The Things They Carried is a collection of twenty-two stories chronicling the author, Tim O'Brien's, recollections of his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War. While O'Brien admits in the book to often blurring the line between fact and fiction, the names of the characters in the book are those of real people. Since it is a collection of stories rather than a novel, there is not a traditional narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet, the entire collection functions as a self-contained work because it is so loyal to its themes and characters.
"The Things They Carried:" This story introduces the reader to O'Brien's platoon leader, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The story travels between Cross' infatuation with a girl named Martha that he's in love with based on a single date in college, the death of the soldier Ted Lavender, and an itemized chronicle of what the men carried at war, from supplies, to tokens of luck, to emotions.
"Love:" Jimmy Cross visits Tim O'Brien long after the war has ended and they swap war stories over a bottle of gin. The topic of Martha comes up, and Cross confesses that he still loves her. He tells the story of how he saw Martha at a college reunion after the war. She had never married. Cross asks O'Brien to write a story about him that makes him appear to be the best platoon leader ever, hoping Martha would read it and find him.
"Spin:" A story of Tim O'Brien's fragmented memories from the war. Mitchell Sanders sends his body lice to his hometown draft board. Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins play checkers every night. O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen, says he should stop writing so many war stories. O'Brien recalls Kiowa teaching Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen a rain dance. Ted Lavender adopted a puppy that Azar blew up. Kiowa told O'Brien he had no choice but to kill the armed man on the path. O'Brien says he must write stories because that's all that's left when memory is gone.
"On the Rainy River:" Before going to Vietnam, Tim O'Brien decides to dodge the draft, and he drives north to Canada but stops near the border at The Tip Top Lodge, owned by an old man named Elroy Berdahl. O'Brien credits Berdahl with being "the hero of his life." O'Brien spends six days at the Lodge, trying to decide whether or not to flee. Berdahl takes him out on a boat so he's only yards away from Canadian soil. O'Brien feels forced to go to war for fear of embarrassing himself and his family, more than he fears death.
"Enemies:" Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get in a brutal fight over a stolen jackknife where Jensen breaks Strunk's nose. After Strunk returns from a few days in medical care, Jensen becomes paranoid that Strunk will retaliate by killing him. Jensen isolates himself for a week, and eventually loses it and starts shooting his gun in the air until he's out of ammo. Then he breaks his own nose with a pistol and asks Strunk if they're even. Strunk says they are.
"Friends:" Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk become friends after their fight and start doing everything in pairs. They make a pact and sign it that reads one is obligated to kill the other if one is harmed so badly in battle that they would be wheelchair bound. Later that month, Strunk gets most of his right leg blown off in combat. As the soldiers wait for a medic chopper, Strunk comes in and out of consciousness begging for Jensen not to kill him. Jensen promises he won't. Strunk dies in the chopper, and Jensen appears relieved.
"How to Tell a True War Story:" O'Brien writes that war stories have no moral, they are often not true (at least completely), and if a story is true you can tell by the kinds of questions a story gets after it's told. O'Brien tells the story of Rat Kiley's reaction to Curt Lemon's death as an example, as well as Mitchell Sanders' story about a platoon of soldiers that started having auditory hallucinations. When O'Brien tells the story of Lemon's death, usually an older woman will say it's too sad, and O'Brien resolves he has to keep telling the stories and adding to them to make them truer.
"The Dentist:" Curt Lemon, a soldier that Tim O'Brien didn't particularly because of his hyper-macho personae, is eulogized in a quick story. Lemon enjoyed combat and was known for his dangerous antics, but he was terrified of the Army dentist that all of the soldiers had to see. When the dentist touched him, Lemon fainted. When he came to, he spent the rest of the day in a stupor, cursing himself. In the night, Lemon woke the dentist and forced him to pull out a perfectly healthy tooth.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong:" O'Brien tells a story that Rat Kiley told him from when he was stationed in an isolated area. There was so little action there that one soldier, Mark Fossie, snuck his girlfriend Mary Anne Bell in by helicopter. Things don't go as Fossie planned, though, because Bell becomes infatuated with the war, leaves Fossie, and joins the Green Berets in battle.
"Stockings:" Henry Dobbins, a loveable, gentle-giant, had a peculiar ritual of wrapping his girlfriend's stockings around his neck before dangerous missions. At first Dobbins was made fun of, but then the platoon started to believe in the power of the stockings because Dobbins was never hurt in battle, even when he was standing in open fire and stepped on a mine that didn't go off. When Dobbins' girlfriend breaks up with him, he still wears the stockings and says the magic didn't leave.
"Church:" The platoon uses a pagoda where two monks live as an operations base for a week. The two monks like the soldiers, but they particularly love Henry Dobbins. Dobbins tells Kiowa he might become a monk after the war, but confesses he could never be a minister because he can't answer the hard questions about life and death. Kiowa, who always carries the New Testament, doesn't feel that it's right that they're using a church as a base. Dobbins agrees.
"The Man I Killed:" The story goes back and forth between O'Brien's memories of the corpse of the young, armed man he threw a grenade at on a path outside of My Khe and the invented history O'Brien has created of the dead man as a mathematician, scholar, and terrified soldier. Kiowa keeps insisting that O'Brien quit staring at the body and talk to him.
"Ambush:" O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen, asks him if he's ever killed anyone. He lies and says he hasn't, but then addresses the story to an adult Kathleen and promises to give the truth. He recalls the image of the young man outside of My Khe and how the memory haunts him still, but in his memories the young man keeps walking down the path and survives.
"Style:" A young Vietnamese girl dances in the charred remains of her village. Azar keeps asking why she is dancing. From where her house was, the soldiers find the corpses of the girl's family. She continues to dance. Later, when the soldiers have left the village, Azar dances like the girl in a mocking way. Henry Dobbins picks up Azar and holds him over a well, threatening to drop him if he won't stop and "dance right."
"Speaking of Courage:" Follows Norman Bowker at home after he returns from the war to the Unites States on the Fourth of July. Bowker drives repeatedly around a lake in his hometown, reminiscing about the night Kiowa died. He remembers seeing Kiowa's boot and trying to pull but Kiowa was too stuck so Bowker fled. Bowker has convinced himself he would have won the Silver Star if he had pulled Kiowa out, and that Kiowa would still be alive. Bowker feels like he has no one to talk to, and imagines telling his father that he was a coward. He imagines his father consoling him with the many medals he did win. Bowker wades into the lake and watches the fireworks.
"Notes:" A post-script for the story "Speaking of Courage." O'Brien tells the background of how "Speaking of Courage," came to be when Norman Bowker sent him a seventeen page letter, ultimately asking him to write a story about a man like him who feels he died after the war. O'Brien feels guilty and compelled to oblige, and writes a version of "Speaking of Courage" that he publishes, sends to Bowker, but is not truly proud of. Bowker doesn't react well to the story because it was doctored to fit into O'Brien's novel and lacks the truth of what happened to Kiowa in Vietnam. O'Brien hopes the story will speak to his failure to protect Kiowa and to Bowker's courage.
"In the Field:" Chronicles the search to find Kiowa buried under the muck after enemy mortar rounds killed him. The story is split between Lieutenant Jimmy Cross' guilt fueling his conviction to write Kiowa's father a letter, the young soldier (O'Brien) who feels he killed Kiowa by turning on his flashlight in the dark to show him a picture of his girlfriend, and the men of the platoon who eventually pull Kiowa out.
"Good Form:" O'Brien toys with the function of Truth in storytelling, and how there are different kinds of truth in a story, particularly a war story. There is story-truth and happening-truth. He claims he wouldn't be lying if he said he killed the young man outside of My Khe but he also wouldn't be lying if he claimed he did not kill him.
"Field Trip:" O'Brien takes his ten-year-old daughter Kathleen with him to Vietnam. With a translator, they visit the field where Kiowa died. The field looks different than O'Brien remembers. He wades out into the water and buries the pair of Kiowa's moccasins where he believes Kiowa's rucksack was found. His daughter Kathleen asks about the old farmer staring at O'Brien and thinks he looks angry, but O'Brien says that's all over.
"The Ghost Soldiers:" O'Brien recalls the two bullets he caught in Vietnam. Rat Kiley immediately treated the first bullet, while the second nearly killed him because the new medic, Bobby Jorgenson, was in shock while the platoon was under fire. O'Brien wants revenge on Jorgenson, but only Azar will help him try to scare the medic. They try to terrify Jorgensen one night by pretending to be the enemy, but Jorgenson doesn't scare and O'Brien is forced to let go of his grudge when they agree they're even.
"Night Life:" A second-hand account of how Rat Kiley shot his own foot to get out of the line of duty. The platoon had heard rumors of an imminent enemy attack, and only operated by walking at night. Everyone was affected, but Rat Kiley started to lose it. After he shot his foot, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross told the chopper that carried him away it had been an accident.
"The Lives of the Dead:" O'Brien compares his Vietnam wartime experiences with the death of his childhood sweetheart, Linda, who died of a brain tumor when she was nine. Hers was the first dead body O'Brien ever saw. He says that stories keep their subjects alive, and in this way Linda can live forever.