Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in The Things They Carried

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried represents a compound documentary novel written by a Vietnam veteran, Tim O'Brien, in whose accounts on the Vietnam war one encounters graphical depictions of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Thus, the stories "Speaking of Courage," "The Man I Killed," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Enemies" and "Friends," "Stockings," and "The Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong "all encompass various examples of PTSD.

"The war was over and there was no place in particular to go" (157). Thoughts of sorrow and loss overwhelm the Vietnam veterans upon their return back home. Crushed from the horror of war, they come back to even bigger disappointments and sadness. Instead of the mellow lives they lead before they left their native country and the presence of warm and caring everyday life, most of them encounter empty beds, cold family ambiance and overall loss. Already physically and emotionally defeated, they find betrayal instead of recuperating trust. There is nothing to nourish their depleted and deprived psyches; they do not find anything to rely on. Even in instances of supportive partners, the inevitable horrors of the war haunt them in sleep or come back to them in daydreaming. They all came back with multitude of disorders, predominately with a post traumatic stress disorder with the common symptoms of recurring nightmares, hypersensitivity, avoidance behavior, and intrusive thoughts, feelings and memories-commonly found in war vets. The Things They Carried represents a compound documentary novel written by a Vietnam veteran, Tim O'Brien, in whose accounts on the Vietnam war one encounters graphical depictions of the PTSD. Thus, the stories "Speaking of Courage," "The Man I Killed," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Enemies" and "Friends, " "Stockings," and "The Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong "all encompass various examples of PTSD.

For Vietnam veterans, nothing could replenish the zest for life they had before the war. According to O'Brien's text, upon their arrival home the veterans imagine, even hallucinate, what things would have been like if they had not suffered through the war. Examples of such occurrences exist in the stories "Speaking of Courage" and "The Man I Killed." Norman Bowker in "Speaking of Courage" dreams and fancies of talking to his ex-girlfriend, now married to another guy, and of his dead childhood friend, Max Arnold. He lives out over and over his unfulfilled dream of having his Sally beside him and of having manly conversations with Max.

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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in The Things They Carried Essay

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He can not stop day dreaming and dwelling in the past. Unemployed and overwhelmed by inferiority and disappointment, Bowker lacks a motivating force for life. Emotionally stricken, he only finds satisfaction in driving slowly and repeatedly in circles around his old neighborhood in his father's big Chevy, "feeling safe," and remembering how things used to be when "there has not been a war" (158). These recurring events also spring memories of the beautiful lake where Norman used to spend a lot of time with his now married ex-girlfriend Sally Kramer and his high school friends. The lake invokes nostalgic and sentimental memories both of his girlfriend and his long gone - drowned - best friend, Max Arnold. However, now for Norman the past seems an idea, or like Max would say, that everything exists as a "possible...idea, even necessary as an idea, a final cause in the whole structure of causation" (158). Thus, his ex girlfriend, his friends, the lake, the gatherings, his father and all the rest exist as ideas in Norman's head now that all of his past exists only as flickering thoughts in a big jumbled chaos in his head. He only possesses the solitary capability of bragging about the medals he won or he should have won. Even that does not bring him comfort since he imagines talking to Sally: " 'How's it being married?' he might ask, and he'd nod at whatever she answered with, and he would not say a word about how he'd almost won the Silver Star for valor" (160).

Nothing fulfills Norman Bowker anymore. Instead, a terrible confusion has taken over his mind in the form of blur and chaos. He desperately needs someone to talk to: "If Sally had not been married, or if his father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk" (160). Unfortunately, he keeps questioning and answering himself in order to justify and compensate the loss and to make some sort of sense out of the entire situation. He loans to impress Sally with some dumb tricks of telling the exact time without even looking at a watch, just as much as he wishes for a father-son conversation, so that he can make his father proud, if nothing else, that his son won seven medals during the war. He does not have anybody to comfort him in moments of self-blame, for example when he can not forgive himself for not winning the Silver Star because he "couldn't take the goddamn awful smell" (162). He evokes the "shit experience" from his war days. He goes on to comfort himself, by pretending what considerate thoughts his father might have: "If you don't want to say anymore -," to which immediately Norman answers himself: "I do want to" (162). Furthermore, he tries to maintain calm and balance-minded while thinking of being camped in the shit field. He can not stop thinking of the cruel war incidents that he witnessed, and therefore, he can not forget the death of his friend Kiowa, who died in an explosion in the shit field: "There was a knee. There was an arm...There were bubbles where Kiowa's head should've been...He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste" (168, 172). Not only can Norman not stop thinking about the cruelties, but he also can not forgive himself for letting go of Kiowa because he blames himself for not being able to save his friend's life, of which as a consequence Norman did not win the Silver Star. It seems like Norman carries the shit experience with him for life:

He knew shit. It was his specialty. The smell, in particular, but also the numerous varieties of texture and taste. Someday he'd give a lecture on the topic. Put on a suit and tie and stand up in front of the Kiwanis club and tell the fuckers about all the wonderful shit he knew. Pass out samples, maybe (163). He could taste it. The shit was in his nose and eyes...and the stink was everywhere - it was inside him, in his lungs - and he could no longer tolerate it...he lay still and tasted the shit in his mouth. (168)

Other characteristics of the PTSD that capture the readers' attention in this story are Norman's inhibited social skills. Instead of placing a fast-food order through the drive-through intercom he honks at the waitress and once he gets his order, he does not move away until after he eats his hamburger and then presses the intercom again to inform the waiters that he finished his hamburger.

Analogously to the previous example and thematically similar to Bowker's ideal past, the author himself had an alike experience with the goriest parts of the war. O'Brien kills a young Vietnamese over which experience he can not get over. He dwells over the boy's dead body, contemplating what the boy's life was like and what it would have been like if the boy lived:

His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, there was slight tear at the lobe of one ear...the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips...his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him...He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier...and a scholar maybe...the man I killed would have been determined to continue his education in mathematics (139-143).

The guys go crazy in their unsuccessful attempts to maintain healthy balance of their minds and spirits. However, even though they might not realize it, or not at least at the time, most of the veterans end up loosing sanity. They act upon and laugh at the most bizarre things. In "How to Tell a True War Story," Rat Kiley thinks of "a gore [of] about twenty zillion dead gook fish" as the "the funniest thing in world history" (76). Furthermore, as a result of the post traumatic experience of seeing his nineteen-year-old best friend's - Curt Lemon - body being blown up into pieces by a grenade, Rat Kiley takes his anger out on a baby buffalo by shooting him pieces by pieces innumerable times. He shoots the animal, until "nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny black and dumb" at which Dave Jensen, one of the two who collected Lemon's body pieces off of the tree, gets childishly amused (86). Not realizing his new condition of mental imbalance, Dave Jensen goes on to make jokes and sing about the "Lemon Tree." Parallel to Dave Jensen's insanity, O'Brian - the second half of the bone and burned tissue collecting task - even after twenty years still gets woken up by the memories of this event: "Twenty years later I can see the sunlight on Lemon's face" (90). However, as a consequence of the PTSD, O'Brien both despises and values war:

War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead...It feels your eye. It commands you...After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. All around you things are purely living, and among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man...There is a kind of largeness [and] godliness to it...you're never more alive than when you're almost dead. You recognize what's valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all the might be lost...Right spills into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery...the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity...In war you lose your sense of the definite... (87, 88).

"How to Tell a True War Story" bemoans a tragedy of its own. A six-man patrol spend a week up into the mountains on a basic listening-post operation where they "get themselves deep in the bush, all camouflaged up, and they lie down and wait and that's all they do, nothing else, they lie there for seven straight days and just listen" (80). They "don't say boo for a solid week. They don't got tongues. All ears" (79). The author assesses this as one of the events where they absolutely loose sanity because they can not stand the spookiness of the silence in the jungle and its queer noises. As a result of that kind of nerve-racking paranoia, one guy even sticks Juicy Fruit in his ears, to prevent the nervousness. They finally lose it and even after they call in the air strikes which finish up all the noises and everything that was left in the jungle, there was "not a single sound, except they [the six soldiers] still hear it" (82). Later on, they would not say a word, as if they were deaf and dumb. Not even when the colonel questions them about what happened.

They just look at him for a while, sort of funny like, sort of amazed, and the whole war is right there in that stare. It says everything you can't ever say. It says, man you got wax in your ears. It says, poor bastard, you'll never know - wrong frequency - you don't even want to hear it. Then they salute the fucker and walk away, because certain stories you don't ever tell. (83)

This instance illustrates the ultimate example of a messed up psyche as a result of the war.

Not much better off are the protagonists of the event narrated in the joint stories "Enemies" and "Friends" - Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk, who get into a fist fight "about something stupid - a missing jackknife," of which as a result Lee Strunk ends up with a broken nose. However, Dave Jensen goes crazy over the fear of revenge and breaks his own nose in order to make things "square" between the two of them. One might think Jensen crazier than Strunk in this case until Strunk opens his mouth again to say: "The man is crazy...I stole his fucking jackknife" (68).

Another PTSD related issue appears in the story "Stockings." Even twenty years after, the author still can see one of his co-soldiers, Henry Dobbins, "wrapping his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush" (129). O'Brien talks of the pantyhose as a good-luck charm, into which Dobbins would put his nose and breath in the scent of his girlfriend's body or he would sleep with the stockings up against his face, "the way an infant sleeps with a flannel blanket, secure and peaceful" (130). O'Brien remembers the stockings as a talisman that kept Henry safe and a savor of superstition. The author conveys the idea of how strong the soldier's will sometimes was regardless of how crazy he becomes. Thus, even after Henry's break up with his girlfriend, Dobbins still ties the stockings around his neck as a comforter and believes that "the magic doesn't go away" (130).

The war did not leave a single individual emotionally untouched, regardless of gender. In the story "The Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong," O'Brien illustrates the effect of the war on a woman character. Mary Anne - a girlfriend of one of the soldiers, intrigued by the war, ends up joining the Green Barrettes. Thus, from a sweet and innocent sexy young blonde, Mary Anne acquires cruel almost cannibalistic features, wearing a necklace of human tongues and becomes thirsty for blood and ready to kill.

Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't even hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point? (O'Brien 88, 89).

Even though Tim O'Brien might not sound too convincing about the credibility of his own memories and narrative, the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder remains a scientific certainty. The results of the trauma suffered in the war together with the emotional baggage: grief, terror, love, and longing, report of all of the veterans' post war turmoil.


Works Cited

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