Read the essay entitled "The Vietnam in Me" (New York Times
Magazine [2 October 1994]: 48-57) that O'Brien wrote about his first return trip to Vietnam after his service ended. The fictionalized account of O'Brien's return to Vietnam differs sharply from the actual version that O'Brien glosses in his essay. The most significant difference is O'Brien's traveling companion. O'Brien does not have a daughter, as he creates in the character of Kathleen in the novel. Instead, he is accompanied by his then-girlfriend, a woman a number of years his junior. Compare the essays and think about the following questions. What does this difference tell us about O'Brien's philosophy of truth in storytelling? How does the essay illuminate your reading of the novel? How does it speak to the urgency of passing stories from one generation to another?
2. Research the anti-Vietnam War movement. What objections did the protestors have to the war? Find out what arguments they used against maintaining the war. What kind of rhetoric did they use? Research Vietnam veterans' involvement in the anti-war movement. Compare their arguments to O'Brien's objections to the war. Read other Vietnam veterans' war narratives, such as Ron Kovics' Born on the Fourth of July and Robert Mason's Chickenhawk, and compare their impressions of the war with the fictional "O'Brien's."
3. Simulate the original literary form that O'Brien invented for The Things They Carried. Write a fictionalized version of an event similar to one you have experienced. Create a fictional protagonist who shares your name and write a narrative and descriptive passage about what "you" see and think and do. After doing this, write a passage about how you wrote the paragraph and why you wrote it, simulating O'Brien's meta-fictive style.
4. Compare O'Brien's novel (or The Soldier's Sweetheart, a film based on the vignette, "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong") to films about the Vietnam War, such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Do the novel and the films share similar qualities? What are these qualities? How do you think they differ from those of the classic combat film genre that depict World War II and the Korean War. Research the film references O'Brien makes in the novel: John Wayne, The Green Berets, Audie Murphy, The Man Who Never Was. How do these examples he offers speak to this difference? How is he critiquing these references, and to what effect?