Essay on The Guilt They Carried in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Essay on The Guilt They Carried in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

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The Guilt They Carried in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried


In the aftermath of a comparatively minor misfortune, all parties concerned seem to be eager to direct the blame to someone or something else. It seems so easy to pin down one specific mistake that caused everything else to go wrong in an everyday situation. However, war is a vastly different story. War is ambiguous, an enormous and intangible event, and it cannot simply be blamed for the resulting deaths for which it is indirectly responsible. Tim O’Brien’s story, “In the Field,” illustrates whom the soldiers turn to with the massive burden of responsibility for a tragedy. The horrible circumstances of war transform all involved and tinge them with an absurd feeling of personal responsibility as they struggle to cope.

The death of Kiowa is the point in this story, and arguably the entire novel, where the true nature of war becomes evident. His death in any situation would have been tragic, and camping in that “shit field” alone would have been an emotionally scarring experience; however, that these events had to coincide in time only multiplies the gravity of the situation. Interestingly, every soldier has his own way of grappling with such overwhelming feelings of grief for his highly-esteemed comrade. Yet what every man has in common is that in the end he concludes that he alone is the one ultimately responsible for Kiowa’s death.

Take Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, for example. Although he had no desire to be in Vietnam, not to mention be leading troops there, it is evident that he is selfless in the pursuit of the war, and genuinely concerned about the welfare of his men. Unfortunately, he is blinded by guilt to these qualities.

“Looking out toward the ...


... middle of paper ...


...ll is not merely a phenomenon, but an unquestionable force which acts upon these young men beset by the war.

These men are transformed into guilt-laden soldiers in less than a day, as they all grapple for a way to come to terms with the pain of losing a comrade. In an isolated situation, removed from the stressors, anxieties, and uncertainties of war, perhaps they may have come to a more rational conclusion as to who is deserving of blame. But tragically, they cannot come to forgive themselves for something for which they are not even guilty. As Norman Bowker so insightfully put it prior to his unfortunate demise, war is “Nobody’s fault, everybody’s” (197).

WORKS CITED

Neilson, Jim. Warring Fictions: American Literary Culture and the Vietnam War Narrative. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1998

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1990.

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