The Pointlessness of War

Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried delivers raw emotions to a second generation of readers


Nate Husen, Reporter

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a powerful book that comes close to delivering the horror of war to its audience. However, it’s all fiction … or so O’Brien claims, even though he bases much of the contents on his military experiences during the Vietnam War.

O’Brien maintains a dicey relationship with the truth throughout the book and that’s what give it its uniqueness.

O’Brien conveys a graphic, uncompromising narrative that discards the normal conventions of storytelling for ones better suited to a wartime story. A typical novel makes a point of showing progress in each scene by accomplishing something with each page.

In The Things They Carried, a long, elaborate and thoroughly disturbing scene describing the mutilation of a water buffalo at the hands of a distraught soldier plays out with no payoff at the end, which is entirely the point. War, conflict, death – all of it is pointless, and O’Brien creates a sense of resigned fury about that truth with his circular plot and character development.

Bixby High School English teacher Shannon Altom gears her Advanced Placement Language curriculum for this book around its style and techniques, instead of raw plot details. The book’s appeal is timeless (published 1990), and she says her method of teaching it really hasn’t changed over the years. This is impressive considering that this is the second generation of students to read the book and the themes still resonate with them.

O’Brien weaves an original narrative so seamless that you are flabbergasted when he finally drops the facade of reality and reveals that the book is fiction. Almost every story in the novel is fiction, but the reader is convincingly led to believe each is true.

This style gives the novel its greatest strengths but also creates a major weakness: unreliability. The novel depicts wild, graphic violence, which has impact when the reader thinks it is real, but, after the first few times, it becomes easy to write off disturbing content as made up, thus robbing it of its all-too-important emotional weight.

The book is fairly brief ( 233 pages) and doesn’t offer the reader to many opportunities to catch onto O’Brien’s elaborate ruses. The brevity also keeps the reader from becoming numb to the novel’s graphic violence, largely dealing with most of the issues with this type of story.

The Things They Carried has a powerful message to convey, and does it with a unique, effective writing style, easily earning a solid 4 out of 5 stars.