The Things They Carried

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Social Obligation Theme Analysis

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.
Social Obligation Theme Icon

In The Things They Carried, O'Brien often focuses on how the men in his stories, even if they volunteered to fight, joined the army because of the unspoken pressure to fulfill their obligations as citizens and soldiers. These social obligations range from that of wider society (government, city/town) and narrows to the nuclear (family, friends, personal reflection). After being drafted in "On the Rainy River," Tim O'Brien runs from his hometown and ends up spending six days with a reticent old stranger, Elroy Berdahl, who takes O'Brien fishing so close to the Canadian border that he could have jumped out of the boat and escaped into Canada.

O'Brien returns home, though, because he cannot bear to think of the town grumbling about his cowardice for not fulfilling his duty, nor can he handle the thought of his family believing him to be a coward. He admits that he goes to the war to avoid the embarrassment that would have resulted from thwarting this legal and social obligation. Similarly, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "In The Field" never wanted to be a commander, and only joined the reserves because his friends at college were doing it. Ultimately, O'Brien depicts how his characters did what was expected of them as men and as citizens, but how in reality they are all still so young, are still boys—just kids at war.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this theme of social obligation occurs in "Speaking of Courage," which tells the story of Norman Bowker after the war. Like the other soldiers, Bowker joined the war out of feelings of an obligation to society, and then, once in the war, he felt the pressure from popular culture (such as. the heroism on display in movies and TV) to impress his father and his town with medals and honors. And he succeeded, receiving seven medals, nearly every medal other than the highest, the Silver Star for Valor—though the constant emphasis is that he could easily have been awarded that too. When he returns home, though, there is little fanfare, and Bowker becomes haunted by the one medal (the Silver Star) that he failed to receive. In addition, he finds that in accepting the social obligation to fight in the war he has been so changed that he is incapable of meeting the social obligations of being a citizen: holding down a job, maintaining relationships, etc. The war mandated patriotic obligation, an obligation to make one's family proud, but by the time the soldiers returned home, many discovered they could no longer operate within the norms of the society they had been charged to protect.

Social Obligation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Obligation appears in each story of The Things They Carried. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Social Obligation Quotes in The Things They Carried

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

They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the river and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien describes the monotony of war. Though the common thread of the story is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's picture of Martha, O'Brien also touches on the death of Ted Lavender and weaves it through these bulky descriptions of the men marching, carrying different items. O'Brien uses this language of hard labor and repetition to simulate the boredom of walking, the tediousness of doing the same thing for hours upon hours while miserable and tired. The men did not march out of any force of will: they were not marching out of patriotism or social obligation or fear, they simply marched. Their bodies became thoughtless and mechanic in action. In becoming like machines, the men could divorce themselves from the reality of war. Machines do not have to think or feel guilt or be afraid of the never-ending threat of death. Instead of marching under the weight of all their pain, they simply become one with the action. Morality is defined by the "principles...in their feet." There is no right or wrong in the abstract, just the stop and go of their steps. As they march, the bigger questions of life are of no consequence, and by extension, the crippling answers and their effects aren't a factor either. This way of viewing marching is miserable but also cathartic for O'Brien and the men. It allows them to zone out, to turn their minds off the war entirely. 

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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. 

Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Ted Lavender
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burns all of his letters from his sweetheart, Martha, back in the United States. He is riddled with guilt over Ted Lavender's death. He believes that had he not been so distracted by constantly thinking about Martha, then he would have been a better leader and been able to prevent Lavender from being shot and killed. He realizes that burning the letters is a sentimental gesture, and will not change the fact that Lavender is gone. The blame he feels is monstrous and enormous, but there is no way to burn it, to make it disappear.

It's suggested that Cross also knows that the life he remembers with Martha is gone. She does not love him anymore - they are in different worlds. He is resolved to become a better Lieutenant, which he believes to mean accepting this new reality where he is alone and his only responsibility is leading his men and keeping them safe. So, for now, he does the only thing he has control over and burns the symbol of Martha, which was keeping him tethered to the old world outside of Vietnam. It will not make his guilt go away, but it's something he can do to fight it. 

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.

The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.

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

O'Brien here fast-forwards through his drive back home from the Canadian border, through the settings of the war itself, and back to America, where he returned after surviving combat. This is not a happy ending, he insists. He is a soldier who fought and he is also a coward. He cannot give himself credit for being a brave soldier, because his reasons for fighting were not noble. He went to the frontline only because he feared embarrassment more than death. In his mind, he cannot be championed as a hero or a patriot because his intent was self-preservation. Indeed, as O'Brien sees it, there might have been something more "heroic" about just going through with his plan for fleeing America and the war altogether.

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.

Speaking of Courage Quotes

Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave. In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open. Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Norman Bowker
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien tells this story from the perspective of his platoon member Norman Bowker after he has returned to the small town in which he grew up after the war. Norman is still consumed with guilt for not being able to save Kiowa after he was blown up in the "shit fields." In order to not blame himself directly, he keeps the imaginative focus on how he failed to get the Silver Star, but he was close. He imagines riding in the car around town with his father, telling him the story of how close he had been. How even in his imagination his father cannot make him feel guiltless for Kiowa's death.

In describing the shit fields during combat, Norman highlights the fragility of mortality and the unpredictable strength of one's moral compass. The horrors and stresses of war put so much pressure on people that in the moment it's impossible to know how one will react. Courage takes on different forms, then, since no man was one way at all times. There was no guarantee one would be brave in response to danger. On the night Kiowa died, courage and cowardice are measured in minutia—the variables are so small that one's inner turmoil almost seems banal compared to something as final as death. Norman blames his inability to save Kiowa on the fact that the shit fields smelled so terrible that he could not continue to hold onto Kiowa's boot - instead letting him sink below the muck. He insists he could have been able to save him but for the overpowering stench. That small fact, and Norman's reaction to it, plague him at all times. He cannot accept the honors of his other medals or value his survival. Those gestures from the army are meaningless to him because Kiowa is dead. Winning the Silver Star would mean he would have lived, so the medal becomes a symbol of impossible achievement. 

Night Life Quotes

He said he'd done his best. He'd tried to be a decent medic. Win some and lose some, he said, but he'd tried hard. Briefly then, rambling a little, he talked about a few of the guys who were gone now, Curt Lemon and Kiowa and Ted Lavender, and how crazy it was that people who were so incredibly alive could get so incredibly dead.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kiowa, Bob "Rat" Kiley, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

The evening before Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot so that he can be taken in a chopper to Japan, he admits to the platoon in near-tears that he is at the end of his rope. The war has driven him to the point of madness, and all of the other men have noticed his quick deterioration. For weeks the platoon has been forced to spend the days trying to sleep, while at night they walk in a straight line through the pitch blackness. All of the men dealt with the impenetrable dark in different ways, but the darkness made it so Rat couldn't escape his vivid recollections of what he had seen in Vietnam. As medic, there were many men he had treated that he could not save, others who suffered from gruesome injuries. When he speaks to the platoon they don't know he will shoot himself the next day, but the moment shows Rat on the precipice of breaking. He tries to redeem himself while acknowledging that he has failed to save everyone. His shock regarding how grotesque and traumatizing wartime can be is manifested via the memory of his dead friends. One moment the men could be joking with one another and the next a member of their crew gets blown up, erased from the earth. The fundamental absurdity of this immediate, profound loss pushed Rat to a breaking point that forced him out of the war entirely.