Another World Portrayed in The Things They Carried
In several stories from The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien deals with the way that American soldiers of the Vietnam War related to being "in country," or out of their own country and halfway across the world. O'Brien creates the concept that Vietnam and the war there is "another world" throughout the stories. None of the soldiers he writes about feel at home in Vietnam, and none of them successfully adapt emotionally to being so far from home.
O'Brien subtly introduces the concept of "another world" in the title story of the book. In describing how easy it would be for a soldier to give in to the pressures of war and just collapse on the trail, thereby getting sent home or to a hospital, the narrator says that "the chopper... would... carry
you off to the world [italics added]" (21-22). The careful reader will pick up on O'Brien's subtlety and realize that if the soldiers - for the narrator does speak for the soldiers as a collective - feel as if Vietnam is not in the world, then they must feel as if they are in "another world."
This exact phrase is used later in the same story. When Lieutenant Cross is thinking about his girlfriend Martha, he chastizes himself for his useless fantasies. He thinks to himself that Vietnam is "not Mount Sebastian, it [is] another world" (24). Then in "How To Tell A True War Story
," O'Brien reiteraties the concept. The soldiers of the story are hearing music coming from afar, and the narrator describes it as "all very civilized, except this isn't civilization. This is Nam" (74). This blunt statement captures the soldiers' feelings that they are in "another world." To them, Vietnam is a world without civilization; it is a world so different than the one they are accustomed to that they cannot function.
O'Brien returns to the "another world" idea once more in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
." As the narrator is describing the loss of Mary Anne's feminitiy, O'Brien writes that "Cleveland Heights now seemed very far away" (98). Mary Anne has joined the world of Vietnam, the world of the war, and lost contact with the "real world." This is the same thing that happened to O'Brien's soldiers. Being in another world caused them to lose their ability to relate to their own world, and this manifested itself in veterans as soon as they came back from the war.
When Vietnam veterans came home they were not the same men they were when they left for the war. Being in "another world" for so long changed them, and O'Brien's stories accurately reflect that. O'Brien conveys a sense of being in an unfamiliar and foreign place to readers. Although this is likely only one of many factors that contributed to the overall affects that the war had on soldiers, it was certainly a major influence in the way that they dealt with their time "in country," or "out of the world," and their inablity to deal with their own world upon returning from the war.
"So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go.
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane,
Don't know when I'll be back again.
Oh, babe, I hate to go."
--John Denver, 1969