‘All is Fair in Love and War’:
The Notion of ‘Rules’ in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990)
The normative practice is that, when writing about war stories, most writers would choose to focus on the heroism of one or few characters. Tim O’Brien, in his novel The Things They Carried (1990), deviates from such norm. In the novel, the writer underscores the difficulties that young and naïve soldiers must face in the battlefield, that is, during the Vietnam War. Heroism does not emerge as a theme simply because war is not simply about the heroic pursuits of soldiers. Through the interwoven narratives of O’Brien and other soldiers, the novel suggests that behind the grand and shining narratives of war are realities of coward, love-sick, or emotionally ‘cold’ soldiers. In the context of the story sequences, the author shows that war commands its own rules—rules that often bypass the usual conventions of morality and fair play. Like war, love also sets its own rules. The idea or experience of love makes one irrational and sentimental, all of which are acceptable. This paper thus argues that, in The Things They Carried, O’Brien chose to write a war story without heroes because he is more concerned about illustrating the difficult truth of ‘hard play’, which highlights the weaknesses and adversities that people encounter in both war and love.
As introduced earlier, the choice to write a war story without heroes stems from O’Brien’s intention to avoid dignifying the war, focusing instead on the real stories and experiences of soldiers. The sense of ‘reality’ herein gives special attention to the weaknesses of these soldiers. The novel shares this idea by describing the ‘burden’ that the soldiers of Vietnam War carry: “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all” (O’Brien 20). This description is a reference to the notion of fairness in war. War equalizes men, regardless of their backgrounds. With war, everyone faces the risk of injury and death. This imminent threat to life and safety bring out the cowardice of soldiers, many of whom enlisted into military service by virtue of mandate and family honor than by virtue of free will. In this case, war decreases the choice of individuals. Participants in war, including soldiers, must play by the hard rules. These hard rules highlight ‘survival’ as the only consolation.
Moreover, O’Brien’s lack of interest in the theme of heroism in this war story also stems from his greater interest in the idea of fairness (or lack thereof) in the domain of love. Love emerges as a theme in the novel, primarily through some of the soldiers’ interactions and memories of actual or potential female lovers. The novel suggests that love can bring out the irrationality of the apparently bold and fearless men, as in the case of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. In the story, O’Brien shows the one-sided love that the military leader experiences: “… he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love” (1). Martha’s letters initially seem as a motivation for Cross, but these correspondences actually distract him. As a matter of fact, his obsession for Martha becomes a factor for the death of Ted Lavender, a member of Cross’ squad. Cross’ irresponsible behavior is an example of how love brings out the worst in people. It can make strongest men weak. In the case of Cross, the monomania for love leads to negligence and irresponsibility. The bold lieutenant, after all, emerges as an ordinary human being who has weaknesses and irrational tendencies. By and large, this example once again suggests that O’Brien was largely pessimistic about the common conventions of war narratives.
Another important reason why O’Brien chose not to aggrandize war stems from the reality that war imposes hard rules, which transforms soldiers into amoral and cold ‘killing machines’. In the following excerpt from the chapter entitled “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien describes how his participation in the Vietnam War made him blunt and brutal, as depicted in his killing of a young Vietnamese soldier:
I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief. Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him. (171-172).
The preceding description underscores that, in war, there is an unspoken rule that commands everyone to remove their emotions away from the events in order to thrive and survive. O’Brien’s recollects the image of the Vietnamese soldier to come to terms with his actions, which could not be justified by the norms of morality and ethics. He even notes that in spite his education and background, war leaves him with no choice but to play by its hard rules: “but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside” (190). This consistent reference to an internal transformation speaks of the truth that characterizes every soldier’s experiences with war. The idea of ‘winning’ in a war does not involve an actual victory; it involves the ability to overcome one’s sense of morality in order to come out alive. Killing an enemy is one common rule of war. This rule applies to everyone, even to those who had no mindset or propensity to be brutal.
On another note, the absence of thematic focus on heroism in The Things They Carried is likewise a result of O’Brien’s emphasis on the indiscriminate nature of death in both love and war. In the previous example, it is suggested that O’Brien killed a Vietnamese soldier only because the latter is a categorical enemy. The randomness of death also applies in the domain of love. This idea appears in the novel through O’Brien’s reflections of his young love: “At some point I had come to understand that Linda was sick, maybe even dying, but I loved her and just couldn’t accept it” (224). Linda, the protagonist’s childhood sweetheart, died due to a brain tumor. She is an ideal picture of innocence, but death claimed her life. Death hence becomes one factor that equalizes everyone in terms of pain associated with love. Similar to its appearance in war, death also randomly strikes people who are in love. It does not recognize social norms or any other human rules; death and pain in love can bring anyone into despair. This depressing aspect, for O’Brien, is a lived reality experienced by most soldiers in war.
All things considered, O’Brien brings the thematic spotlight away from heroism in order to emphasize the more humanistic realities of human frailty, pain, and despair in a narrative about war, which, by extension, is also a narrative about love. The Things They Carried conveys that the circumstances in love and war force people to stand at a levelled playing field—a field that sets its own rules. One’s leadership position, educational background, and moral inclinations are all set aside when one enters war and when one responds to the tempting call of love. For the most parts, the hard rules and difficult play bring out the common humanity of people in war and love. This common humanity is not about the tendency to become a hero or heroine; it is about the expected tendency to be weak, cold, and even hopeless in times of hardship.