Tim O’Brien "The Things They Carried" Summary and Plot Overview

"The Things They Carried" Summary

"The Things They Carried" is a collection of short, autobiographical stories written by American author Tim O’Brien.
Marissa L.
min read
Mar 2, 2023

The stories were based on O’Brien’s experiences while serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. O’Brien was motivated to write the book after returning from Vietnam and being shocked to see how little American civilians knew about the war.

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"The Things They Carried" Plot Overview

"The Things They Carried" is a collection of 22 connected short stories following the experiences of a U.S. Army platoon in South Vietnam during the war. The book’s central characters are the soldiers in the platoon. They were based on real people, but at times the author blurred the line between fact and fiction.

“Love” is a story that takes place after the war, when O’Brien meets up with his old platoon leader Jimmy Cross. They talk about his obsession with Martha and Cross admits that he still loves her and that she never married. He hoped that O’Brien could write a heroic story about him in his book, thinking that Martha would be impressed.

“Enemies” is about two soldiers, Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk, who get into a fight in which Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose. Strunk is sent to the hospital and when he returns to the platoon, Jensen is worried that Strunk will try to kill him for revenge. Jensen avoids Strunk until his madness drives him to break his own nose with his pistol. He then asks Strunk if they are “even” now, and Strunk agrees that they are.

“Friends” is  the follow-up story to “Enemies”. Strunk and Jensen have become close friends and do everything together. The two make a pact, agreeing that if either of them is severely wounded in battle, the other will finish him off as an act of mercy. Later, Strunk loses most of his leg in a battle. He begs Jensen not to shoot him as they had previously agreed. Jensen sees Strunk off to the medevac chopper, but later learns that Strunk died en route to the hospital.

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“The Dentist” is about a hyper-macho, courageous soldier who actually enjoyed combat. In combat he behaves recklessly and without fear. However, he is extremely afraid of a certain army dentist. During one attempt to visit the dentist, the fearless soldier faints. The solder agonizes over his fear about going to the dentist so much that one night, he wakes the dentist and forces him to pull one of his teeth. The tooth turned out to be entirely healthy, and the pain the soldier felt was only in his own mind. 

“Spin” is a story about the platoon members’ unusual habits and quirks. It is told in a series of short, disconnected anecdotes about the different soldiers in the platoon. O’Brien’s daughter, Kathleen, says he tells too many war stories. For O’Brien, writing war stories is a way to preserve memories, his own and those of his platoon mates. 

“On the Rainy River” follows O’Brien before the war, when he attempts to avoid the draft board by going to Canada. In the forests near the border between the US and Canada, O’Brien finds a tourist lodge run by a man named Elroy Berdahl. He spends six days at the lodge with Berdahl, trying to decide whether or not to cross the border into Canada. Berdahl offers to take him across in a boat, but in the end, O’Brien decides to return and join the military. He explains that he felt he was forced to go to war because he feared embarrassing his family more than facing death. O’Brien doesn’t see it as courageous. He thinks he took the cowardly way out because he let other people’s opinions compel him into going to war. 

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In “Field Trip”, another story that takes place long after the war, O’Brien travels with his daughter to find the place where one of his fellow soldiers, Kiowa, was killed. Kiowa had been killed in a mortar attack and his body sank into mud and had to be dug out after the battle. When O’Brien finds the place where the battle happened, many years after the war, he is surprised to find the area doesn’t look as he remembered it. He buries the dead soldier’s keepsake (a pair of moccasins) in the place where he believes he had died. 

In “Church”, the platoon uses a Buddhist pagoda as a base of operations. They interact with the temple monks and discuss their own feelings about religion. Although the monks do not seem to mind the platoon’s presence, Kiowa, one of the soldiers, is upset at the idea of using a religious site as a base. Kiowa is seen as a very religious soldier because he carried a Bible with him everywhere, but it is revealed that he only does this because of his upbringing.

“Stockings” is about a soldier named Dobbins who would wear his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck when sleeping, and sometimes in combat. He continues to do so even after learning she wants to break up with him, because he believes her stockings keep him protected. After he survives several deadly encounters without a single scratch, other members of the platoon start believing in the stockings’ powers. 

In “How to Tell a True War Story”, O’Brien discusses how soldiers are always telling war stories. He writes that many of these stories are false, or at least partially false. He explains that soldiers tell war stories to cope with their situation in war and to understand it afterward. O’Brien explains how to tell what’s true or not in these stories, and says the listener can tell the difference by the amount of questions the story provokes. He also suggests that it doesn’t matter if everything in the story is totally factually true, because such stories are about conveying the emotions of the experience, not historical truth.

In “The Man I Killed”, O’Brien describes how he killed an enemy. He struggles with this knowledge and imagines an alternate reality where he didn’t kill the man and he survives the war. O’Brien imagines a whole life story after the war for the dead fighter. 

In “Ambush”, O’Brien is asked by his daughter after the war if he ever killed anyone. He lies and says no, but then recounts one of the times when he did. The story begins with a graphic description of the dead man’s body as O’Brien saw it. Long after the war, O’Brien can still see the man he killed walking down the jungle path where he was killed. 

"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a story told to O’Brien by the platoon medic Rat Kiley. The story is about one soldier whose unit spent its time in a very quiet sector of the front. It is so quiet and boring that one soldier finds a way to sneak his girlfriend into his base. But things go wrong when she loses interest in him and becomes infatuated with the war. She ultimately leaves him. 

In the story “Style”, the platoon finds a village that has been destroyed by bombing. A very young Vietnamese girl is dancing in the ruins of a destroyed house, and the soldiers are confused. They approach the house and find the bodies of the girl’s family in the rubble. The girl continues to dance, and some of the soldiers wonder if her dance is some kind of ritual. Later, one soldier mocks the girl, causing another soldier to threaten to kill him if he doesn’t show respect. 

“Speaking of Courage” is another story that takes place after the war. It is a story of one of O’Brien’s platoon mates, Norman Bowker, who returns from the war and had no friends to talk to about his experiences. He spends his time driving around a lake, remembering how his friend Kiowa died. Kiowa’s leg got caught in some mud when the platoon came under mortar fire, and Bowker, after failing to pull him out, ran in fear. He feels responsible for Kiowa’s death and thinks he was a coward for running away. 

“Notes” is about how O’Brien wrote the story “Speaking of Courage.” Bowker had written him a long letter asking him to write a letter about someone who felt as though they died after the war. O’Brien agrees and writes a version of the story that would become “Speaking of Courage.” Bowker doesn’t like the story because O’Brien distorts the truth about what happened to Kiowa. Unable to adjust to civilian life after the war, Bowker later committed suicide. 

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“In the Field” tells the story of trying to find Kiowa’s dead body after it was buried under mud in a mortar attack. Jimmy Cross, the platoon leader, must write a letter to Kiowa’s parents about their son’s death. O’Brien feels responsible for the death because he used his flashlight at night, which he thinks allowed the enemy to detect the platoon. Eventually the men find Kiowa’s body and pull it from the muck. 

“Good Form” is another story about war stories, and the truth or fiction that is a part of them. O’Brien writes about how there are different kinds of truth in war stories.  One example he gives was a story about killing a young Vietnamese fighter. He says he would not be lying if he said he killed the soldier, but also if he said he hadn’t. He says the purpose of the story, which was to convey the feelings of the war, is more important than the truth. 

In “Ghost Soldiers”, O’Brien writes about two occasions when he was shot. In the first case, he was saved by the platoon medic, Rat Kiley. He was nearly killed the second time, however, because the platoon’s new medic froze up when the platoon came under fire. He decides he wants to get revenge on the new medic, so he and some of his friends decide to scare him at night by pretending to be the enemy. But he is surprised when the new medic doesn’t scare so easily. 

“Night Life” is a story about the platoon medic Rat Kiley, and how he left the platoon. The platoon is forced to sleep during the days and march through the nights, looking for the enemy. No enemy is ever encountered and the regimen starts to negatively affect the soldiers. Rat Kiley is haunted by the deaths of some of his platoon mates. He has doubts about his ability to be a combat medic because of the blood and body parts he sees. Once he has a gruesome dream about his own death, and in the morning he shoots himself in the foot, hoping to be sent home. The platoon leader Jimmy Cross knows Kiley shot himself on purpose, but he also knows how brave Kiley was in the past. The other platoon members also believe in Kiley. When Cross has to evacuate Kiley in a helicopter, he vouches for him by telling the other medics that Kiley’s wound was an accident. 

“The Lives of the Dead” compares O’Brien’s first experiences of war with the first time he saw a dead body as a child. In the story, O’ Brien’s platoon receives fire from a village, and the platoon leader calls in an air strike that destroys it. A fellow soldier finds the dead body of an old man and pokes it with a stick, encouraging O’Brien to do the same. O’Brien refuses because he has respect for the dead. Another soldier asks him if the old man was the first dead body he ever saw. It wasn’t. When he was young, his childhood friend Linda died of brain cancer at the age of 9. O’Brien writes about the ways in which he still sees or thinks of the people in his life he lost, like Linda and his fellow soldiers. He concludes that the dead still live through people’s memories.