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Rumor Of War Essay, Research Paper

Summary of Symbolism Presented by ‘Vietnam/War’

In reading Philip Caputo’s book, “A Rumor of War,” I discovered that he strongly presented a similar idea to that of Tim O’Brien in his book, “The Things They Carried.” This is the idea that war can not bring or cause good, it only produces varying amounts of evil. Philip Caputo volunteered for the Marines because he was looking for a way to prove himself, and he saw the Marines as an honorable way to do so. He also originally saw the war as glorious. However, after he became a lieutenant, he soon found out that war is not as glorious as it is made to seem. He found himself fighting in the war not for the defense of his ideals or morals, but rather for his reputation, or as he puts it, “I was ready to die for considerably less [than medals], for a few favorable remarks in a fitness report. Words.” (35).

Tim O’Brien shares this feeling that war brings about only varying amounts of evil. He shows this in his book through his vignettes about the brutality of war, and his lack of vignettes about heroism. In fact, he believes that heroism cannot exist in war, because no good can come from war.

In this piece that I created, ‘Vietnam/War’, I drew mainly on the work of Philip Caputo as the basis for the imagery. He describes a scene from an officer’s club:

Murph McCloy and I were on the terrace of the Officers’ Club, drinking beer and admiring the view. The club stood atop a high hill, and the scene below was straight out of South Pacific, lacking only a lovesick Ezio Pinza singing to Mary Martin. A turquoise lagoon shimmered in the sun, mahogany-skinned fishermen paddled skiffs across its still surface, and beyond the barrier reef the bright expanse of the East China Sea stretched to the horizon. Content, we lay back in our deck chairs, the sun warm on our faces and the beer icy-cold in our hands.

“P.J., this sure is gracious living,” McCloy said. The telephone rang, and Sammy, the club’s Okinawan manager, popped out onto the terrace. “Any offasuh from the One-Three Battalion,” he paged, “call your OD right now!” (40)

This phone call officially put Philip Caputo’s battalion into the thick of the war.

In this piece, I have the background of a beautiful sunset on the water, a rather serene setting, seen through the leaves of trees. This picture is split by the fading of color from the upper-left to black and white in the lower-right. The lower-right side of my piece represents the starkness and desolation of war, the only color in it being a deep blood-red (red and black being traditionally symbolic colors of evil). The color side of this piece represents the beauty of Vietnam, as it was a very picturesque country with beautiful lagoons and scenery. But at the same time, it held the evil of the war that was going on within its borders. Looking closely, it is noticeable that the transition between the color and black and white sides is not a clear, sudden transition. The Vietnam War itself was uclear. Many people did not know who the real enemy was. People both supported and hated the war at the same time. It is also noticeable that there are grey edges creeping onto the leaves of the trees in the colorful side, but that there is not any color creeping into the black and white side. This is symbolic of the idea that there is no good that can come of war, but rather that war produces evil. It is also symbolic of the fact that the war will forever mark Vietnam as a place of dread and death for some people, so that its beauty is forever marred.

Vietnam recollections relive the war’s surreal horror


Written by Tim O’Brien.

Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence.

273 pages, $19.95.


THE VIETNAM WAR has produced a new generation of writers concerned with the American experience in Vietnam. Primarily, they are former foot soldiers who were down in the mud and mess, and who are now trying to write about what they saw and felt. The best of these authors include Larry Heinemann, Philip Caputo, and Tim O’Brien.

Tim O’Brien’s new book, The Things They Carried, is a highly personal collection of stories. The stories concern Tim O’Brien, a soldier 21-years-old patrolling Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam in 1968, and Tim O’Brien, a writer 43-years-old remembering the past. This is a work of fiction and, unlike a recent work (Philip Roth’s Deception), O’Brien does not make himself the main character in his book simply for effect but because, as he states, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” The surreal horror of the war in Vietnam can live again only in stories.

The stories in Vietnam are, at the same time, sharply immediate and filtered through memory. The first story, which lends its name to the book, starts as a list of the equipment that the average American foot soldier carried into battle. The list becomes longer in the end and encompasses the hopes, dreams, and fears that each man carried. The impression is one of weight, dragging them into the mud.

Another story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” is an indictment of the idea of war as an honorable pursuit: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

The soldiers that O’Brien marches with are fleshed out in these stories. He describes the camaraderie that develops between men who face death together and the callousness that appears when death takes a buddy. The men laugh and joke over a body while waiting for a chopper to take it away. A soldier methodically shoots bullets into a baby water buffalo — without killing it — after a friend dies. Another soldier becomes paralyzed when he kills a lone Viet Cong wandering through the jungle. A friend sinks and disappears completely into a muddy field that is a nearby village’s toilet. These scenes have the hallucinatory power of snapshots etched into memory.

Some of the stories don’t occur in Vietnam. They tell of O’Brien’s brush with courage as he almost flees to Canada; of his trying to explain his “obsession” with Vietnam to his nine-year-old daughter; and of the aftermath, the return home. The best of these is “Speaking of Courage,” which chronicles the lost, aimless feeling that a vet has when he returns to his home town and the guilt he feels for not saving a buddy in the war.

In a stunning follow-up called “Notes,” the author’s character persona turns the story into an anguished confession. And in the final story, “The Lives of the Dead,” a nine-year-old O’Brien learns the power of imagination in bringing a dead friend to life. This will have an eerie echo 34 years later when the writer brings to life his dead platoon buddies and let’s a young Vietnamese soldier pass by instead of taking his life.

One or two of the stories have the magical realism that O’Brien used with such success in his award-winning Going After Cacciato. These stories don’t really work in the realist framework that the author has established. However, The Things They Carried has the coherence and building narrative power of a novel. While uneven at times, it maintains the theme **

of dreamlike and painful remembrance throughout.

Copyright 1990 by The Tech. All rights reserved.

This story was originally published on Friday, April 27, 1990.

Volume 110, Number 22

The story was printed on page 8.

This article may be freely distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice, but may not be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Other stories in this issue

Necessity is a rather slippery concept in terms of definition. The notion of what an individual requires for his or her survival varies with the particular situation at any given time. These needs may intensify or become distorted as one finds himself in an increasingly dangerous situation, particularly a life-and-death one such as war. Such dire circumstances may provoke in an average person feelings of extreme vulnerability, and the desire to hold on to all that he can, not unlike a child’s instinct to grasp the nearest object in his search for comfort while in the throes of anxiety. Despite the fact that these “necessary” items or ideas that he clings to may impair or even threaten to destroy the person, abandoning them may seem impossible.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien displays necessity in its destructive aspects as well as its sustaining ones. It thoroughly examines the burdens of the soldiers and the effects these burdens have on a man in a life-threatening situation. But in his examination of these things that the men carry, O’Brien poses a puzzling question: do these “necessities” that the men carry on their backs and in their minds keep them alive, or lead to their own demise? In “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien examines the numerous facets of the concept of necessity and questions how truly necessary certain things really are.

The most obvious need of the men in the story is the supplies that they carry that will keep them physically alive. O’Brien makes this clear by listing every detail and accounting for every ounce of food, clothing and weaponry. He also establishes the importance by listing those items first in the story. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity,” he states on page 2, and he goes on to discuss rations, water, defensive clothing, and necessary sleep gear (2-3). But ironically, in this paragraph he also includes items such as Ted Lavender’s “six or seven ounces of premium dope,” Rat Kiley’s comic books, and Kiowa’s Bible and his distrust of the white man (2-3). This indicates the importance of these things to the men, no matter how ironic that may be, because obviously illicit drugs and comics are not necessary to the common man for physical survival purposes. But this irony suggests the desperation of the situation that the men faced, a situation that could place comics on the same level as food. Perhaps the emptiness that the men felt drove them to think that they had to carry all of these extra items to survive, because they filled the emotional void that was in their heads, created by the numbingly horrific violence of the war.

Another substantially detailed necessity of the men is their military supplies. O’Brien goes into minute detail, for literally pages, describing the supplies that the men used for defense purposes. Primarily, he lists the standard weaponry for war, the typical rifles, grenades, and defensive clothing such as the flak jacket and helmet (6- 7). He relates the enormous burden of weight that Ted Lavender was carrying when he was shot, and how that weight caused him to fall like “a big sandbag or something – just boom, then down.” (7) The next passage describes all of the extra weapons they carried, ranging from fragmentation grenades to brass knuckles and a feathered hatchet (8-9). The wide variety and diversity of the weapons the men carry indicate the tremendous need to kill, by any possible means. “They carried all that they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” (9)

These burdens – the supplies the men carried to stay physically alive – are placed on the same level in terms of description as the objects carried that provided emotional sustenance to the men of the platoon. O’Brien makes no distinction in terms of writing style between the discussion of food and weapons and that of good luck charms and reminders of home. This is clearly evidenced in the previously mentioned passage on page 4, when the discussion of the men’s habits and creature comforts are placed in the same paragraph as the lists of rations and sleep gear. Another extremely significant example of emotional sustenance is given in the descriptions of Lieutenant Cross’s attachment to Martha. He carries her letters and reads them daily (1-2), and his love for her, as well as the mystery of her feelings for him, drives him, keeps him going, and gives his life meaning. He also carries her photographs (5-6) and the pebble she sends him (9) as constant reminders of her.

But despite the limited weight that these possessions actually contain (the pebble is described as almost weightless on page 9), they prove to be huge burdens to Lieutenant Cross. They bring back memories, such as the night at the movies when Martha would not kiss him back, as well as stimulate constant fantasies at random times, such as when Lee Strunk was in the tunnel. “Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore. They were pressed together, and the pebble in his mouth was her tongue.” (12) He is unable to stay in touch with the reality before him because the fantasy world is much more bearable, and when Ted Lavender dies while Cross is thinking of only Martha (13), Cross feels that he must also now carry the guilt of loving Martha more than his men and allowing one of them to die.

The fact that there was little or nothing that Cross could do to prevent the shooting is apparently irrelevant to Cross, and this puzzles the reader. Cross’s thoughts of Martha had nothing to do with Ted Lavender’s death, and yet Cross feels the compulsion to associate them, which makes one wonder what other burdens Cross may be carrying internally that could provoke such unnecessary guilt. Perhaps it could be a predisposition to guilt, established as a response to the countless atrocities of the war with little emotion or thought attributed to them, such as the cutting of the VC corpse (13-4). But there is also some evidence pointing to the fact that Cross may be suffering from some psychological problems. Some of his thoughts are very disturbing, such as his desire to tie Martha down on a bed (6) and his fantasy of being crushed with her under the weight of the tunnel (12). O’Brien never lists these mental instabilities as a tangible burden that Cross carries, perhaps because there is no standard unit to measure the loss of the senses, but it is implied nonetheless.

Yet perhaps the greatest burden that the men felt the necessity to carry was the load of dignity. There was an unspoken need to stay tough, to maintain composure and not let the terror and the anxiety of a dire situation break through to the surface. At the most dangerous times, this panic may have shown, but not for long; “awkwardly, the men would reassemble themselves, first in private, then in groups, becoming soldiers again.” (19) They felt the need to cover up fear with humor, looking death in the face with a grin; “they used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness . . . as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself” (19-20).

O’Brien captures the meaning of this burden eloquently when he states, “they carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” (20-1) This was the fear that weighed the men down the most, because it was hidden, internal. They would only allow themselves to dream of freedom, but not really examine it as a possibility, for those who took the easy way out by wounding themselves were thought of with scorn and contempt, despite traces of envy that the men felt inside (21). These descriptions give the illusion that these internal burdens that the men carried were keeping them alive, were necessary.

Yet in light of Ted Lavender’s death, this can hardly be the case. O’Brien relates his death in detail again and again through Kiowa, who simply cannot comprehend the fact that Lavender fell to the ground with such force and absolute certainty.

But Ted Lavender, who was scared . . . went down under an exceptional burden, more than 29 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was dead weight. There was no twitching or flopping . . . not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins . . . Boom. Down. Nothing else. (7)

Ted Lavender collapsed under the burdens that he carried when he could carry them no more. O’Brien paints an interesting portrait of Ted, a deliberately vague description. He is not even alive within the narrative of the story; indeed, his death is a memory. Yet there are several significant details that are mentioned in the most offhand of ways. For example, he is described several times (including the passage above) as being “scared,” yet the reader is never told precisely what frightens him. He is also known as the drug carrier of the group, with dope and tranquilizers, causing the reader to wonder why he needed these drugs so badly. This is particularly evident when O’Brien is listing the “necessities” of the group such as food and water, and Ted’s dope is placed in the same part of the story (4). But besides these unlisted possible burdens, O’Brien goes to great pains to list every burden that he carried, and he suggests the unweighed fear, a concept that has not yet been examined at that point in the story and will not be until nearly the end. Lavender was so incredibly burdened with the things that he needed to stay alive that in the end, those “necessities” caused his downfall.

What, therefore, is O’Brien attempting to convey? The story is imbued with heavy irony, a weight that sends conflicting images to the reader and causes one to examine the realms of necessity. The entirety of the narrative consists of the objects and emotions that these men carry on a daily basis, things that they bear in order to ensure the survival of their bodies, minds, spirits, and sanities. Yet all of these things contribute to death and destruction. Ted Lavender collapses under the weight of a bullet, as well as all of the supplies on his back and the fear in his heart.

Another character who is clearly hurting under the weight of the things he feels he has to carry is Lieutenant Cross. Cross bears the emotional burden of his love for Martha, a love that he believes interferes with his duties and induces feelings of guilt and responsibility for the death of one of his men. In the end, Cross must leave the burden of his love behind, as he realizes that it is not sustaining him, but destroying him. The unrequited love is simply too much for him to bear, so he burns Martha’s letters and resigns to get rid of the pebble (23-4). This scene is faintly reminiscent of Christ at Gesthemane, for Cross is alone and suffering great anxiety of spirit as his friends sleep. The reader clearly sees the cross of emotional desolation and guilt that rests across his shoulders. With this scene of Cross’s recognition of the crushing burden of his love for Martha, O’Brien reveals the symbolism of Cross’s name. Fittingly, Cross is the one to realize the magnitude of the burdens that the men carry. “It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.” (24) His name obviously symbolizes his own personal burdens that have been masked as “necessary,” as well as those of the men who trudged alongside of him.

O’Brien takes the idea of necessity and examines it from every angle, finally coming to the conclusion that the magnitude of the things that men may think they need can become too much to bear. He examines not only the great physical strain that is placed on the men as they carry their supplies on their backs, but the mental and emotional difficulties that weigh them down immeasurably. His portraits of Ted Lavender and Lieutenant Cross particularly display these intangible burdens: Ted through the vague description of his apparently troubled lifestyle and his own tragic downfall, and Cross through his elaborately described love and anguish that he feels about Martha. O’Brien makes a statement when he allows Ted to die while Cross lives, possibly implying that in order to survive in a desperate situation, one must actually let go of some of the things that he may think he needs to fill the emptiness in his own life. He makes us question our own lives and the things that we may think we need to live, and precisely what holes they may fill. Cross’s insight near the end of the story is profound; it is indeed sad, the things that people feel they must bear. Perhaps when one feels the most needy is the time when he must free himself from those excesses that weigh him down and become like the soldiers in their dreams; “they gave themselves over to lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne” (22).

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