M&M's in The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien uses many interesting literary devices in his collection of short stories about his experiences in Vietnam. One of the most striking, yet understated, is his fleeting reference to M&M's. O'Brien allows them to be seen as something of a mystery, an enigma. O'Brien transforms M&M's into a symbol of America: mystical, powerful, and incredible. O'Brien also uses the simple image of a yo-yo to explain the necessity of American GI's to transform their mental attitudes to something different in order to survive the war. M&M's and yo-yo's are two very powerful symbols that O'Brien uses to explain the mentality of American soldiers in Vietnam.
"As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds." (O'Brien 5) The first mention of M&M's is cryptic. O'Brien makes use of a standard list to describe what Rat Kiley carries, until he reaches the M&M's. M&M's are separated by a phrase, they are set apart; they receive special treatment. O'Brien is making clear to the reader that M&M's are not to be included in the normal list of things carried by a medic. M&M's are above and beyond simple medical gear. M&M's are for "especially bad wounds," they treat something more than bandages and tape can. O'Brien allows the reader to understand that M&M's have significance, and are very important to the soldiers. O'Brien's brief mention of M&M's allows us to wonder if when this magical cure is used. Does Rat Kiley administer M&M's to Tim when he is shot? Could M&M's have saved Rat when he goes insane? Are M&M's something so mystical that they don't even need to be mentioned? O'Brien creates M&M's to be a symbol of everything that the soldiers leave behind. To Kiowa, M&M's embody the spirit of his grandmother and the faith of his father. To Norman Bowker, M&M's mean as much as his medals mean to his father. To O'Brien, M&M's capture the spirit of a kind old man in Minnesota. M&M's are O'Brien's alternative symbol for "Mom and Apple Pie."
Another symbol that O'Brien uses is Mitchell Sanders' yo-yo, Sanders is playing with his yo-yo when Curt Lemon is killed.