O'Brien remembers that when Curt Lemon died he found it difficult to mourn, as he did not know him well. He remembers Lemon's tendency to play the clichéd role of the macho soldier, deliberately taking unnecessary risks and bragging and embellishing them with untruths. O'Brien offers this story as a means for guarding against sentimentality over the dead: The unit of soldiers had been in an area that was relatively quiet, with no direct combat with the enemy and no casualties. An Army dentist visits the area to administer care to the unit. Though the dentist has only rudimentary facilities, Lemon is especially scared because of childhood experiences with dentists. He faints in the dentist's tent before being examined. Others in the unit know about this because they help get him on a cot after the episode. Lemon keeps to himself but can not let what happened go unanswered. He complains about a toothache and has the dentist pull a tooth without finding a problem with it, which pleases him and helps him recover from his embarrassment.
A recurring theme in The Things They Carried is the investigation and problematization of ideas such as courage, heroism, and valor. In this vignette, O'Brien again takes up the notion of memory and makes us question how we honor the memory of war and war heroes. The opening line of the story immediately confronts us with paradox: "When Curt Lemon was killed, I found it hard to mourn." We expect someone to mourn a fallen comrade, especially a fellow soldier, but O'Brien will not because, he leads us to believe, Curt Lemon did not earn the right to be mourned. So then, we must ask what must someone do in order to be mourned? In response, O'Brien gives us the story of Lemon and the Army dentist, giving his audience the opportunity to judge whether Lemon deserves mourning or not.
The story of Lemon and the dentist is a simple one with complex implications. Lemon is a braggart and relishes creating a machismo personality. His weakness is that he needs others to hold him in awe, to treat him as important. It is upon this weakness, as O'Brien sees it, that the story pivots and O'Brien's low opinion of Lemon is based.
The setting is a relaxed environment that comes close to the description of a vacation. There is no impending fear, no looming threat of attack, and in this setting Lemon finds himself out of sorts. As O'Brien frequently does, he makes the appearance of the dentist a seemingly random event, denying us the ability to find constant meaning in the war and its mechanisms. Lemon is shown not to be high strung or brave, but childish, reverting to fears sustained as a child about dentists. These fears overpower him even as an adult, a man, a soldier. So potent are the fears of youth that they can weaken even the man who tries harder than anyone to appear strong. Lemon does not even fight against seeing the dentist, but instead faints and quietly is carried away.
He returns, however, to have the dentist treat a fictional toothache and pull a healthy tooth. Lemon cannot cope with letting his childhood fears master his adult life, so he confronts them artificially. In the end, though, his adventure does not erase his initial failure; while he may have ultimately faced his fears, he shrank from them in front of his company and then returned to confront them not out of a newfound sense of courage, but out of stubborn pride. He was still afraid of the dentist, but was now more afraid of losing the image he had worked so hard to create for himself. In other words, he exchanged one fear for another, still letting his fears control him.
For this reason, O'Brien does not feel that Lemon earned mourning rights. If we believe that we should mourn the dead, how does someone earn that right? O'Brien does not mourn Lemon, but could he not mourn Lemon the boy who never outgrew fear? But the large issue at hand for O'Brien is that we tend to mourn people because they died, paying no attention to how they lived; we tend to memorialize soldiers for being soldiers, war for being war. O'Brien's refusal to mourn a dead man, a soldier, a fellow of his company shocks us and makes us rethink how we treat the dead and how we might warp the truth of a man when we try to honor his memory.
Chu Lai Site where many troops were stationed.
AO Area of operations.
dog tag A military identification tag worn about the neck.