The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien Summary and Analysis In the Field

Summary

The morning after Kiowa's death, the platoon searches the area for his body. Lt. Cross watches his men as they search and thinks about the impact of Kiowa's death. Azar makes jokes about the style of Kiowa's death, but Bowker warns him to stop. Mitchell Sanders and Norman Bowker eventually recover Kiowa's rucksack, and they argue over who is responsible for Kiowa's death; Sanders blames Lt. Cross, but Bowker disagrees. Meanwhile, Lt. Cross rehearses a letter he might write to Kiowa's father, but his thoughts wander back to his own culpability because he chose that particular field on which to camp. Lt. Cross wades across the field to a soldier who is shaking and sobbing. The young soldier is sorry because he thinks he may have caused Kiowa's death by accidentally signaling their presence to the enemy by switching on a flashlight. The soldier is searching for a photo of his girlfriend, and Lt. Cross feels pity for him.

Norman Bowker locates the corpse, and Mitchell Sanders warns Azar not to make any more jokes or crude comments. They finally dislodge the body from the muddy bottom of the field and are saddened and relieved, but they also felt a secret joy because they are alive. Azar feels some guilt over his earlier jokes.

Lt. Cross lets himself sink into the mud and floats while he revises the letter to Kiowa's father in his mind. The upset soldier tries to confess his guilt to Lt. Cross, who does not listen, escaping the scene by remembering his life before the war.

Analysis

This vignette is one of the more depressing in the book, one where O'Brien makes it impossible to think about the Vietnam War as a whole. Instead, he forces us to look at the war person by person. The entire event of searching for Kiowa's body is like a break from the political war — something that men do for their friends rather than for their country. The three centers in the story, Lt. Cross, the young, nameless soldier, and the rest of the troop searching for Kiowa's body each have their own perspective. This vignette is a compilation of their perspectives, not a story with facts and details.

Lt. Cross is laden with guilt, not only as a commander but also as someone who feels personally responsible for Kiowa's death. As a matter of protocol, he is responsible because he ordered the camp to be made, but Cross feels his responsibility and remorse more deeply than his duty dictates. Although O'Brien tells us about how Cross does not desire to command, Cross himself focuses on Kiowa's father and the letter that he must now write. To Cross, Kiowa's death personalizes his fears and his responsibility not just to care for his men, but that he must answer for them to others — like fathers, commanders, and even God.

The men searching for Kiowa's body are themselves upset and terrified. As they wade through a river of excrement, searching for a friend and soldier, they feel respect and awe. Azar's jokes about irony and death bother Bowker because of his feelings about the tragic death of his friend and comrade, but also because of a sharpened awareness of his own mortality. When they uncover the body, Azar himself feels these same forces, but he needed the reality of a corpse to drive it home. Until then, he felt more invincible. But Kiowa's death means that his luck ran out, and luck could run out for any of them at any time.

O'Brien never suggests that a soldier stayed alive because of skill or prowess, but rather because of his luck. Luck, which seems to be rationed out like food to soldiers, was a man's to use or expend, and Kiowa's had run out. This does not make Kiowa's death less tragic, but more universal. It could happen to any of them. There is no way to measure luck — it is a random element in war that they all depended upon but which none of them could control.

Finally, there is the young soldier who is not named. He has no name because he is no one in particular, just any soldier who could have made a simple mistake and caused his own or someone else's death. He is, of course, filled with guilt and sees Kiowa's death as his personal fault, just as Cross does. They both believe that "when a man died, there had to be blame." In fact, O'Brien shows us that there is no blame because there is no reason. Perhaps the flashlight signaled the enemy as to their position, but the rest of the soldiers know that it was just bad luck. The Viet Cong soldier killed by "O'Brien" was killed because his luck had run out, nothing more than wandering down the wrong path at the wrong time. The nameless soldier does not understand this, and it is so terrifying an idea that he cannot think it. Instead, he searches for the lost picture of a past girlfriend, needing something he knows and trusts. Reality, randomness, luck, and war are too much for both Cross and the boy.

Glossary

MIA Missing in action. A person in the armed forces who is lost during combat and who cannot be accounted for as a known casualty.

GI Member of the U.S. armed forces; especially an enlisted soldier.

Karl (Heinrich) Marx (1818-1883) German social philosopher and economist. Marx was the founder of modern socialism.

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