compare and contrast essay the things they carried

Compare and Contrast Essay The Things They Carried


The Things They Carried authored by Tim O’Brien is a partial fabled narrative and partial historical account of the Vietnam War (1955-1973). Throughout the novel O’Brien links the martial theme to what soldiers typically undergo as a result of their participation in war such as post-traumatic stress, gender-discrimination, dehumanization and death. These factors are what unite the Vietnam War with the Iraq War as several victims, civilian and military suffer under the ponderous weight of gloom, despair, separation, and guilt. The theme of just or holy war is also another theme which brings both wars together for America’s war engagement had to be with reason in order to gain the public’s support, funding, and recruitment.

The Psychotic Psychology of War and the Soldier-Victim

The traumatic stress of soldiers and veterans is a common denominator between the Vietnam and the Iraq War. The violence of war forces soldiers to become dehumanized beasts trained to torture and to kill ‘the enemy’ to the detriment of their moral, spiritual, and mental health. Among the martial inventory of militant technology that the soldiers carried into the war included “carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing,-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien 1994). O’Brien himself also reports that “there were times when I thought that I’d gone off the psychic edge. I couldn’t tell up from down. I was falling…it all seemed crazy and impossible” (O’Brien 1994). The war and post war consequences of the conflict are universal for soldiers return torn and damaged if they manage to escape death. Suicidal tendencies, insomnia, hallucinations, and other psychosomatic disorders are shared characteristics of soldiers in both wars. One American soldier who has served in the Iraq war has showed symptoms of “traumatic brain injury (TBI) … the signature injury of the Iraq war. Nationwide, studies suggest 300,000 returning veterans experience the symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI” (St John 2010). Psychotic behavior makes it difficult to reintegrate into society after serving one’s term in war. Witnessing dead bodies, macabre terrors, and animalistic brutality blurs the lines between fantasy and real. “Rat” another of O’Brien’s fellow comrades of his squadron was driven “crazy… his whole personality seemed out of kilter” (O’Brien 1994). Rat turned a lunatic so that he ended up shooting himself in the leg in order to legally desert the Vietnam war. Norman Bowker when he returns after his tenure in Vietnam, succumbs under the crushing burden of the tragedy of warfare and hangs himself in a YMCA facility. The war that these soldiers face are not only external but a greater and more violent internal war is waging which leaves them in pieces (if they happen to survive).

The Woman in Warfare and the Stereotyped Maleness of War

One main difference between the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Iraq War (2003 to current day 2010) is the more active involvement of female soldiers in the latter. Feminism and feminization have grown in leaps and bounds to the point that the integration of female soldiers in the military has become almost mainstream since anti-discriminatory female pioneers have lobbied for the rights of the woman and so more women are occupying positions which were predominantly male and gendered according the male stereotype.  “The Things They Carried” documents solely American male soldiers who fight in the battle lines in Vietnam where the woman was passively at home while the male soldiers fought. (Smiley 2002/2003) assumes that “the central project of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was to make the Marthas who stayed at home understand their (men)” (Smiley 2002/2003). The pre-eminence of war gendered male is manifest in “The Things They Carried” so that “O’Brien’s book exposes the nature of all war stories… a drama of gender difference… the drama is finally exposed by the sheer exaggeration and aggressiveness of its gendered roles and gendering gestures” (Smith 1994). The things that the soldiers carried are very virile and male-centered. In “The Things They Carried” one can see the treasured chivalric code constituting belligerent and militant values. Like an epic, O’Brien uncovers the core aspects of soldiering represented in the novel are those of valor, aggression, and prowess as warriors which are deemed esteemed distinctions. The artillery and ammunition carried are machine gunners, M-60, ten and fifteen pounds of ammunition, M-16 gas-operated assault rifle (with) twelve to twenty magazines (O’Brien 1994). O’Brien underlines the role of brute force while he follows the base instinct of conquest in the typical soldier. Raw pugnacity is a way of life and is lorded as the prime trait of good soldiering in the novel. During the Vietnam War, the might of the gun prevails and warfare is glorified. This criterion becomes the test of a true knight’s strength against adversity. Engaging in battle is not simply for the expansion of territory and defeat of foes but also is the soldier’s golden opportunity to show his competence. Most allusions of women in the novel were in reference to them as the war victims, past lovers, girlfriends, and wives. O’Brien passes over in silence the woman’s role in Vietnam as both an American patriot and soldier. According to a government article, “to date, over 240,000 female service member have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and Over 27,900 female service members are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Loretta Sanchez). On the other hand, in the Vietnam War, there were only a few hundred women dispatched and records are silent on the stories of soldier heroines who served.

Dehumanization and Desensitization of Man in War

A similarity linking the Vietnam War and the Iraq War is the dehumanization of man. O’Brien describes the American soldiers as “unthinking, all blood and bone, … soldiering with their legs, … but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility” (O’Brien 1994). O’Brien explains the de-sensitivity and dehumanization that come along with the war. Men turn to mechanized war machines who unquestioningly obey a command, whose hearts become hardened and inured to blood in the midst of “the moral ambiguity and unresolved conflict (which) characterize the narrative” (Chen 1998) The crimes of soldiers and the complicity of the army are notorious in both wars. Soldiers torture, rape, and kill civilians in the war which precipitating their own ruin and decadence.

“Men killed, and died…” (O’Brien 1994). The Vietnam War was a bloodbath to the extent that when “Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. 58,226 American soldiers also died in the war or are missing in action” (Vietnam War Casualties 2009). Dying and death become so trite that O’Brien depicts soldiers who “kicked corpses (and) cut off thumbs” (Obrien 1994). Hence one sees the banality of evil rearing its ugly head as soldiers cease to respect the corpses of the deceased, play cruel jokes against one another, and where killing becomes second nature. In the Iraq War, according to Iraq Body Counts, conservative estimates gauge that the killed civilians are numbered between 95,000 and 105,000 while Iraq Coalition releases place the number of military casualties between 4,200 and 4,700 soldiers. Soldiers are sent to their deaths as they war against terror in the East.

Just and Holy Warfare: The Right to Fight

Just and holy war is another common principle in the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The motivations for participating in the war are justified as pro-American and anti-terrorist. The Vietnam War broke out with cold war and the rise of communism in East Asia. America entered warfare in order to restrain the seeming growth and expansion of communist governments on Laos and Vietnam. Similarly the Iraq War was a continuation and climax of the justified war against terror following the 9/11 attacks. Citizens were used as guinea pigs and lives become worthless and dispensable as the government hid agendas under the superficial ones. (Kaplan 1993) quotes that “before the United States became militarily involved in defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, it had to, as one historian recently put it, “invent” (Baritz142- 43) the country and the political issues at stake there. The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction.” O’Brien purposely mixes fiction, imagination, and fantasy with truth, archived records and accurate descriptions of real people. The difference between the reported and the real are not known or covert. In the discourse of militarism and its role specifically in America, Vietnam and Iraq, one observes that war is used a means to a just end: peace and progress, serving to unify a people as the citizens celebrate an ideal that is higher and beyond the individual and the self that is the welfare of the State and the glorification of a Nation seeing to its survival and prestige. The prevalent political opinion tending to militarism lay the foundation of the both wars which led to increased military budgets in an age where war was seen as a solution for certain crises. War is idealized in the eyes of the elite and the masses for the best of humanity. War begets the ideal of heroism where men distinguish themselves as icons, models of national pride. The joys, fond memories and euphoric feelings that war produces surpass the devastation and loss of life.


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