The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried The Ghost Soldiers Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
O'Brien was shot twice. The first time was near Tri Binh and he landed on Rat Kiley's lap, which was fortunate because Rat was a medic. Kiley tied a compress onto O'Brien, told him to stay back, and then he ran back into combat. O'Brien praises Rat's bravery and skill.
Rat Kiley's competence and lack of fear comfort O'Brien when he fears he might be dying.
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When O'Brien returned to Alpha Company in December twenty-six days after he was shot, Rat Kiley had been wounded and taken to Japan. The replacement medic was Bobby Jorgenson. Jorgenson was new, terrified, and "incompetent." When O'Brien was shot the second time in the butt, Jorgenson took ten minutes to get to O'Brien because he had been too afraid to crawl over in the firefight. By the time Jorgenson reached O'Brien he was in severe pain, and it was later found out O'Brien nearly died of shock. Jorgenson didn't do a good job patching O'Brien up, and because of it weeks after that part of O'Brien's flesh started to rot off. O'Brien had to spend a month in the hospital on his stomach. O'Brien started thinking up ways to get back at Jorgenson.
O'Brien comes back to duty after Rat Kiley has already left (see the story "Night Life). The new medic isn't like Rat Kiley at all; he's new to the war. O'Brien is haunted by the night where he nearly died, and all he wants to do is get back at Jorgenson for his failure in the field in whatever way he can.
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By December's end, O'Brien was transferred to headquarters Company—S-4, "the battalion supply section," because the Army must have decided he'd "been shot enough." In comparison to being a foot soldier, it was a peaceful life, and O'Brien felt sort of safe for the first time in months. There was still a chance of dying, at least once a month they would be hit with mortar fire—but you can also die from a foul ball in a baseball stadium.
O'Brien feels safer than he ever has in the war after he's been transferred, even though there's the occasional attack. It shows how the war warps perception of safety, because a deadly attack at least once a month, for most people, would not give them any sense of safety and wouldn't be comparable to a foul ball in a stadium.
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Though O'Brien sometimes misses the thrill of combat he knows his war is over. If it weren't for the constant pain in his butt things would have been fine, but the pain wouldn't subside and he had to keep sleeping on his stomach. Unable to sleep, he'd focus on his anger towards Jorgenson. Some nights when he couldn't sleep he'd go on long walks, thinking up ways to hurt Jorgenson and make him feel as O'Brien had when he thought he was dying.
Perhaps if O'Brien hadn't been in such constant pain he could have let his grudge against Jorgenson go, but the pain wouldn't let up and O'Brien's anger only swelled. Just as all the soldiers tend to focus their emotions on one thing, O'Brien focuses on Jorgensen.
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In March, the Alpha Company came to the HQ. Mitchell Sanders, Azar, Henry Dobbins, Dave Jensen, and Norman Bowker all shook O'Brien's hand and he drove them to their quarters. They partied until it was time to eat, and then kept partying after. It was a ritual. Even if you didn't want to party, you "did it on principle." Once it reached midnight it was time for stories. Bowker tells the story of how Morty Phillips used up his luck. Azar insists that Phillips wasted away all of his luck on "nothing." O'Brien envied them in a way, and felt left out. They were all scratched up from the war they were still fighting and his clothes were pressed. They were still his friends, but things had changed. O'Brien felt like a civilian.
The return of the company to O'Brien's quasi-new life in the war starts to show the gap that has grown between him and the men he sees still as his brothers. They party as they're supposed to—it's a principle, to party because it was a statement that you were still alive. They tell stories to O'Brien to try to communicate how things have been, but O'Brien isn't really part of the war anymore, which cuts him off from the true camaraderie, from truly understanding the adrenaline driven non-morality of war.
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Bowker continues with the story of Morty Phillips. Near My Khe on a scorching day, everyone notices that Morty is missing. Two search patrols went out, but no one could find him. Morty shows up that night and it turns out he had gone swimming alone in a hostile area. A few days after the swim, he started to get really sick and Jorgenson concluded Morty must to have swallowed some water on his swim that gave him a virus. O'Brien asks where Jorgenson is at the sound of his name, but Bowker brushes it off to finish his story. Morty gets so sick that he becomes paralyzed. The men all agree that it shows that you can't go around using up all your luck. Everyone was quiet for a while thinking about the nature of luck. O'Brien asks where Jorgenson is to break the silence.
The story of Morty Phillips is about the arbitrariness of death in war, which the men choose to call luck because that makes it feel like they have some semblance of control over their fate. They try to quantify luck, even though they all know it's impossible. All O'Brien can think about as the story progresses, though, is Jorgenson. He just wants to find Jorgenson, who he has not yet seen, to get his revenge for getting him booted out of the war.
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In the first day that Alpha Company was there, O'Brien didn't see Bobby Jorgenson. He nearly went searching for him, but Mitchell Sanders encouraged O'Brien to let it go. He said Jorgensen made a mistake, but he was new to the war and he's improved a lot. He kept Morty Phillips alive. Sanders says that things have changed, and Jorgenson is with them now. O'Brien asks if he isn't, and Sanders says "No…I guess you're not." Sanders walks away, and O'Brien felt angry but also grief. Soon they would all leave, and O'Brien would be left there. He felt betrayed.
O'Brien didn't want to fight in the war. He hated being in the war, the constant fear, the death all around him. And yet when he's knocked out of the war he feels great. There is beauty in war too. Terrible beauty, sure, but the war creates a camaraderie among men, an adrenaline rush, that nothing else can replace. Jorgensen is in now; and O'Brien, even though he knows what war was like isn't in the war now, and so he's out.
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The next morning O'Brien saw Bobby Jorgenson. Jorgenson was waiting at O'Brien's jeep for him. O'Brien was surprised. Jorgenson admits to O'Brien that he made a mistake and he apologizes. He confesses he couldn't move when O'Brien got hit, and asks if O'Brien ever felt that way. O'Brien says he hasn't. Jorgenson tries to ask again but O'Brien accuses him of making excuses. Jorgenson then says he made a mistake, no excuses. He feels terrible about the infections that O'Brien got, and has had nightmares about seeing O'Brien get shot again. Jorgenson made a sound and O'Brien thought he was going to cry, which O'Brien said would have ended it. But Jorgenson smiled forcefully and extended his hand. O'Brien glared at him and said it wasn't this easy to apologize for nearly killing him. Jorgenson kept his hand out, and he looked so genuinely upset that O'Brien felt guilty. But not guilty enough, because he left Jorgenson standing there and drove away. But he hated Jorgenson now for "making [him] stop hating him."
Jorgenson is suffering the same sort of guilt that all of the other soldiers do, for so many other reasons. But this guilt just further marks Jorgensen as someone who "was with them now," which further drives home how O'Brien isn't. So now O'Brien can't hate Jorgensen—he knows full well what Jorgensen was going through when he failed to help O'Brien, and he knows the guilt Jorgensen is experiencing. But in ceasing to be something that O'Brien can blame, Jorgensen steals something else from O'Brien. So he hates Jorgensen even more.
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O'Brien says something had gone wrong; he didn't used to be a vengeful person. The war had turned him into a mean man, even cruel. In spite of his education and values there was now something dark and cold in him that he felt was capable of doing evil things. He wanted to hurt Jorgenson the way he had been hurt.
O'Brien, like all the soldiers, like Mary Anne in Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, is changed by the war in ways he can't escape, understand, or control. The war is inside him.
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That afternoon, O'Brien tried to employ Sanders to help him spook Jorgenson, but Sanders refused. O'Brien resolved to use Azar, who was ready and willing. O'Brien told him to not get too carried away with it. O'Brien says that no one liked Azar that much, including O'Brien. O'Brien asked if Azar understood, and Azar winked and said it was, "Only a game, right?"
Sanders won't help out O'Brien because Jorgenson is one of them now, but Azar gladly will because he's always up for causing chaos. Azar doesn't take anything seriously; he's emblematic of chaos in the collection—he sees no boundary between right and wrong, everything to him is a game, including the war, but it's a game with no rules.
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In Vietnam, the soldiers called the enemies "ghosts." The countryside of Vietnam was already scary at night, and it seemed like the whole place came alive at night with Charlie Cong as the main ghost. You never saw him, but you almost did, and you were afraid of him. In the daylight, it seemed like a joke. But at night you believed he was out there.
Charlie Cong is a reference to the Viet Cong, which the soldiers used to call Charlie for short. Death could come from anywhere at any time. It, and the fear of it, were like ghost.
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O'Brien almost calls off the plan a number of times. Sanders' comments made him want to cancel the plan, and if there had been a way out that was dignified he maybe would have taken it. That night at dinner he kept looking across the hall at Jorgenson, and when they made eye contact and Jorgenson kind of nodded at him, But looking at Jorgenson sitting with Dave Jensen and Mitchell Sanders, and fitting in really well, pushed O'Brien over the edge in deciding to go through with it.
It's not the fact that Jorgensen's failure almost killed him that now spurs on O'Brien. It's that Jorgensen now belongs, now is part of the war, while O'Brien does not. O'Brien finally gets out of the war he never wanted to be a part of, and it drives him nuts. Note also how it's shame that keeps O'Brien from backing out. He can't see how to back out without looking foolish, so he keeps on going.
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That night, O'Brien and Azar follow Jorgenson as he goes out for his post. They watch Jorgenson get ready for the night. Azar compared Jorgenson to a roasted, sizzling pigeon on a spit. O'Brien reminds Azar this isn't "for real." But Azar claps him on the shoulder and asks, "What's real? Eight months in fantasyland, it tends to blur the line. Honest to God, I sometimes can't remember what real is."
O'Brien has already set everything up to scare Jorgenson, now it's a matter of waiting for the right time to strike. Azar's comment emphasizes how the war blurs the lines of what's real, what's right, and what's moral.
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O'Brien says psychology was key, and he knew how it worked. You don't scare people in the daylight, you wait because darkness forces you inside yourself, it cuts you off from the world, and your imagination becomes more powerful than ever.
O'Brien knew he had to get his revenge at night, because it was the fear, the lack of knowing brought on by night, that let the fear spread.
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Azar and O'Brien pass the time until it's late, then they get their gear from O'Brien's. O'Brien says it felt like he was a soldier again: they stayed quiet, keeping under the cover of darkness. When they reached Bunker Six, where Jorgenson was, Azar started to move away to circle south and O'Brien was reminded of old times.
O'Brien insists on waiting because he wants that darkness to really settle in for Jorgenson. As they approach Jorgenson, O'Brien feels like he's a soldier again and it's both a good and bad feeling: one he misses and one he hates.
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O'Brien was thirty-two meters behind Jorgenson and even though it was dark he could see his silhouette. O'Brien prepared ten flares and reached for the ropes he'd set up earlier. But he felt the coldness in him; he wasn't himself. O'Brien took the first rope and tugged it, and there was a clatter outside of the wire near Jorgenson. Altogether there were eight ropes: four for O'Brien, four for Azar. Each one was connected to a noisemaker in front of Jorgenson's post. Then O'Brien tugged all four of his ropes, and he knew Jorgenson was listening because it seemed like the silhouette froze. Azar started too tugging too.
O'Brien is aware he's not acting like himself as he does this, he has difficult recognizing who he is and how the war has changed him into a person that would do this to Jorgenson. But that coldness in him, that amorality that is so pervasive in the war, takes precedence and demands revenge.
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After taking a break to let Jorgensen's fear grow, O'Brien and Azar start with the ropes again, even louder than before. "There was nothing moral in the world. The night was absolute." They tugged the ropes to bring the noisemakers closer to Jorgenson's bunker. At 3 a.m. Azar set off the first flare. O'Brien fired off three more and "it was instant daylight." Jorgensen moved, and it sounded like he made a kind of cry, almost like a bark. He moved sideways and crouched near a pile of sandbags clutching his rifle. O'Brien whispered to himself that now Jorgensen knew what it felt like. O'Brien could read Jorgenson's mind, and together they understood terror. It strips your humanity, all you can do is wait, and now they shared that feeling. O'Brien felt close to Jorgenson but not in an empathetic way.
O'Brien re-emphasizes the amorality of the situation, the only thing that was absolute was the darkness, and in that darkness was the ability to terrify Jorgenson and get the revenge he had been plotting for so long. When they finally scare Jorgenson, O'Brien confirms to himself and in a pseudo-telepathic way to Jorgenson that now he knows how O'Brien felt that night he was shot. How death reduces you to a non-human, waiting thing. Notice how O'Brien has essentially become the enemy, and the closeness he feels is a closeness between enemies.
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O'Brien bent towards Azar, and they're so close he can see the whites of Azar's eyes. O'Brien says they've done enough, but Azar won't have it. O'Brien says it's over, he and Jorgenson are even, and they're just rubbing it in if they keep going. But Azar just said "Poor, poor boy."
When Azar says poor boy, he's talking about both Jorgenson and O'Brien, because now he—Azar—is in control.
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An hour before sunrise, O'Brien and Azar went into the last phase, but Azar was in control. As they approach the boulder pile, Azar checks the ropes and flares. He looks over to where Jorgenson is. He tells O'Brien he sort of feels like a kid again; that he loves Vietnam. O'Brien tells him to be quiet, but Azar continues, smiling. He asks O'Brien isn't this what he wanted, to play war games like you're in your backyard? Azar said it probably brought back memories for O'Brien for when he was a real soldier, except now he's a "has-been" who just plays soldier. He calls O'Brien "pitiful," and says he would rather die in battle than be him. O'Brien asks him to stop, but Azar keeps repeating that he's pitiful.
O'Brien feels guilty now about what they are doing, but he doesn't leave Azar alone with it. Just like Azar feels like he has to finish things, O'Brien feels like he can't just walk away from Azar finishing what O'Brien started. Azar teases O'Brien for being a kid trying to play war games and calls him pitiful, because he's not a part of the guys that are fighting anymore, and to Azar this looks like him trying to fit in, in a "pitiful" way.
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Azar returns to work on the ropes. O'Brien watched Azar and fire off another flare. O'Brien tried to say please but it wouldn't come out. There was a whimper, which O'Brien thought was Jorgenson's at first. Azar fired two more flares and threw a tear-gas grenade. O'Brien was begging Azar to stop, but he threw another. Then Azar went over to the rope they hadn't used yet: O'Brien's idea, a sandbag painted white on a pulley. Azar tugged the rope and the white sandbag hovered in the gas over bunker six. Jorgensen started to fire at the sandbag. Azar was excited by this and threw the last gas grenade, shot another flare, and then grabbed the rope to make the white sandbag dance. Jorgenson didn't lose it; he stood up quietly and aimed at the sandbag. His face seemed calm. He looked out into the dark, and then walked towards the sandbag. He put his rifle up to the sandbag. Jorgenson yelled O'Brien's name and fired. Azar said the show was over. O'Brien was still trembling. Azar looked at Jorgenson and then at O'Brien. He moved like he was going to help O'Brien up, then stopped, and as a kind of "afterthought," kicked O'Brien in the head. He walked off to go to sleep.
O'Brien pleads with Azar to stop, and the whimper he hears is actually his own not Jorgenson's. He's powerless against Azar, he feels like he can barely move. Jorgenson's relatively calm reaction when he stands has a redemptive quality to it; it shows how much Jorgenson has changed in the war from when he botched O'Brien's injury treatment to now. His calmness marks the change that the war has on everyone once they're faced with death. It's not clear if Jorgenson knew who was responsible for all of this when he called out O'Brien's name, or if he's shooting at the ghost's that haunt him—his failure to get to O'Brien in time. Before leaving Azar kicks O'Brien in the head to show how pitiful he thinks O'Brien is.
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O'Brien insists to Jorgenson that the cut on his head isn't a big deal, but Jorgenson takes him to his bunker and uses a towel to wipe at the wound. They didn't talk for a long time. "So," Jorgenson said. "Right," O'Brien said. They shook hands and didn't make eye contact. Jorgenson pointed at the sandbag and said it was a nice touch. Jorgenson steadied O'Brien when he tried to stand and asked if they were even. O'Brien said they were, and he felt the same closeness he had before when he'd been shaking the ropes.
Jorgenson has found O'Brien and insists on treating the wound that Azar inflicted. They keep their words to a minimum because there's little to say. Jorgensen asks if they're even (which is very reminiscent of "Enemies") and O'Brien finally agrees that they are. He feels close to Jorgenson again, but not in a friendly way. Just a closeness of understanding, the closeness of enemies.
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In the medic's hut, Jorgenson cleans and bandages O'Brien's gash to the forehead and then they both went to breakfast. O'Brien apologized and Jorgenson did too. Awkwardly, O'Brien suggested they should kill Azar. Jorgensen gave a half-grin, "Scare him to death, right?" O'Brien agreed. "What a movie!" Jorgenson said. O'Brien shrugged and then said, "Sure. Or just kill him."
Jorgenson treats O'Brien even further to prove he isn't going to retaliate. At breakfast O'Brien finds himself seriously suggesting they kill Azar. The coldness in him from the war is still there; it has changed him. He would have never thought to murder someone before the war for retaliation.
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