You may already know that this book is about the Vietnam war, so it won't surprise you that "Alpha Company" refers to a group of American soldiers in Vietnam. But who are these particular men? As you begin reading, you will soon realize that Tim O'Brien has dedicated his book to his characters (these characters are based on actual men of the same names with whom O'Brien served). The main character is actually named Tim O'Brien, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. While much of the book is autobiographical, however, certain details are different (for example, O'Brien never actually killed a man while at war). Below you'll see a photo of O'Brien taken during the war. (This annotation contains an image)
An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter that gives an idea of the book or chapter's subject or theme. What does this epigraph suggest to you about The Things They Carried?
"R&R" is military slang for "rest and recuperation" (or "rest and relaxation," or "rest and recreation"). It refers to the free time (off duty) an active soldier occasionally receives. "SOP" stands for "standard operating procedure," and refers to the military's prescribed, standard way of accomplishing any task.
Based on what you have read so far, what is the significance of the things the soldiers carry with them?
Need some help with all the abbreviations in this section?
An RTO is a radio telephone operator, and the PRC-25 refers to a short-distance Portable Radio Communications device.
M&M's refers to exactly what you think: the candy! (Medics in the Vietnam War carried M&M's to give as placebos to wounded soldiers when they ran out of morphine). An M-60 is a standard lightweight machine gun. PFC stands for Private First Class, which is the lowest rank. LSA oil is small arms lubricant (for guns). For more help with abbreviations or slang used during the Vietnam War, check out the glossary below. In fact, it would be a very good idea to open the glossary in a new browser tab and have it available as you continue to read! (This annotation contains a link)
What do you think the author means by the "terrible power of the things they carried"? (In other words, what is the power of these things, and why is it "terrible"?) Please respond in 2-4 sentences.
Please fill in the blank: The structure of this section creates a sense of _________ because right after Lee Strunk emerges from the tunnel alive after being feared dead, Ted Lavender is killed unexpectedly. This reverses the reader's expectations, creating irony.
Paladin is the name of the gun-slinging, heroic main character on the TV Western "Have Gun -- Will Travel," which aired on CBS from 1957 through 1963. The name of the show, "Have Gun -- Will Travel," suggests a man who is prepared for anything that might come his way. Consider: what "moral" might Sanders be thinking of? (This annotation contains an image)
What seems to be the mens' motivation for so completely destroying the village of Than Khe?
It is ironic that Kiowa "admire[s] Jimmy Cross's capacity for grief" because
Please watch the following short video about dramatic irony to help prepare you for the question that follows.
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The men dream of being slightly wounded and therefore flown away to safety. How do these dreams relate to the title of this chapter, "The Things They Carried"? Your answer should be 3-5 sentences. Please use a quotation from this section to support your answer.
As the Lieutenant in command of the group, Cross feels responsible for the safety of his fellow soldiers and is determined to recreate order after Lavender's death. Below you'll see the uniform insignia (symbols/designs) associated with different army ranks during the Vietnam War. Officers such as a lieutenant are shown on the top, while insignia for average soldiers are shown on the bottom. The highest army rank is general, which you see on the top left, but we have not yet met any men in the story above the rank of lieutenant. (This annotation contains an image)
Based on this first chapter, how does O'Brien seem to be structuring his book?
What is it that you think Cross doesn't want O'Brien to mention in his story? What does this reveal to you about Cross's character and/or O'Brien's character? Give evidence from the text (quotes or paraphrase) that supports your answer. Please respond in 3-5 sentences.
What does this sentence suggest about the meaning of this chapter's title, "Spin"?
A foxhole is a hole in the ground dug by soldiers to protect themselves. It is dug deep enough to provide cover without making it difficult to look or shoot over the top. During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers would sometimes spend long periods of time in their foxholes.
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"Dink" is an offensive slang word that was used by some soldiers to refer to North Vietnamese soldiers.
Kiowa says to O'Brien, "No choice, Tim. What else can you do?" This fragment gives the reader a hint that O'Brien has done something horrible or wrong, but we don't yet know what it is. This structural device is called what?
At the time of the war, there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the United States' involvement in Vietnam. The USS Maddox was a US destroyer ship that engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2, 1964, in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. This battle led the US congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to aid any country in Southeast Asia whose government was said to be threatened by "communists" (leading to US involvement in Vietnam). Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese communist leader who was also the president of North Vietnam from 1945-1969 (his photograph is below). The Geneva Accords were international documents created at the Geneva Conference of 1954 that split Vietnam into two zones (North and South) and aimed to create peace in the region. SEATO stands for the South East Asia Treaty Organization, and it was an international organization (with heavy US involvement) created in 1954 that aimed to block Communist power and gains in Southeast Asia. "Dominoes" refers to a US theory at the time that if the US did not fight communism in Vietnam, communists would gain too much power and nearby countries would fall to communism "like dominoes." Together, all of these references have something to do with the US's reasons for entering the Vietnam War. O'Brien is questioning these reasons, as did many other US citizens at the time of the war. (This annotation contains an image)
Why do you think O'Brien spends a whole paragraph describing his summer job at a meatpacking plant? How does this experience parallel experiences he later has or observes in the war? (In other words, how is this job similar to O'Brien's war experience?) Please think carefully and answer in 3-5 sentences.
"CO" is shorthand for "conscientious objector." You may have heard this term before; it refers to a person who has claimed the right to refuse to enter military service because of religious reasons or personal anti-war beliefs. To gain this status during the Vietnam war, a person had to convince the draft board that his beliefs were sincere and that he was against ALL war, not just the current war. If his CO status was approved, he was usually assigned two years of public service in the United States.
Below is a map showing the Rainy River, which runs along the border between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. (This annotation contains an image)
Why is Elroy such a comforting presence for O'Brien?
What does Elroy's envelope label "Emergency Fund" suggest about Elroy's thoughts and feelings toward O'Brien?
When O'Brien says that Elroy took him "to the edge," this statement has a lot of meaning. He is literally on the physical edge between the United States and Canada, but these two places also symbolically represent two vastly different possible futures. If he flees to Canada, he might be able to avoid the war, but he will be breaking US law and will be shamed by his community. If he goes back home, he will have to fight in a war he deeply opposes and fears. This "edge" is a real turning point in O'Brien's life, but of course we as readers already know what choice O'Brien makes.
O'Brien has just given a long list of people (some who he has yet to meet at the time) whom he imagines are "urging [him] toward one shore or the other." Please choose four of the people (or groups) he mentions and for each one, explain which shore you think this person/group is urging O'Brien toward (US or Canada) and why.
Based on this chapter, which sentence below best describes O'Brien's reasons for deciding to enter the war?
You probably noticed that there is a huge shift in mood at the end of this chapter (see the video below for a quick refresher on the difference between tone and mood). Throughout this chapter, O'Brien's tone is matter-of-fact, but Dave Jensen's paranoia and the violence he inflicts on Lee Strunk himself creates a tense and unsettling mood. Consider: how does the mood change at the end of the chapter? (This annotation contains a video)
Why is Strunk's death a relief for Dave Jensen? And why do you think O'Brien chooses to describe his death as the relief of "an enormous weight" for Jensen? (Why use those words in particular? You can consider possible connections to other chapters or to the book's title). Please answer in 3-5 sentences.
How to Tell a True War Story
"Cooze" is a vulgar, slang term for "vagina," used to mean something similar to "promiscuous woman" (but more offensive).
According to O'Brien, what are the challenges to telling a "true war story"?
Napalm is a particularly deadly chemical mixture used in explosive devices during the Vietnam War. It burns for up to ten minutes and is very destructive; when it comes into contact with human skin, it causes incredible pain and burns and usually results in death. Below is a photograph of a U.S. navy riverboat deploying an ignited napalm mixture from a riverboat-mounted flamethrower in Vietnam. (This annotation contains an image)
Please watch this short video on simile and metaphor in preparation for the question below. (This annotation contains a video)
O'Brien uses an interesting simile here, writing that if there is a moral in a true war story, "it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning." Explain this simile. What does O'Brien mean? What is he saying about "true war stories"? Please think carefully and respond in 3-5 sentences.
In the highlighted text, Mitchell Sanders is making an allusion (comparison) to
To "generalize" is to make a general or broad statement by inferring from specific cases. In other words, it means you take a specific example (e.g. "My uncle is tall") and broaden it out to a much wider group ("All uncles are tall.")
Please read this poem, "Body Bags" by R.S. Gwynn, and then answer the question that follows. (This annotation contains a link)
O'Brien writes that it is "easy to get sentimental about the dead" and then proceeds to tell a story to "guard against that." The poem "Body Bags" that you just read is also about the Vietnam war and also deals with death. Please compare the treatment of dead soldiers in "Body Bags" versus The Things They Carried. What tone does each author take toward the dead? Does either author treat death in a sentimental way? Explain in 4-6 sentences.
Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
Culottes are loose, draping shorts that give the appearance of a skirt (seen on the below models on the left and right). (This annotation contains an image)
The last line of this paragraph suggests that
Below is a photograph of a North Vietnamese village near Mai Chau. Consider how a village like this might appear to a young woman like Mary Anne who is new to the war experience, versus how it might appear to a soldier like Rat Kiley who has experience with things like "ambushes and snipers and the stopping power of an AK-47." (This annotation contains an image)
What do the changes Mary Anne undergoes in Vietnam suggest about the effects of the war on those who experience it firsthand?
"Green Berets" refers to The United States Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets because of their distinctive service headgear. The Green Berets are a special operations force tasked with five primary missions: unconventional warfare (the original and most important mission of Special Forces), foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism. Most of their operations are classified and unknown not only to the public but to others in military service. Below are two Green Berets photographed during the Vietnam War. (This annotation contains an image)
As used in this sentence, what does the word "masks" most likely refer to?
How does Sanders's advice about how to best tell a story compare to O'Brien's writing style? Does O'Brien often insert "little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion" into his chapters? Or does he let the "raw material" speak for itself? Please use an example in your response, and respond in 3-6 sentences.
Consider the parallels between this incident and the story Mitchell Sanders tells about the six men on listening duty who blow up a huge area because they hear singing and partying.
How could this statement from Mary Anne be interpreted?
Check out the site below to learn more about women in the Vietnam War. Consider: how do the experiences discussed on this website differ from the story told about Mary Anne? (This annotation contains a link)
What do you think is the overall theme or idea represented in this short chapter? Explain in detail, using 3-5 sentences.
A pagoda is a tiered tower built in a traditional way with origins in East Asia. The one shown below is a small (one-tiered) pagoda in Vietnam, but they can be many layers tall. They are usually built for religious uses and have ties to Taoism and Buddhism. (This annotation contains an image)
Why might O'Brien have chosen to begin his chapter with the monks making a washing motion with their hands and end his chapter with Henry Dobbins making the same motion?
Notice how carefully and in how much detail O'Brien describes the man he killed. This detail suggests that the man's appearance has been struck permanently into O'Brien's mind, possibly haunting him. The structure of O'Brien's description (long sentences with listed features separated by commas) also suggests that O'Brien the narrator is speaking this description very quickly -- as if he "wants to get it all out." This fast pace also builds suspense.
Based on the context of this section, who is staring at what/whom?
We learn a lot in this chapter about O'Brien. He continues to imagine a detailed history for the man he killed, repeating details of this imagined history almost obsessively. He also repeats details about the man's appearance as he lays dead, such as the star-shaped hole in one eye and the jaw in his throat. When Kiowa asks him to talk about it, there appears to be no response from O'Brien. Consider: what do these details suggest about how O'Brien is processing this experience and how important the man's death is to him?
Tim O'Brien the author was not the one who killed this man. But in his book, he chooses to have Tim O'Brien the character be the one who kills this man. Why do you think the author makes this artistic choice? How would it change the book if it were another of the soldiers who killed this man in the story?
Notice how this description of Norman Bowker's home neighborhood contrasts with descriptions of locations in Vietnam that we have heard so far throughout the story.
This simile, comparing Norman Bowker's circling of the lake to being in orbit, suggests that
You may have noticed that this chapter is alternating between two different time periods: during the war and soon after the war. The sections describing the war are "flashbacks," which are explained in more detail in the video below. Norman Bowker is back in his hometown, driving his car around in circles and imagining himself having conversations with his father and with Sally about the war. (This annotation contains a video)
To "bivouac" is to stay in a military encampment made with tents or improvised shelters, usually without shelter or protection from enemy fire.
The rotating sprinkler going "hopelessly, round and round" parallels
Do you recall how O'Brien mentions in "How To Tell a True War Story" that true war stories are unbelievable and impossible to fully relate? Perhaps O'Brien is suggesting to us that this is a true war story that Norman Bowker is imagining himself telling.
Based on the context of this chapter, what is Norman Bowker most likely considering telling the person on the intercom about?
This is a very interesting sentence. On the one hand, it seems very untrue, now that the reader is aware of how many stories Norman Bowker has to tell and how much they mean to him. But in another way, it is true: even though he wants to talk about his experiences, there is "nothing to say" because he cannot figure out what exactly to say and whom to say it to. Also notice how this sentence is set apart as its own paragraph, which emphasizes its importance.
Tim O'Brien's smooth transition after the war and Norman Bowker's difficult transition and suicide suggest the idea that
Tim O'Brien truly did write a war novel titled Going After Cacciato, which was first published in 1978.
When O'Brien says "that part of the story is my own," what do you think he means? Does he mean that he himself was the one who "[froze] up" and "[lost] the Silver Star for valor"? Or does he simply mean that that part of the story is his own in that it is the part of the story that he made up in his mind -- that wasn't factually true? Explain your answer in 3-5 sentences, using evidence from the chapter to back up your ideas.
Please watch the video below of an anti-Vietnam-war song performed by Country Joe at Woodstock in 1969 in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
You have just watched an anti-war song performed at Woodstock. The Things They Carried is also considered to be "anti-war," in this case an anti-war novel. Compare these two ways of expressing opposition about the war. Can you find any similarities between the two? Differences? Please respond in 4-6 sentences.
This is not the first time that Azar has made insensitive comments related to the dead. You may remember his comments about Curt Lemon and about the man that Tim O'Brien says he killed. Consider: do you think Azar is portrayed as cruel-hearted? Or as a man who is uncomfortable with death and tries to use dark humor to deal with it?
So far, what does this chapter suggest about who is to blame for Kiowa's death?
Notice how this description of Kiowa's death (of the bubbles where the head should have been, the wristwatch, the boot sliding away, etc.) is very similar to the description attributed to Norman Bowker in the chapter "Speaking of Courage." There are now three men (this boy, Bowker, and O'Brien himself) who may or may not have been the ones to have this particular experience.
A dike is a a long wall or embankment built to prevent flooding from the sea. Below is a picture of one. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following is not a part of the mens' complicated reaction to finding Kiowa in the mud?
Notice how Tim O'Brien is in the background of this chapter, almost as if he weren't there at all. While Jimmy Cross and the boy with the flashlight and Azar are blaming themselves for Kiowa's death, Tim O'Brien (who, as we learned in "Notes," may have had a chance to save Kiowa) says nothing about his own thoughts or feelings about blame.
What is the difference between "story-truth" and "happening-truth"? (Define each). How can you explain how sometimes, "story-truth" might be truer than "happening-truth"? Please respond in 3-5 sentences.
Whoa! This short chapter changes everything, doesn't it? Suddenly O'Brien reveals that while he was indeed a soldier in Vietnam, much of the detail in his book is "made up." Through his book, O'Brien is trying to give faces and details to his "faceless responsibility and faceless grief." As you read on, continue to keep this theme of fact versus fiction (and which is more "true") in mind.
What is O'Brien doing? Why does he wedge Kiowa's old moccasins into the bottom of the field?
"All that's finished." This is an interesting way to end the chapter! Maybe O'Brien means simply that the war is long over, and there is no longer any animosity between Vietnamese like the farmer and Americans like O'Brien. Or perhaps he is also thinking of his larger war experience, hoping that now that he has paid his respects to Kiowa, all the pain surrounding the war can be "finished" and over in his mind.
VC is shorthand for Viet Cong (the "enemy")
In a way, O'Brien misses being in the combat zone with his former comrades. This is an example of the book's theme of
Azar seems to take a moral from this story (shown in the highlighted section). Interestingly, remember that O'Brien writes earlier that a moral is one of the ways you can tell a story is NOT a "true war story."
Please watch the video below on irony in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
The highlighted section is an example of
Confused about this so-called "Charlie Cong"? The Vietnamese communist guerillas were called the Viet Cong (by the South Vietnamese) or VC for short. However, when American soldiers transmit radio messages they do not just use letters because a V could be mistaken for a B or D, etc. So letters are announced using the phonetic alphabet. There is a word (often a name) for every letter in the phonetic alphabet. VC is said as Victor Charlie. Eventually, this just got shortened to Charlie, and Charlie became a name for a VC soldier in common lingo.
The yet-to-be-described prank that Azar and O'Brien are going to pull on Bobby Jorgenson is an example of which of the book's themes?
This is a very strong paragraph. The impulse for revenge and evil that O'Brien acts on makes him feel as evil and as horrible as the war itself. He has lost himself -- lost his former personality -- to the war.
What do you think O'Brien means when he whispers, "There ... now you know"? What does he want Bobby Jorgenson to know? In your answer, please use a quotation from this chapter as evidence to support your answer. Please respond in 3-5 sentences.
After he is shot, O'Brien knows he is in shock (shock occurs sometimes after a serious injury and is an indication that the organs are not getting enough oxygen). He is unable, however, to communicate this to Bobby Jorgenson. In a way, this recalls the chapter "Speaking of Courage," where Norman Bowker knows what to say but can't bring himself to say it to anyone. These are different examples of the book's theme of the importance of language and expression.
Based on the way this scene is written, do you think O'Brien is satisfied with his revenge?
NVA refers to the North Vietnamese Army, not to be confused with the Viet Cong, which was the communist army from South Vietnam rather than North. Below is a photograph of NVA soldiers. (This annotation contains an image)
When Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot, the other men don't blame him and even go out of their way to make him feel better. How is this different from what we heard early in the novel about how the men feel about soldiers who shoot themselves in the hand or foot? What has changed about the characters or about the situation that you think makes the men feel differently now? Please respond in 3-5 sentences.
"But this too is true," begins O'Brien, and we are reminded that "truth," to him, means something different than the factual truth that we are used to looking for. And what is it that he says is "true"? That "stories can save us." Keep this last idea in mind as you read the rest of this chapter. It introduces a central idea of the chapter.
We can infer from this section that
Notice how this idea connects back to the first sentence of the chapter: a story can perhaps "save" someone by bringing them back from the dead, at least in the imagination.
Linda's red cap is most likely
Again we encounter the theme of people being "saved" or living on through stories. Perhaps we are meant to see this as one of O'Brien's larger purposes in his book -- that he is reviving characters (soldiers) long lost to him, or even dead, and giving them life again.
After focusing most of his chapters on direct experiences related to the war (before the war, during the war, or after the war), why do you think O'Brien chooses to focus his last chapter on the death of a childhood friend long before the war? What effect does this have on the book as a whole? Please respond in 3-5 sentences.
Remember O'Brien's distinction between "story-truth" and "happening-truth"? Here we see that they can be totally contradictory and yet coexist. In "story-truth," Curt Lemon is "still out there" trick-or-treating (despite this not necessarily having actually happened), but in "happening-truth," he is dead and always will be.
KIA refers to "killed in action."
How do you interpret the highlighted section? What does Linda's statement (as imagined by O'Brien) mean? Please respond in 2-4 sentences.
This is an interesting idea -- that being dead is "like being inside a book that nobody's reading." Logically, this suggests that if you are in a book that someone IS reading, you are no longer dead; again, we see the idea of stories keeping people alive. (This annotation contains an image)