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Rhetorical Analysis of the Things They Carried

In: English and Literature

Submitted By myz986
Words 1537
Pages 7
Michelle Zhang
Dr. Bloomquist
2/13/2015
Rhetorical Analysis

A Whole New World: Construction and Destruction in The Things They Carried
While the Vietnam War was a complex political pursuit that lasted only a few years, the impact of the war on millions of soldiers and civilians extended for many years beyond its termination. Soldiers killed or were killed; those who survived suffered from physical wounds or were plagued by PTSD from being wounded, watching their platoon mates die violently or dealing with the moral implications of their own violence on enemy fighters. Inspired by his experiences in the war, Tim O’Brien, a former soldier, wrote The Things They Carried, a collection of fictional and true war stories that embody the struggles that soldiers who fought in the war faced before, during, and after the war faced. These stories serve as an outlet for O’Brien, allowing both a cathartic release of his experiences and a documentation of the significant experiences that shaped him. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien explores the psychological destruction that fighting in the war encompassed while he was still a soldier as well as many years after being out of the war.
In one of the stories, “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien encapsulates the psychological devastation he faced after he kills a Vietnamese soldier, his first time ever killing a man. However, in revealing his experience, he attempts to remove himself from the situation by using the third person to portray the physical attributes of the young man he has just killed. O’Brien opens the chapter: “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other a star-shaped hole,… his nose was undamaged, …his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, …the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless,…there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him.” (118) Because his description of the man follows the passive pattern of “his (body part) was (attribute),” O’Brien’s own presence in the story fades. In the last line, O’Brien avoids saying that he inflicted this wound upon the soldier, instead merely stating that “it was this wound that had killed him,” purposely constructing this sentence to remove his own agency from it. The sentence itself is lengthy and repetitive, punctuated only by commas between the numerous descriptions. He does not use first person to explain his guilt and confusion, but it begins to take a rhythm: the choppy descriptions emphasize his compromised mental abilities as a result of the killing, repeating the same basic passive structure to reveal his biting guilt and fixation with the man he has killed. O’Brien does not actually state who this man is until farther down the paragraph; while we can infer that the chapter is about the man he killed from the title, we do not get verification that this is for sure “the man I killed” (119) until he begins to spin a history for him, showing that he does not even admit to his actions until later. Since we are not given an emotional first person narrative confrontation with the moral implications of his actions, the lack thereof and the repetitive structure illustrate the psychological shock that O’Brien faces. This authorial silence reflects the inevitable silence of Vietnam that forces soldiers to confront the horrible realities of destructive battle and guilt that many soldiers experienced due to war.
At the same time, O’Brien struggles with destructiveness of the conflicting images of violence and peace in death through the juxtaposition of the imagery of the dead man. While “his one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.” The dead man has one shut eye that resembles a peaceful sleep, while the other side is obliterated by the grenade into a star-shaped hole. The image of the star-shaped hole in the dead soldier’s eye represents the hopes that he once had when he was alive: “He hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping and hoping, always” (119). Furthermore, “his right cheek was smooth and hairless,” an image of untouched innocence that contrasts with his left cheek, which was “peeled back in three ragged strips,” destroyed by the violence O’Brien inflicts upon it. The juxtaposition of the butterfly that settles on his chin and the fatal wound on his neck, “open to the spinal cord…blood…thick and shiny” illustrate the complexity and ambiguity of the unnaturalness of war, depicted by the image of the dead man’s wrung neck, contrasted with the ironic peace and naturalism of death in the image of the fragile butterfly. These select images are also those that O’Brien chooses to fixate upon and develop throughout the chapter as he struggles to comprehend the moral implications of his actions. The innocence of the “slim, dead, almost dainty young man” is further reinforced when O’Brien describes his wrists as “wrists of a child” (118). The contrast of the violent images of death with the young man’s images of innocence challenges O’Brien because now he begins to think about whether killing this childlike, dainty, man was justified, while the repetition of these images throughout the chapter accentuate O’Brien’s guilt and the war’s destruction of his psychological state.
O’Brien’s psychological grief at killing the young man is amplified and exemplified when he begins to create a history behind the life he has taken. The dead soldier becomes a symbol of O’Briens own war struggle: “Secretly though, [fighting] frightened him. He was not a fighter…. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of the stories. He kept hoping and hoping, always, even when he was asleep” (119). Since O’Brien has no way of knowing what the actual backstory of the soldier is, the construction of this reality is reflective of his own experiences. This imagined history mirrors his thoughts in the story in “On the Rainy River.” Before getting drafted the war, O’Brien fought with the feeling of shame and lack of courage, wondering if he would ever be able to “behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without the thought of personal loss or discredit” (37) asserting that “I was no soldier” (39). After the initial panic of receiving his draft notice began to set in, O’Brien realizes his reluctance to join the war “came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. [He] did not want people to think badly of [him]” (49). The similarities in their backgrounds, their mutual struggle with shame, obligation, and their desire to escape a war they do not want to fight in, liken the dead soldier to O’Brien himself. After he kills the soldier, the guilt eats away at him as he creates this backstory, eerily similar to his own, ultimately representing O’Brien killing a part of himself through the violence he inflicts on this innocent, childlike man, another act of psychological brutality that the war brings upon him.
O’Brien’s psychological state does not improve with time either. In “Ambush,” the story directly following “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien finally breaks his silence and takes responsibility for his actions: “As he passed me on the trail I threw a grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him” (125). Even though his platoon mate Kiowa attempted to rationalize the morals behind killing the man O’Brien still asserts that “None of it mattered. The words seemed far too complicated. All I could do was gape at the fact of the young man’s body. Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out” (127-128). While he transitions from his coping mechanism of distancing himself from the situation using third person perspective to owning up to his actions through first person narrative, the psychological impacts of his actions extend years into the future as he is still haunted by and obsessed with the image of the soldier he killed.
The Vietnam War had lasting effects on its victims, killing them or inflicting psychological and physical wounds on them. O’Brien was no different. In The Things They Carried, he explores the psychological state of soldiers who fought in the war. His coping mechanisms of distancing himself from his actions ultimately failed due to the overwhelming guilt and mental destruction. However, O’Brien’s powerful message in this book about the Vietnam War, its soldiers, and all those involved in it have been a way for him to cope more effectively. Writing is truly a process of catharsis; his recreation of the events that happened in Vietnam to him so many years ago shock readers with its powerful significance in reminding us of life’s fragility and importance by putting our experience into perspective. Despite not knowing which details betray fiction and which portray fact, the impact on the readers is the same. The Things They Carried is a novel that saves lives with its story.

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