In his book, The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien is allowing the reader to see the negative effects war has on people, especially on soldiers. Through a variety of short stories focused primarily on the Vietnam war, O'Brien illustrates the horror of war through exquisite detail of the violent nature that each soldier seemed to have adopted as time went on in Vietnam. By focusing not only on the physical things the men carried, but also on the intangible things, the reader can easily relate to the emotional cost of an ambiguous war. O'Brien paints a compelling picture of the gruesome side of war and how it cripples the human psyche, as well as delivering a convincing antiwar statement as a result of such an experience.
The violence that seems to become embedded in the soldiers is a major topic in O'Brien's novel. Through elaborate details that reveal the drastic change within the men, O'Brien creates within the reader an sense of understanding of the what of war does to people. This is an effective technique, as he ties these effects into the title of the book. For example, O'Brien has this to say about one of the soldiers, "Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a Thumb...The Thumb was dark brown, rubbery to touch... It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen" (13). Before Vietnam, Bowker was a very good-natured person; however, war turned him into a hard-mannered, emotionally empty soldier, carrying a severed thumb as a trophy. The transformation shown through Bowker is an excellent example of the emotional change that a soldier might go through. Another example of this type of change was a soldier named "Ted Lavender adopted an orphaned puppy... Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device" (36). Clearly, Azar's actions proved him to be very unstable.
In addition, O'Brien displays how the violence becomes normal after some time in Vietnam. For instance, his description of how Kiley killed the buffalo demonstrates a certain lack of emotion and regret when stating, "We came across a baby water buffalo... After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose... He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee... He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn't to kill, it was to hurt" (79). Clearly Kiley is exhibiting irrational behavior, but no one acts as if that behavior is really wrong or unjustified. Another example of this kind of "learned" insensitivity is when Ted Lavender, the druggie, was shot in the head. The soldiers waited around criticizing Lavender for his consumption of tranquilizer while, they themselves, smoke his dope and make ruthless statements as, "There's a moral here... The moral's pretty obvious... Stay away from drugs. No joke, they ruin your day every time" (17). Again the notion that such behavior is being accepted among the men is illustrated as Lavender and Cross lead their troops into Than Khe. The reader can almost see the men move almost like robots through the village when O'Brien says of them, "They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in the artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon.... " (7).
O'Brien also conveys to the reader how some of the soldiers escape their world by using marijuana. Lavender always "carried six or seven ounces of premium dope" (5). For something that was considered immoral in American seemed normal in Vietnam. Once they carried a corpse out to "a dry paddy... And sat smoking the dead man's dope until the chopper came" (8). Even the squad's supervisor is unaffected by the soldiers' blatant use marijuana and seems to have become so used to the occurrence that he no longer condemns its use. The reader understands that for a leader of men to be morally warped in such a way makes an incredible statement about the war.
The type of hardness that the soldiers grew accustomed to was also demonstrated in the character of Mary Ann, who was introduced as an innocent blond with "white culottes and this sexy pink…