The Representation of the Vietnam War Trauma in Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. The development of Vietnam War Literature

2. Tim O’Brien and writing about the Vietnam trauma

3. The experience of trauma during the Vietnam War
3.1 Death and the act of committing violence
3.2 Experiencing violence

4. The handling of trauma after the war
4.1 Storytelling
4.2 War veterans and suicide

5. Aftermath of the Vietnam War trauma



First published in 1990, Tim O’Brien’s story collection The Things They Carried is ar­guably the work most closely associated with the author’s name and a highly praised fictional approach to the Vietnam War and its influence on those who participated in it. The total of 22 short stories focuses on a squad of young American soldiers referred to as the Alpha Company and touches upon a wide selection of themes and motifs, which include friendship, love, memory, storytelling, superstition and the ever-present ele­ments of fear, violence, death, and the loss of innocence that are tied to the exposure to combat action. In addition to that the portrayal of trauma in the novel has received posi­tive attention from experts (Heberle 178) and critics and helped to draw attention to the role of the veteran in the United States society.

In an attempt to explore this particular topic, the following pages will first address the question why Vietnam War literature as a genre did not begin to fully develop until roughly ten years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and approach the way Tim O’Brien deals with the problematic of speaking and writing about a war that was unique in American history and called for an equally distinctive representation in literature. Af­terwards the main focus of this work is devoted to the experience of trauma both during the time and on the site of the Vietnam conflict and in the United States after the war had come to an end, based on its depiction in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and by means of referring back to a selected variety of his stories. The concluding re­marks will then be devoted to the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the public eye and the development of war literature in the United States after the 1980s.

1. The development of Vietnam War literature

The closing words of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, one of the most renowned and criti­cally acclaimed books on the Vietnam War (Martin 84), still remain relevant on more than one level. Referring to a state of mind, a psychological reality rather than the physical presence in the South Asian coastal state or even the participation in combat, they hint at issues that reach far beyond the temporal and territorial confines of Vietnam. But at the same time the author’s literary reworking of his experiences as a war corre­spondent from 1967 to 1969, published two years after the fall of Saigon, captures the spirit and strain of this particular period in American history and makes it accessible to those who did not live through it. Since literature, fictional or non-fictional, continues to play an important role in our exposure to history and the preservation of memory, this raises the question why narratives written in response to the Vietnam War were slow to appear and form the canon of works readers are now, almost 40 years after the longest war the United States have ever been involved in has come to an end, able to choose from.

In every attempt to search for an answer, the very nature of America’s military inter­vention in Vietnam must be taken into consideration. It lacked not only the widespread support and understanding of invasion and battle as justified or at least necessary means, but also the clear direction and favorable outcome that had characterized the United States’ participation in previous wars. Almost three million American soldiers (Anis- field 140) were sent into a country and natural environment they were neither familiar with nor adequately prepared for, expected to fight a war without distinct battles lines and for reasons few of them had fully understood. (Ringnalda 26) About 58,000 of them never returned home and 300,000 were wounded and deeply traumatized. (Anisfield 140) Vietnam proved to be the first large scale military conflict that their country could and did not win. (Ringnalda 26) But in addition to that it was a unique experience in yet another respect. Heavily documented in film and photographs, news concerning the combat action traveled faster than ever before and brought the brutal reality of the war, with all of its atrocities and causalities, into the domestic homes on a daily basis. Foot­age from Vietnam was, as Andrew Martin describes it, part of “a nightly television event” (Martin 76) that hit the general public with intensity they had never experienced before.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Vietnam War has left a unique mark on the American society and affected the awareness and self-conception of an entire country. The deaths of over one million Vietnamese soldiers and non-combatants (Anisfeld 140) left no room for the nation to emerge from this war as in the familiar role of the digni­fied and righteous victor, preserver of democracy and world peace. (Walzer 95) A sense of shame and guilt, combined with feelings of grief, disillusionment and incomprehen­sion settled over North America and shaped the aftermath of the Vietnam experience. (Walzer 95) This had not been a so-called great war, worth glorifying in literature and arts, and the veterans were not praised and celebrated as heroes upon their return. Amer­ica, it would seem, had seen and heard enough of Vietnam and as soon as it was over wanted nothing more than to forget. (Martin 76-77) This collective sense of trauma that had spread across both the home and the combat fronts as the fighting dragged on and affected both civilians and soldiers in different ways also had an influence on the devel­opment of literature during the 1960s and 1970s.

At a time when Vietnam was everywhere in the media, from the newspapers to radio and television, the general interest in fictional and non-fictional accounts of the war in book-form was limited. Publishers considered it too much of an economic risk to invest time and money in authors and books that dealt with the military action in South Asia (Anisfield 7) and a number of writers, especially those who sought publication for the first time like James Webb or William Ehrhart, saw their works rejected repeatedly. (Martin 76) The relatively few novels that did get published, including David Halber- stam’s One Very Hot Day (1968), were then exposed to the judgmental and often times downright aggressive approaches the literary critics, opinion leading journalists and politicians used to take when dealing with Vietnam War literature. (Martin 76) As a result, none of them sold well and the majority quickly disappeared from the market again. Andrew Martin describes this process as “ideological gatekeeping” (Martin 77) and while some of the cultural and political powers involved may have pushed for it to remain in motion even after the country’s involvement in Vietnam had come to an end it (Martin 77) ultimately did not last.

Change arrived during the late 1970s in form of the Hollywood blockbuster. (Martin 90) War movies like The Deer Hunter (1978), Friendly Fire (1979) and, of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) attracted millions of viewers, paved the way for the return and refabrication of combat related topics for the smaller television screen (Martin 90) and inspired the development of a new, critical involvement with the Vietnam War and the multitude of questions it had left unanswered. And after Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) (Tal) had proven to be popular, commercially thriving engagements with America’s recent history in written form the spell of public silence was broken with regards to literature as well. As Kali Tal points out, publishing companies were quick to react and release a variety of previously unsuccessful war novels in new editions or publish material that was sub­mitted to them (again) now. Among those works that finally found their audience in the new cultural climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s was also the previously men­tioned One Very Hot Day. (Martin 73)

This period of rediscovered interest was inspiring and encouraging to veterans who had felt rejected, ignored or looked down upon by society after they had arrived back in North America at the end of their service. Not only did their fellow citizens express the desire to hear and listen to their stories, the overall role of the former combatant changed for the better with “the Veterans Administration’s 1980 recognition of post­traumatic stress disorder, later federal laws ensuring Vietnam veterans’ rights, the elec­tion of increasing numbers of veterans to political office throughout the eighties” (Ryan 14) and the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in 1982 (Tal). While the slow change of social climate offers one explanation why veterans at times did not start writ­ing about their experiences until years after the war had come to an end, authors like Tim O’Brien have also explained that they had felt the need to push a mental pause but­ton with regards to their own engagement with Vietnam related topics and the process­ing and reprocessing of memories after the end of their service in order to ever be able to present it to readers in satisfactory form. (PBS) Others entertained the idea of ex­pressing themselves in the written word for the first time and had to develop the neces­sary skills before they could even imagine publishing a memoir, short story or novel. (Anisfield 7)

But during the early eighties literature of all genres and categories, from autobiogra­phies, memoirs and novels to short stories and poetry, was infused with a new and sta­ble admission of Vietnam War stimulated works and the accompanying, growing theo­retical discourse. (Tal) And yet all of them, experienced writer and first time authors alike, had struggled to find a language and style in which they could put the trauma of war into words. Speak about what used to be considered as the unspeakable. Mark Tay­lor remarks that “Twentieth-century combat, with its greater, more rapid and more de­structive capacity, is even more difficult to explain” (Taylor 14) than post conflicts. In that sense the Vietnam War and its aforementioned special role in the long line of mili­tary wars with American participation challenged the established modes of storytelling and sparked a debate about which, to speak with Tim O’Brien, how to tell a “true a war story” (O’Brien 65).

2. Tim O’Brien and writing about the Vietnam trauma

Looking back on the nation’s history and its rise to political and military power, it seems only consequent that war stories have a long, distinguished tradition in American literature. One possible approach to the task of committing the Vietnam trauma to paper is therefore rooted in the style and conventions of the writing that has shaped past events like the World Wars I and II in fictional and non-fictional narratives. (Ringnalda 28) As a matter of fact, selected elements that contributed to the very definition of the genre in the past have not lost their effectiveness even though literature, just like war­fare, continued to evolve over time. The majority of the works written in response to conflicts involving the armed forces, by the way of example, still relay on the combat­ant as their protagonist (Anisfield 36) and he often takes on the role of the narrator as well. It is through his eyes that the reader experiences war in a multitude of Vietnam novels, too. Furthermore, the conventional manner of developing the soldier’s story for its audience is to put it forward in strict chronological order.

In the typical Vietnam linear narrative the author selects a group of recruits from the af­firmative action stockpile (ranging from a street-wise black to a naïve Iowa farmboy), puts them through basic training, where they become somewhat robotized, gives most of them nicknames, sends them to Nam, where they become disillusioned and brutal­ized, [...] kills some of them, and sends the hero/narrator back home [...]. (Ringnalda 31)

Among the most obvious advantages of such a simple organization of time and action in a narrative is its easy comprehensibility. It is effortless to follow and familiar to the reader. (Anisfield 35) What remains questionable, though, is if it can capture and con­vey the chaos and senselessness of the war in full effect. Donald Ringnalda argues that authors of Vietnam novels written in the traditional, established mode, like John Del Vecchio (The 13th Valley) or Robin Moore (The Green Berets), are too concerned with the concept of realism and the reorganization of memories and occurrences into a struc­ture that will allow them to make sense of the war in retrospect and from a quintessen­tially patriotic perspective. (Ringnalda 30, 33-34) As a result, their works are target- oriented and speak to an American audience that is looking for a native hero to take them through the battle and back, but ultimately reflect only an unrealistic distortion of the country and culture of Vietnam, the nature of the war and its devastating outcome and aftermath. Any kind of literature that is serious about portraying the reality of Viet­nam without losing itself in facts and figures and subtle racism, Ringnalda claims, must move away from the tradition of realist writing and seek to discover new ways of speak­ing about the war, its participants and its victims. (Ringnalda 28, 33)

Among the first to reject not only the glorification of combat in South Asia, but also the conventional terms in which war used to be described were the American journalists. Confronted with the opaqueness of the Vietnam War, which concerned the situation overseas just as much as the government’s handling of it in the United States, reporters found ideas of candor and a single, overarching truth were impossible to maintain. The more subjective, interpretative and questioning style that developed in response, and of which Michael Herr’s Dispatches is considered one of the first major examples (Martin 34), became known as New Journalism. (Taylor 18-19) Experimental, personal and of­ten decisively furious writing spread in the field of literature too (Martin 78) as those who had experienced the atrocities of the battle firsthand discovered their voice and directed criticism at an entire culture and society that, in the eyes of many veterans, had embraced or even encouraged the war. This other type of Vietnam writing employs lan­guage and style to mirror the effect of combat practice on the minds of those who had to live through it. (Anisfield 35) It is a form of literature “in which time jumps back and forth, fantasy mixes with reality, and isolated incidents are depicted with unusual inten­sity” (Anisfileld 35) to make the combatant’s situation come to life and ring true for the reader. In his essay “Fighting and Writing: America’s Vietnam War Literature”, Donald Ringnalda compares it to the tactics exercised by the indigenous forces that were so foreign to the United States soldiers that they ran against everything they were familiar with and prepared for. (Ringnalda 28) Writers that take the reader through a slightly similar experience with their novels include Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July, 1976) (Martin 78), Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War, 1977) (Martin 81) and, perhaps most of all, Tim O’Brien.

Born on October 1, 1946 in Minnesota, O’Brien was drafted at the age of 22 and sent to Vietnam where he served as an infantryman for two years. (Houghton) After his re­turn to North America he attended Harvard University (Houghton) before he made his debut as a published author with the war memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home in 1973. But this non-fictional account of the Vietnam War, based on his own memories, was only the first in a long line. By now Tim O’Brien has com­pleted a total of eight books dealing with this particular military conflict and its conse­quences. While Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990) take place on the site of the combat action, Northern Lights (1975), The Nuclear Age (1985), In the Lake of the Woods (1994), Tomcat in Love (1998) and July, July (2002) introduce the reader to protagonists and major characters that are influenced and often haunted by the war in the United States.


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The Representation of the Vietnam War Trauma in Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
War and Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Vietnam War, Vietnam Trauma, Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
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Anonymous, 2013, The Representation of the Vietnam War Trauma in Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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