The Things They Carried

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Themes and Colors
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Things They Carried, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Morality Theme Icon

Within the stories in The Things They Carried the characters tell many stories to each other, and the question always asked of the storyteller is "What's the moral?" In "How to Tell a True War Story," Mitchell Sanders tells O'Brien about a company who has to lie dormant and watchful in the pitch-blackness over a village. They begin to have auditory hallucinations: champagne glasses clinking, music playing, a full chamber orchestra. They aren't supposed to call in an airstrike unless they are under attack but they can no longer bear the sounds and they call in the attack and watch the city burn. Yet even after there's just scorched earth, they all can still hear the music. Sanders keeps trying to tease out a moral, and O'Brien ultimately points out that the moral never amounts to much more than a perfunctory "Oh."

Ultimately, The Things They Carried suggests that, in war, the conventions of good and evil in civilized society fall by the wayside. After Rat Kiley loses his best friend, Curt Lemon, to a booby trap he tortures a baby water buffalo as everyone else looks on. No one tries to stop it. Mitchell Sanders says that in Vietnam there are new sins created that have never existed before. War re-defines morality, it changes the definition. Even the purpose of being there is lost on the soldiers when they are down in their foxholes. When O'Brien eventually returns with his daughter to Vietnam in "Field Trip" and she asks why there was a war, O'Brien says it's because "some people wanted one thing, other people wanted another thing," and all he wanted was to stay alive. The Things They Carried challenges the reader to think about whether or not truth exists, whether or not there is such a thing as right v. wrong, and finally whether the idea of morality is flexible based on the context (in this case, in the fields of Vietnam).

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Morality Quotes in The Things They Carried

Below you will find the important quotes in The Things They Carried related to the theme of Morality.
The Things They Carried Quotes

For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

No one is immune from reacting in wartime, O'Brien suggests here. The men all displayed these exceptional reactions in their behavior. Reduced to a pure survival instinct, they did things they would otherwise be ashamed of: begging for their lives, discharging weapons without cause, making promises to their parents and God. In war, where mortality is always on the line, the senses are constantly heightened and the men are united by their shared fear. They accept that if one becomes hysterical with fear then they all have or will become hysterical too. The shame one would feel in civilized society for acting this way is not felt in the same magnitude in wartime, given their bond and shared experience. The social rules do not apply in war, and particularly in a war like Vietnam (or so O'Brien implies). No one is safe from the fear of dying. 

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This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead. Never partly dead.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kiowa, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

The rules of life have changed for Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. In his life before the war, big events centered around things like pretty poems and midterm exams. His social obligations were tied to school, family, or finding love. In war, however, the big event is life itself and the constant threat of it being taken away in an instant. In war, the smallest action can get you killed. As O'Brien emphasizes several times, this is a total result: no one gets sort of killed, you are either alive or you aren't. These were not the stakes for Cross back in America where, at worst, he ran the risk of being heartbroken by Martha—there a thoughtless movement could not have absolutely final consequences. In Vietnam, though, every little thing he does not only determines whether he stays alive, but whether his men stay alive. This burden dwarfs the memory (and even the morality) of the old world Cross used to inhabit in Mount Sebastian. His reality is different now, and there is no turning back. 

Love Quotes

For a few moments he considered asking her to his room, but instead he laughed and told her how back in college he'd almost done something very brave. It was after seeing Bonnie and Clyde, he said, and on this same spot he'd almost picked her up and carried her to his room and tied her to the bed and put his hand on her knee and just held it there all night long. It came close, he told her—he'd almost done it. Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Martha
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Cross is visiting with Tim O'Brien many years after the war has ended and they have both returned home. He is telling O'Brien about how since he returned from the war, he saw his old flame Martha again at their class reunion. He maintains that he still loves her, and he discloses that when they saw each other again, he confessed to her that the night he walked her to the same place they were standing near her dorm at the reunion he wanted to take her upstairs, tie her to the bed, "and put his hand on her knee and just [hold] it there all night long." This harkens back to the title story in The Things They Carried where Lieutenant Cross can't stop thinking about touching Martha's knee while they both watch "Bonnie and Clyde" (page 4). 

When Cross tells Martha about wanting to touch her knee all those years ago, she does not react well. She cowers a little, crosses her arms, and appears cold. She tells him that she is glad he did not do that, and can't "understand how men could do those things." She leaves this in the abstract, even when Cross asks her to explain. "The things men do." Yet, he does not push her on the question because the answer makes sense in a way: "[the answer] began to form." Cross learned in the war, as O'Brien did, that the whole truth, the whole answer, is never available. He has come to accept the discomfort of uncertainty for what is true, and on top of that he has witnessed the horrors of war, the horrors of what men to do each other. Martha knows this too after she spent years as a combat nurse on mission trips throughout the world. She is not blind to the world he saw in Vietnam. In their world, men go off to fight one another, men start these wars. What men do, then, is inexplicable to her, and it is inexplicable to Cross as well. They are both caught in this double bind without answers to the big "why" of war and killing and lost love, but she can say she is glad he did not tie her up and touch her knee all night. That is something she can understand and react to, however strange it may be. 

Spin Quotes

That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Stories defy life and death—something very important to O'Brien, particularly in the face of the deaths he has witnessed in war. As he claims here, stories exist as entities unto themselves that can be passed from person to person. Without a history, without any memories or a past, a story can still make sense. A story can envelop you when you are lost, with no memory of how you arrived at the present. 

O'Brien finds solace in the escapism of storytelling. He can define his own rules for morality and life and death. In stories, he can absolve himself of guilt, and can converse with friends who are no longer alive. He can relive the brotherhood he felt while he was fighting in the war. There is a safety in the world of stories that is constant and unchanging. It's the creation of something different and separate, where he can hide from the demons of his past. 

On the Rainy River Quotes

I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien is on a boat with Elroy Berdahl, who is housing him near the Canadian border. O'Brien has fled from his town and his job in a panic, to prevent being sent to Vietnam after he's drafted. Elroy seems to know why O'Brien is so afraid, and does not ask him his reasons for being at the empty Tip Top lounge. He takes O'Brien out on his boat, and when they are no more than twenty yards from the Canadian shore, more than close enough to swim across and escape, O'Brien is struck with overwhelming shame. The embarrassment he experiences simply thinking about not going to the war is enough to make him go to Vietnam and potentially die. His reasons for fighting are not to defend America or its ideals, but instead to not be embarrassed. This is an important admission, and emphasizes O'Brien's common claims that war is not only about high ideals or even about constant violence, but just as often it's about petty emotions, drudgery, and shame. It is not very heroic, but it is very human for him to risk his life just to avoid embarrassment.

How to Tell a True War Story Quotes

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 the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

According to O'Brien, war stories do not abide by conventional rules of storytelling, in the sense that the moral and factual truth is not fixed. O'Brien provides a calculus for determining whether a war story is true, and says that if it makes you feel as though there is moral justice, then you have been duped. If it makes you feel like you have learned a lesson about how people should act, you have been duped. True war stories are bound by their absolute "allegiance to obscenity and evil," because they are intended to work out the darkest parts of man's behavior and thinking. War is one of the only occasions where humans are reduced to their basest actions in defense of their lives, which means civilized moral thinking is thrown out the window. Anything to stay alive goes, and that total immorality makes life unlivable and nonsensical to a society that is not at war. The stories about war, then, cannot be in service of proving some fundamental human good or larger lesson about how to live, because this would not be reflective of war itself, where there is no inherent truth or good to be found. 

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the threat that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe "Oh."

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien claims that if, for some reason, you take away a moral from a war story, then it becomes impossible to divorce a lesson away from the whole story. He likens this to the impossibility of teasing out a thread once it has become part of the cloth. The cloth doesn't exist without that thread as it did without it: you can have no whole without the sum of its parts, and the whole is the story. While a smaller moral takeaway from a story may make sense to the reader, deeming an action in a war story moral or immoral requires that specific context, that particular story, in order to make sense. The action in and of itself does not make sense as a good, bad, or moral action. 

This does diverge from O'Brien's original claim in the story, though, which is that absolutely no moral can be claimed from war stories. In revising that rule within the same story, O'Brien is adhering to the fact that war stories have no rules. It does not matter that he contradicts himself: this is a war story. 

The Man I Killed Quotes

In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too fast.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien weaves in episodic reflections about the the Vietnamese youth he killed in the war, as Kiowa tries to comfort him in the battlefield. In reflecting on the man, O'Brien finds himself giving the man a story. He imagines the family the man has left behind, and the things that the man used to enjoy as a boy. He imagines the sense of patriotic duty that the man feels socially obligated to fight for even though he is afraid. The man would not want to embarrass himself by failing to meet this obligation, and even if he no longer cared about embarrassing himself then he has to worry about embarrassing his family and his village.

O'Brien projects his own fears and insecurities about fighting in the war onto the dead man through this invented narrative. There is no need for O'Brien to come out and say this fictional story about the man, because of the way these reflections are situated between the telling of Kiowa's attempts to comfort O'Brien. This mirrors how O'Brien could not believe Kiowa in the moment; he could not even hear him or focus on the present. He was overcome by guilt for killing the man, and kept getting lost in inventing a life for the man - a guilt that pulls him deeper and deeper into new, false details about the man's family, the man's village, the man's education. 

These reflections echo O'Brien's anxiety throughout the book towards the limits of social obligation and the role of blame in war. O'Brien does not want to fight in this war, but if he flees or refuses, he fears the embarrassment this would bring upon himself, his family, and his town. Similar to the man he killed, whom he says "pretended" to care about his patriotic duty, O'Brien feels throughout the war that he is masquerading as a soldier. He is simply trying to survive, but it is fear of humiliation that brought him to combat, not patriotism. He believes he probably shared this anxiety with the young man he killed.

Ambush Quotes

I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were not thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien prefaces the story by saying that he lied to his daughter, Kathleen, about not killing a man in Vietnam. He takes this story as an occasion to tell the "adult" version of what really happened. In describing the act of killing, he insists upon how fast it all happened. There was no sustained calculus of political or social obligation that drove him to throw the grenade, and he felt no ill will towards his target - the response was overwhelmingly automatic. The fact that another man's death is the result of a reaction clearly troubles O'Brien, given how absolutely final death is as a result. While he can offer no moral or even superficial justification for throwing the grenade, besides a need to make the man disappear, he nonetheless goes through the list of all of the things he did not think about the man. Thus we see both how O'Brien could blame himself for not thinking more about the man or the reasons for the war in the moment, as well as empathize with how fast these life and death decisions take place. This passage communicates the fleetingness of mortality - how life can become death in an instant without any time to process or understand. War is defined by these indigestible instants that defy explanation or justification - which is why O'Brien is so haunted by their memory. He can't help but feel things in the present and map them onto his recollections of the past.