, suggesting a girl could be there. Mark Fossie, a fellow medic, takes the joke seriously and writes a letter. Six weeks later, his childhood sweetheart, Mary Anne Bell, lands via a helicopter delivery. Despite the logistical challenges, Fossie manages to get her to the camp. Mary Anne quickly adapts to the camp life, learning Vietnamese, cooking and even medical procedures. She abandons her feminine demeanor, cutting her hair short. Fossie proposes that Mary Anne returns home, but she is content and wishes to explore more before they wed. She starts coming back to the camp late, and sometimes not at all. One night, Fossie finds out she had joined an ambush without a weapon. The couple have a serious talk the next morning and decide to engage officially. However, their relationship soon starts showing signs of strain. Fossie tries to send her home, but Mary Anne is against the idea, eventually disappearing. Mary Anne reappears after three weeks, bypasses Fossie's bunk and heads to the Special Forces hut. The next day, Fossie waits outside the hut until midnight. He, Kiley and Diamond then venture inside. They find a dimly lit, candle-filled hut, with tribal music playing and leopard-skin decor. Mary Anne is spotted wearing her original clothes, but also a human-tongue necklace. She defends her actions to Fossie, claiming he can't comprehend Vietnam from his sheltered camp. Kiley admits he was never sure about Mary Anne's fate, as he joined the Alpha Company a few days later. He admits to having loved Mary Anne, as did everyone else. He later finds out that she embraced the night patrols and the thrill of danger. Mary Anne had seemingly become one with the land.

chapter 10

O'Brien shares how Henry Dobbins utilizes his girlfriend's pantyhose as a talisman during ambushes and even while sleeping. This strange routine is not out of the ordinary in a superstitious place like Vietnam. Dobbins credits the pantyhose for his survival after he unknowingly steps on a landmine and again when he makes it through a shootout a week later. However, in October, Dobbins is left broken-hearted when his girlfriend ends their relationship. Despite the heartbreak, he continues to wrap the pantyhose around his neck, claiming it hasn't lost its power.

chapter 11

The troop discovers a deserted pagoda operating as a church during one afternoon. Throughout their stay of over a week, two monks provide water and necessities daily. The monks take time to upkeep Dobbins's M-60 machine gun one day, during which Dobbins shares his lack of religious beliefs and his disinterest in sermons, but expresses a potential interest in joining the church for the social aspect. Kiowa reveals that he carries a Bible due to his upbringing, but has no interest in preaching, even though he appreciates being in a church. After the monks finish servicing the gun, Dobbins returns the favor by giving each monk a can of peaches and a chocolate bar, signifying his belief that kindness is key.

chapter 12

The narrative in "The Man I Killed" starts with O’Brien detailing the physical damage inflicted on a man he killed in My Khe using a grenade. His graphic descriptions include the man's jaw lodged in his throat, his missing upper lip, and teeth, and one of his eyes resembling a star-shaped hole. O’Brien speculates that the deceased was born in 1946, was the son of a farming family and was likely not a Communist or a warrior, merely hoping for the Americans to leave. Azar, one of O’Brien’s platoon mates, insensitively likens the dead man to breakfast cereal, while Kiowa, another mate, tries to legitimize O’Brien’s actions, encouraging him to take time to reconcile with the death. Throughout, O’Brien ponders the truncated life of the young man, speculating whether he was an academic, teased by peers for his feminine gait and passion for mathematics. A butterfly landing on the dead man's cheek attracts O’Brien's attention to his untouched nose. Despite Kiowa's pleas for O’Brien to regain composure and stop scrutinizing the body, O’Brien continues to do so. Kiowa admits he may not fully comprehend O’Brien’s mental state, but reminds him that they are at war, and the deceased was armed. He asks if O’Brien would prefer to swap places with the dead man. O’Brien remains silent. O’Brien observes the dead man's head lying beside small blue flowers, his cheek torn in three places. He imagines the boy began university in Saigon in 1964, was apolitical, and loved calculus. He also notes the absence of the butterfly. Kiowa checks the body, collecting personal items, including a picture of a woman by a motorcycle. He reasons that if O'Brien hadn't killed the man, someone else would have. Even when Kiowa informs him they need to move within five minutes, O’Brien remains silent. After the time elapses, Kiowa covers the body, observes that O’Brien seems calmer, and once again urges him to speak. However, all O’Brien can focus on is the young man's refined demeanor and his eye, now a star-shaped void.

chapter 13

Over two decades post-war, Kathleen, O'Brien's daughter, quizzes him about whether he has ever killed someone. She believes his compulsion to write war stories stems from having taken a life. O'Brien, however, maintains that he hasn't killed anybody. As he ponders on his fib, he envisages a grown-up Kathleen to whom he might disclose the full account of My Khe. In the dead of night, O'Brien recalls, the platoon, split into pairs, made their way to the ambush spot outside My Khe. O'Brien, paired with Kiowa, saw daybreak in bits and pieces. Kiowa was asleep while O'Brien, battling mosquitoes, spotted a young soldier stepping out from the fog. The only reality to O'Brien was the unease in his belly. Without a thought, he triggered the grenade before he could comprehend his actions. The man attempted to flee when the grenade bounced, dropped his gun, then tried to shield his head. It was only at that moment O'Brien understood that the man was doomed. The grenade exploded, and the man fell backwards, his sandals blown off. O’Brien wrestles with his remorse. He asserts that his predicament wasn't necessarily a matter of survival. Had he not set off the grenade, the man might have slipped past. Kiowa argued that the young man's death was inevitable. O'Brien says it's all irrelevant. Even after twenty years, he hasn't fully come to terms with it. He claims he sees the young man emerging from the fog at times, like when he's reading the newspaper or alone. He pictures the young man hiking up the trail, bypassing him, concealing a smile at a private thought, and carrying on his way.

chapter 14

Despite her village and family being destroyed by American soldiers, a young Vietnamese girl dances amidst the ruins. The soldiers are perplexed by her actions. Azar believes it to be some odd ritual, while Dobbins thinks she simply enjoys dancing. That night, Azar crudely imitates the girl's dance, adding inappropriate hip movements. Dobbins, in response, hoists Azar to the edge of a well, warning him to respect the dance or face the consequences.

chapter 15

Post-war, Norman Bowker finds himself aimlessly driving around his Iowa hometown on Independence Day. As he circles the lake in his father's Chevrolet, he reflects on the past - his high school sweetheart, Sally Kramer, now married, his friend Max Arnold who drowned in the lake, and his father's pride in his war medals. Norman earned seven distinctions in Vietnam, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Despite his father's pride, Norman is haunted by the Silver Star he almost earned. He reflects on the night his platoon set up camp on a sewage field along the Song Tra Bong river. They were startled by Vietnamese women but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross dismissed them. A foul stench hung in the air and rain poured relentlessly, causing the earth to bubble up. Suddenly, mortar rounds bombarded their camp. In the midst of the chaos, Kiowa, his fellow soldier, started sinking in the muck. Norman tried rescuing him, but had to let go to avoid being swallowed by the muck himself. Norman longs to share this memory but lacks an audience. He imagines admitting to his father that he lacked courage when it mattered most. He envisions his father consoling him with his seven earned medals. He ends his night by wading into the lake fully clothed. As he watches the fireworks, he comments that they are quite impressive for a small town.

chapter 16

O'Brien reveals that he wrote "Speaking of Courage" at Norman Bowker's request. Bowker, three years after the story's completion, took his own life in a YMCA. In 1975, Bowker wrote O'Brien a letter detailing his struggle to find purpose after the war, after working numerous temporary jobs and dropping out of junior college. Bowker, having read O'Brien's debut book, "If I Die in a Combat Zone," suggested O'Brien compose a story about a person who felt that Vietnam had stolen his desire to live. O'Brien reflects on his own smooth transition from war to academia and starts writing "Speaking of Courage" while working on his novel "Going After Cacciato." To respect Bowker's privacy, O'Brien didn't use Bowker's name, and altered some aspects of the story. The piece was initially published as an independent short story. However, O'Brien later realized that the post-war story didn't belong in his war novel. When the story was later included in an anthology, Bowker was disappointed by the omission of Kiowa. Eight months later, Bowker died by suicide. A decade on, O'Brien has adjusted the story and made peace with it. However, O'Brien maintains that he doesn't want to suggest that it was Bowker's failure of courage that resulted in Kiowa's death.

chapter 17

The day following Kiowa's demise, the squad trudges through the muck of a sewage field, led by Jimmy Cross. Cross contemplates Kiowa's untimely end, acknowledging his failure in allowing his troop to set camp near the perilous riverbank. He contemplates penning a letter to Kiowa’s father, praising his son's merits as a soldier. As the hunt for Kiowa’s remains begins in the chilly, damp dawn, Azar cracks off-color jokes. Bowker chastises him. Mitchell Sanders stumbles upon Kiowa’s rucksack midway across the field, triggering a frantic search for the body. Meanwhile, Cross mentally drafts the letter, regretting his decision to enter the Reserve Officers Training Corps without considering the implications. He blames himself for Kiowa’s death, feeling he should've acted on his instinct to relocate the men. He observes a young soldier shaking in the distance, blaming himself for not saving Kiowa. The soldier is resolved to find Kiowa who had a photo of the soldier's former girlfriend. After half a day of searching, Azar stops his distasteful humor. Kiowa’s body is found stuck in the mud. Despite their efforts, they cannot free the body until Dobbins and Kiley assist. After a strenuous effort, Kiowa’s mud-covered body surfaces. The men clean him, then attempt to distract themselves. Azar offers an apology for his earlier jokes. Cross, still knee-deep in the muck, refines the letter in his mind. He notices the unnamed soldier still seeking the lost photo. The soldier tries to engage Cross, however, Cross ignores him, choosing instead to wallow in the muck, consumed by thoughts of culpability, duty, and a longing for simpler times.

chapter 18

O’Brien distinguishes between the actual truth and the truth within a story. He plans to clarify the structure of his book. He narrates an incident about seeing a man die near My Khe, but dismisses having killed the man himself. However, he admits that this story is a fabrication. He believes that the truth within a story is sometimes more accurate in conveying emotions than the actual events. He emphasizes that stories can bring events to life. Imagining a conversation with Kathleen, where she asks if he has ever killed anyone, O’Brien contemplates responding affirmatively and then considers denying it.

chapter 19

O'Brien, accompanied by his ten-year-old daughter Kathleen and an interpreter, revisits the place where Kiowa died, months after writing "In the Field." Despite the familiar surroundings, O'Brien notes how much it has changed, with everything now dry. Kathleen, who was gifted this trip for her tenth birthday, finds the place smelly and struggles to understand her father's war experiences. While on the field, Kathleen is captivated by the interpreter's magic tricks. O'Brien is struck by the transformation of the land that claimed his best friend. He takes an unexpected dip in the river, horrifying Kathleen, who threatens to reveal it to her mother. However, before leaving the river, he leaves Kiowa's moccasins where he thinks his friend was lost to the river. Upon his return, Kathleen inquires if an elderly man in the field is angry with him, to which O'Brien replies that the resentment has ended.

chapter 20

O’Brien reflects on the two instances he was shot; the first time he was expertly treated by medic Rat Kiley, whereas his second experience with new medic Bobby Jorgenson was excruciating due to Jorgenson's inability to handle shock. Upon recovering from his near-death experience, O'Brien is filled with a desire for retaliation against the inexperienced Jorgenson. His recovery period is spent in a safer assignment, nursing his wound and plotting his revenge. During a routine company operation, O'Brien encounters his old comrades, including Jorgenson. Despite being advised by Mitchell Sanders to let go of his grudge, O'Brien is unable to do so, especially after Jorgenson's apology, which makes him feel guilty. His only ally in his revenge plan is Azar. Together, they decide to scare Jorgenson during his all-night duty by creating illusions of enemy invasions. Their plan works smoothly until Jorgenson recognizes O'Brien and confronts him. Azar ridicules O'Brien and leaves him, but O'Brien later reconciles with Jorgenson. They shake hands and even plan a prank on Azar as they leave the past behind.

chapter 21

While Tim O’Brien isn’t present when Rat Kiley gets hurt, leading to his departure to Japan, Mitchell Sanders shares the tale. The platoon, located on the hilly terrain west of Quang Ngai City, gets word of impending peril, prompting them to rest during the day and walk throughout the night. The stressful scenario affects each soldier differently—Jensen resorts to vitamins, Cross turns to NoDoz, while Kiley retreats into silence. After remaining quiet for six days, Kiley begins to chatter incessantly, scratching himself and complaining about insects. Sanders recalls his behavior as odd and melancholic, but he acknowledges that everyone is feeling the strain of the mission, likening it to chasing phantoms. In an emotional outburst one afternoon, Kiley admits to Sanders that he's ill-suited for his role as a medic, constantly handling body parts and treating wounds. He brings up Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, unable to comprehend how they were living one moment and dead the next. Kiley shares that he's haunted by the imagery of body parts, especially at night, visualizing insects eating him away. The following morning, he shoots his own toe— a severe enough injury to get him discharged from duty. No one holds it against him, even Cross, who was the harshest critic of Kiley's perceived cowardice, promises to stand up for him.

chapter 22

Just four days into the war, O’Brien's platoon comes under fire from a nearby village. They retaliate with an air strike, annihilating the village. Dave Jensen jokes about a deceased elderly man who lost his arm in the strike, but O’Brien feels repulsed. Kiowa commends him for his refusal to join in, triggering O’Brien's memory of his first encounter with death - his childhood sweetheart, Linda. In 1956, O’Brien was smitten with nine-year-old Linda, a delicate girl who always wore a red cap. After their parents chaperoned a cinema date, O’Brien realizes he's in love with her. Despite mockery from peers, Linda continues to wear her red cap. It later becomes evident that Linda is suffering from a terminal brain tumor when a classmate, Nick Veenhof, snatches her cap revealing her balding head. After Linda's death, O’Brien is tormented by the sight of her lifeless body at her wake. He becomes reclusive, finding solace only in his dreams where he can revive Linda through stories. In Vietnam, O’Brien finds a similar solace. The soldiers keep their fallen comrades alive through storytelling, just as he did with Linda. Despite the harsh realities of war, the memory of his first love stays alive in his dreams. O’Brien concludes that storytelling keeps the dead alive, even if they fade into the background of life’s happenings sometimes.

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