The Things We Carry

By Jocelyn HeaneyNovember 18, 2011

The Things We Carry
Photograph:  Soldier Reading a Book by JoAnn S. Makinano, April 8, 2007 (DOD 070408-F-5855M-080)

MIKE WOULDN'T SIT WITH HIS BACK to the door: "I can never be sure who is on the other side," he explained. I'd seen this before with my cousin Frankie, a veteran of Vietnam. Once at lunch, Frankie switched chairs so he could face the windows of the quiet Santa Monica café I'd taken him to. Twenty years later, in a junior college classroom, Mike sat next to me in the circle of desks where I'd gathered the students to discuss Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried. Once Mike had a clear view of the front and back doors, we continued.

We were analyzing the oft-anthologized chapter "How to Tell a True War Story" in which O'Brien debunks the simplistic myths of heroism fed to Americans through Westerns and war films, replacing redemptive clichés with his definitions of a true war story: "A true war story makes the stomach believe ... shows its absolute allegiance to obscenity and evil." A character named Mitchell Sanders tells his own "true" war story about a group of soldiers sent on a "listening post" in the mountains where they are eventually driven crazy by the silence, and by their own inability to express their fear. "They can't joke it away," Mitchell explains.

"Let's start with Mitchell's story of the six-man-patrol," I said. I glanced at Mike's book. I couldn't tell whether he'd read beyond the chapter or opened a page at random. "In five seconds," he announced, tipping his chin to indicate the back door, "I could be out of this chair, kicking the door down and shooting whoever's on the other side." The other students stared at their books or looked at me with expectant, nervous faces. Many of them had brothers, cousins, or friends that had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe Mike was saying something they'd heard before, or voicing things their own loved ones could never say.

Finally Luis raised his hand.

"The silence makes them think," he offered.

"Think about what?" I asked.

Luis studied the page.

I suddenly felt afraid to proceed into the fog, the moral ambiguity of the mountains, to jump straight into the minds of these men driven to the brink of sanity by memory and conscience, by facing their inner demons in the dark.

"Review O'Brien's definitions of a true war story," I suggested. "See if you might relate one of them to Mitchell's story."

Hazel scanned the page and raised her hand. "I think the soldiers miss home. That's why they hear the cocktail party sounds."

I nodded softly, waiting for someone else to pick up the thread. Mike leaned forward into the circle, as if toward a crackling fire, his leg jiggling restlessly. He spoke in a disconnected, factual way.

"The first time you see a head rolling down the street ... it's like ... you can't even believe it. It's awful. But the fifth or sixth time, you just kick it like a football." He smiled a little, a shameful grin that wriggled across his lips and disappeared. "No big deal. It feels like a watermelon."

I wondered if O'Brien's words, like explosive devices hidden in the humid jungles, had triggered these awful images, or if Iraq simply played forever in Mike's head, a fractured repetitive loop.

I imagined a choice of facile, idiotic responses: When you write your paper on O'Brien, remember not to use "I"? Or maybe "Well, Mike, that story fits O'Brien's definition of a true war story, it's obscene, stomach churning, immoral and ... " Instead I turned to him and said: "You've seen things that none of us can imagine, things you never should have had to see." A few students nodded solemnly. Besides my love of the book, I taught  The Things They Carried to make these endless wars visible. If they'd been erased, to some extent, in the culture, they could come alive in the classroom, I thought. Mike looked at me or through me as I continued. "I know it must be incredibly painful, but if you want to write about your experiences, connecting them to O'Brien or not, you should. I don't have to, but I could read them if you'd like."

Mike nodded. I suddenly felt squeamish, as if I'd overstepped some boundary. Why should I presume that writing would help contain such nightmares? I was only an underpaid, overworked adjunct, and by "professionalizing" Mike's revelations, trying to funnel them into a therapeutic assignment, I suddenly felt privileged, sheltered, out of touch.




What exactly can we expect literature to do? As a community college English instructor, the use and abuse of literature is less an erudite debate to me than an urgent everyday reality. I am trying to teach my students to "use" literature correctly: teach them, that is, not just to read and write up to a certain standard, but to be able to have the kind of transformative experience that literature can provide.

This is not to say that my students come into my classroom unable to understand or appreciate literature — many of them do.

The problem for me is how to encourage individuals who may not ever open a book again to understand that the possession of a more literate, critical consciousness can change their experience of the world. In  The Use and Abuse of Literature one of Marjorie Garber's central goals is to "invoke and demonstrate the 'uses' of reading and of literature not as an instrument of moral or cultural control, nor yet as an infusion of 'pleasure' but rather as a way of thinking." Building on Oscar Wilde's proclamation that "all art is quite useless," Garber believes that "the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute." Yet, literature's uselessness doesn't mean that it is merely aesthetic, entertaining, or as my students are fond of saying, "an escape."

Garber contends that "although literature is properly useless, the experience of reading it produces essential, and irreplaceable, cultural effects." The burden of Garber's argument lies in examining these essential and irreplaceable effects, and as brilliant as  The Use and Abuse of Literature is, it must be said that Garber doesn't entirely achieve her goal. For example, she emphasizes that it is essential to talk about how literature means rather than what or even why it means. Indeed, it's hard to resist Garber's rallying cry in our increasingly illiterate age:


A manifesto for literary studies will claim for it an unapologetic freestanding power to change the world by reading what is manifest, and what is latent, within and through the language of the text.


If we want to change the world through literature, certainly we must talk about its potential in plain, emphatic language; but how much can art "change the world"? While poetry, music, photography, and painting might be catalysts, profound wellsprings of inspiration and motivation, how can we measure their world-altering effects? Surely this part of the discussion also belonged in Garber's book. What does "change" mean? Eradicate poverty? Redefine our notions of art? Change the basic DNA of human nature so there is no more war?

In  The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien recognizes that a true war story "is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest proper models of human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done." Yet the last chapter of the book begins with this line: "This too is true. Stories can save us." Stories have helped O'Brien order the enduring emotional chaos of Vietnam to articulate its trauma (although he is careful to remind us that he does not think of writing as therapy) and to revive the dead through the dream work of stories, to temporarily conquer time and space. However, art also triumphs by reminding us that ultimately there is no salvation. As Rilke wrote in "The First Elegy" of The Duino Elegies: "For there is no remaining / no place left to stay."

Garber's final chapter, "The Impossibility of Closure," comes closest to tackling these issues. She uses psychoanalysis to examine how closure is sought and defined in literature and criticism. One of her main assertions here is that "the really interesting questions do not have final answers." Why do we suffer? What happens when we die? Literature's refusal to offer pat resolutions to life's most profound difficulties is one of its greatest consolations and the key to its life-changing potential, as O'Brien's work so beautifully articulates.  The Things They Carried has transformed many of my students' lives. Some, but not all, of these students had been soldiers themselves. For a few, the novel itself was merely a catalyst that revived their own stories — they may have done little more than skim the text. The novel allowed others to articulate their experiences in the Middle East, their conflicted feelings about serving their country. Some of these feelings recall what Michael Herr described in Dispatches as the inability "to reconcile ... love of service with ... contempt for war." While no civilian could ever fully understand the specific burden of those nightmares, O'Brien helped me feel the physical and emotional heaviness of flak jackets, Bibles, and the fear of killing and dying. My war veteran students told me that, despite the gulf of years, "the things" that soldiers carried remained essentially the same.


Marisa raised her hand, and posed that inevitable question that short-circuited all discussions. "What's our essay question? I don't get the end when Mitchell says that quiet is the moral of his story."

"That's exactly what you guys are writing on," I said. "Remember Mitchell likes to find a moral for every story. When he cuts the thumb off the dead boy in the ditch, he insists there is a moral attached."

"Once," Mike said slowly, "once in Iraq we found a pregnant lady on the side of the road. She'd been shot. I put my ear to her chest. She was dead. But I could still hear the heart of the baby beating inside. We wanted to save the baby. We tried but we couldn't."

A moment passed. I pictured Mike, a slight 20-year-old, kneeling in a dusty road with his ear against the dead woman's breast. Again, I wanted to say something profound, but my mind went blank. "That's really awful," I finally managed. Then I remembered something O'Brien had said, in the chapter we'd just been discussing and felt a little better. "And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story but "Oh."

There have been many others like Mike over the years — men and women, but mostly men — each of whom bore their trauma differently. I remember a sweet guy named Hector whose eyes filled up when I asked, "How can a war story be like a love story?" Brave Hector, who always raised his hand, who had such a pure and lovely smile. He smiled even as tears streamed silently down his cheeks and he tapped the page with his fingertip, as if the novel were a map where he'd at last located his lost friends.

I remember Vanessa, a pretty athletic Marine who wrote passionate papers on animal rights, who joined the military because her father told her "girls don't do that kind of thing," and longed to return to Afghanistan "to help the women there." It was important for a female Marine to be present to conduct body searches on Afghan women, she explained, to make them feel comfortable.

"The women showed me pictures of their children. Even the men in the village started to trust me." Vanessa hoped, through her service, that she might encourage some of these men to "see women differently." I could only tell Vanessa how much I admired her selflessness and courage — and that I wished she wouldn't go.

Victor was a smart, serious man in his late thirties. Victor revealed that he too had been assigned to a listening post like the men in Mitchell Sanders' story. He and his fellow soldier had dug a trench in the middle of the night — all night — the two of them lying next to each other, in total silence, cradling their weapons.

"Just watching the darkness."

Unlike O'Brien's unknown — the impenetrable fog and mountains, the dense triple canopies of jungle — Victor said Iraq at night felt like "being on the surface of the moon — just rocks and sand and quiet. "When you're outside of the city, you can see the whole sky. So many stars." He smiled. "I miss it."

The next day we discussed a chapter called "Ambush," and in the middle of the following night, Victor sent me an email. He told me how much he loved the book and how much horror it had revived in him.

"Jocelyn, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, or screaming. I go to the closet and grab my M-16. I stand by the door, just shaking all over. I'm so sorry for telling you this...."

He went on to talk about the chapter "Speaking of Courage," in which a soldier named Norman Bowker returns from Vietnam to an indifferent Midwestern town, where he is nearly invisible. Norman, whose own silence and loneliness is too much for him to carry, eventually hangs himself without even leaving a note. "Sometimes I worry, Jocelyn," Victor wrote. "I don't want to end up like Norman."

I sat for a long time reading Victor's email before I replied. I don't remember what I said — something about how the book must be a source of great comfort and great pain. I promised just to listen, if that's what he needed. I didn't want him to end up like Norman either.

As much as I liked to congratulate myself on literature's healing potential, I had to take a certain responsibility for the dangers it unleashed. The sorrow and terror of these men was nothing I could assuage. I could only give them a story, and hope that as much as it might ignite their grief, it also might remain inside them, a presence that spoke to them as it had to me, making them a little less lonely, less afraid.



What remains? In the compelling new book The Humanities and the Dream of America, Geoffrey Galt Harpham explores the history of the humanities and their sense of mission. In a series of linked essays, Harpham traces the evolution of the humanities as an academic discipline and as a particularly American phenomenon. Harpham is concerned not only with the history of the humanities, but its relation to the American dream and its role in creating thinking, feeling, and democratic citizens. Harpham extols the virtues of the literature and language, but he is more specific than Garber about the effects of these virtues:

Other disciplines offer knowledge about things; the humanities offer knowledge about human beings, and thus imply a promise of more than information, an awakened understanding of oneself as a member of the human species, a heightened alertness to the possibilities of being human. 

However, like Garber he locates the power of the humanities in their refusal to conform: "The humanities remain themselves unresolved, and thereby keep open the promise of a kind of knowledge that cannot be either divorced from or reduced to information." Harpham opens and closes his book with two stories of teaching the humanities in vastly different arenas and how these cultural contexts affect meaning. In the introduction, "The Humanities as a Foreign Language," the author is giving a series of lectures at Turkish universities and in the final chapter, "The Depths of the Heights: Reading Conrad with America's Military," Harpham travels to the rightwing enclave of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Colorado Springs he describes as "an inverted Heart of Darkness where instead of going deeper in toward the horror, you ascend to space and light ... the skies are open above you ... the air is clean and light." He has been invited by the Air Force Academy to lead a seminar on Conrad's masterpiece with faculty from the Academy's humanities department. Harpham wonders about the "Conradian implications" of the seminar he has agreed to teach and he begins to feel like Marlow, entrusted with a mission he's not sure he can entirely endorse. "Everything in [Conrad's] text has, it seems, a 'heart' that both negates and expresses it" — and Harpham's role, teaching colonels, majors, captains and civilian professors, is equally complex:

I was an academic going to lead a seminar. An innocent undertaking — but what, precisely, was my job, in its deepest essence? Specifically, what was my relation to the war in which, the nation, with the assistance of the Air Force Academy was currently engaged? Was my real assignment to "humanize" the military at a time when the conduct of the war was widely seen as degrading? Which of us was the agent of enlightenment — the military that was hard at work creating conditions of democracy in a distant land or me? Was I supposed to "darken" the imperial mission by introducing doubt, fiction, language and the exposure of ideology into a scene of unreflective patriotism?

Like Harpham, I often wonder what my role is supposed to be. When discussing war literature with ex-soldiers, what can I offer when they know so much more about the reality of combat and the insanity of war than I do? Who is the one bringing knowledge here? Am I reading O'Brien to show my students a stylized version of their own experience, or would the whole enterprise be much more effective if they tried to help me understand the reality of day-to-day life in the combat zones?


Earlier this year Tim O'Brien and Tobias Wolff spoke at Stanford University about Writing and War. At the end of the conversation a student who was studying International Relations asked O'Brien a question. She started by referencing Norman Bowker's suicide in "Speaking of Courage" and asked O'Brien if he thought there were any tools that could be given to people with PTSD, the way that he'd had writing to cope with the lingering trauma of war. O'Brien said this:

Well, I have a quite unpopular view on this, a great minority view and I'm kind of afraid to say this, but I'll say it. I worry that there's enough trauma. There's too little. After combat, suicide, despair, frustration, broken families and psychiatric commitments, it seems to me that we as humans heal too well, too thoroughly and too quickly.

I think you're nuts if you came back from what I went through and you aren't nuts. A little bit. You're crazy if you don't have latent anxiety. If you don't have anger issues I think you're crazy. You're not human. I feel that one of the ways to deal with trauma is to be traumatized to acknowledge I was hurt. And I'm still hurting. And to acknowledge what I did to hurt other people. There are 3 million Vietnamese we haven't even mentioned tonight that suffered a little bit that aren't even part of our discourse. We don't talk about them when we talk about our veterans having troubles. The Iraqis have their troubles too and the Afghans have theirs. And it seems so self-centered, so egocentric to focus only on our own concerns. That bothers me. I'm not sure you should cure certain things. I don't know if they are curable, but if they are, I'm not sure that you should. Suicide, of course, you should talk someone out of it. But I don't think late night anxiety and depression ought to be entirely cured. I know it's not a popular view, but I'll go to the grave defending it.


In the summer of 2011, I taught a remedial English class at Glendale College. I didn't use O'Brien, but instead relied on a textbook with essays about the power of images. But war stories were never far away.

Each day I gave the students prompts from which they were to write two pages. One day, I assigned an exercise in point of view: Write two pages from the perspective of someone who has just committed a murder. Do not mention the murder.

A few students panicked.

"Can I say blood or knife?"

"Do I mention the body?"

Others simply started to write.

Lee sported a shaved head and two arms decorated with colorful tattoos. He sat in the back of the class and had an easy humor about him. Lee had been a Marine and gone to Iraq twice. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of that experience, he remained the least jaded, sweetest and most fearless out of all my students. When a discussion on photography somehow spun off into a debate about the existence of true love, most of the students flatly rejected the reality of such a notion. Lee proudly testified in favor of soul mates, and destiny.

As the class tried to project themselves into the mind of a murderer, I wondered if this was an insensitive topic. But while I was worrying, Lee was writing.

When I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to read, Lee's hand shot up. He cleared his throat.

"A Murderer's Perspective," he began.

It's 2200. The hooch is surprisingly quiet. By this time we should be doing our normal routine — playing cards or sleeping. But tonight we all just lie in our racks, some even writing letters home as if nothing is different. I guess we're just trying to make sense of what happened earlier this morning. The images are short, but still very clear in my head. We're here for a reason, right? We're doing something great for our country, right? Our cause is greater. Our families would miss us more if we were gone.

As I lie here in silence, I wonder how I am going to be able to sleep, if every time I close my eyes I see it replaying in my head. I know I'm not the only one feeling this, so why hasn't anyone else come to me and talked about it? Do we all have a different perspective about what happened, or are we all thinking the same thing? Could we have handled it a different way? Was there really no other option?

In a split-second, you have no choice but to act on your first instinct. In these situations, it's "One Shoot, One Kill." I was not the only one who acted with such poise, such aggression. We are not here on vacation. We are just doing our job. Then why are my heart and mind in such conflict?

My brother to my left and right are okay. Their lives are way more important to me than some stranger's. We are often told, "Don't die for your country. Let some other motherfucker die for his," and that's what we did.

The next day Lee typed up the story and gave it to me. In the bottom corner written in pencil, were the words "By Lee."

Language, Marjorie Garber tells us, has the power to change the world. Stories, Tim O'Brien claims, can save us. Not because stories tie up the grief and loss in a tidy moral, but because language refuses to limit itself to a single meaning. This is what O'Brien means when he says, "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." The story may or may not save us, but it is malleable enough to encompass the range of our experience, with all of its beauty and brutality, resilient enough to give shape and voice to unanswerable things. Perhaps all writing is an infinite rephrasing of only few questions.

If, as Harpham suggests, the humanities are "the cultivation of an informed conscience, a habit of reflection ... a consideration of historical contexts and ethical concerns..." does this knowledge not imply some responsibility for "worldly action"? The English Department at the Air Force Academy, Harpham writes, instills in its cadets "an appreciation for the culture they have promised to defend, even as they carry out the violence that culture occasionally requires." One seminar student, a lieutenant with a Ph.D. in English, put the academy's mission in slightly starker terms:

What we try to do to train...reluctant killers. We teach them how to do things that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. We train them to do things they would never do if the nation hadn't ask it of them. And even though the nation asks it, and no matter how disciplined they are, they will be haunted by what they have done. And they have to be. If they aren't we've only trained... murderers without a conscience.

Immediately I thought of Lee's piece, "A Murderer's Perspective." I assume my English class was one of Lee's first forays into the humanities, but I remember the cruder forms of "cultural appreciation" that had been inculcated in him: that American lives matter more than Iraqi lives, that the families of dead Iraqis will miss their sons less than American families will. And the patriotic clichés twisted into bitter humor: "Don't die for your country. Let the other motherfucker die for his."

In Harpham's book, many of the officers had a solid grounding in the Humanities before they engaged in war. What about the soldiers who study the humanities only after combat? How differently might the "humanizing mission" of literature, of history, or art feel to them?

But whether a soldier's immersion in the humanities comes before or after combat, Harpham brilliantly locates where the burden of such knowledge falls:

[T]he real burden of the humanities, as opposed to their manifold pleasures and benefits, does not fall on professors, students, or the culture-loving population in general. That burden is allocated to those whom society charges with the conscience-testing task of sanctioned killing.

In a democracy with a volunteer military, the weight falls on that small number of people who have chosen to bear it by enlisting. For them it is, as Marlowe puts it, always "a choice of nightmares." For the rest of us, [...] the flights are all simulated.

While writing this piece, I slipped Lee's story into the pages of my ragged first copy of The Things They Carried. This decade old edition is held together with rubber bands, its pages dotted with asterisks and underlining of various colors, expansive marginal notes. Turning those browning pages I feel the excitement of my early discoveries. At the end of English 120, I recommended that Lee read The Things They Carried. I remembered Lee's description: "The images were still very clear in my head." Would O'Brien's images, in turn, ease the weight on the young man's conscience, or increase it? And which of these would be a proper "use" of literature? As Lee wrote, remembering that eerie quiet in the barracks, "I guess we're all just trying to make sense of what happened."

LARB Contributor

Jocelyn Heaney earned an MFA in Poetry from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is currently at work on a memoir.


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