The Lack of Heroes in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried





The Lack of Heroes in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

The novel, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien is a set of short narratives based on an American battalion of soldiers that served in the Vietnam War. Unlike the other first two narratives, the following set focuses on war. This is attributable to the experiences of O’Brien as a solder serving within the 23rd Infantry Faction. Maintaining an unusual tendency employed in writing known as verisimilitude, O’Brien focuses on narrating his ordeals through a variety of short stories that do not necessarily follow a particular order as observed in most conventional novels. In addition to this, O’Brien tries to present an objective point of view by restricting himself to personal experiences rather than including political references and discussions regarding the Vietnam War decorums. However, one of the more appealing features about the novel involves its disinclination towards heroism. Despite it being a war novel, the author refrains from addressing the facet of valor as usually expected in such narratives. Specifically, O’Brien writes a war story that does not have heroes in order to provide a realistic view of the demoralizing events that occur during war.

Unlike conventional war narratives, O’Brien’s novel does not cast a spotlight on any heroes. The range of recollections provided by the author regarding the Vietnam War reflects a series of discomforting behavior as well as significant cowardice. However, this unusual perspective of a warfare that does not have heroes seems to disclose an internal look on the routine life experienced in the event of a major armed struggle. The main reason that the author selected while developing a war narrative that lacked outstanding heroic acts is based on the unrealistic manner in which war is usually represented. Most traditional war novels ignore the real events and situations that take place during combat. On the other hand, such literatures solely focus on the heroic acts performed by certain people and in turn, ignore other characters that actually assumed a role in participating within the identified armed struggles.

In order to offer a realistic look into the circumstances that take place in war, O’Brien averted from the conventions of a general war novel. For him, such archetypes only succeeded in misrepresenting warfare by simply establishing it as a worthy course. His representation of death, cowardice, and confliction due to his experiences establish the extent to which war is actually a demerit rather than a positive aspect. For instance, the representation of emotional immaturity and death acts as one of the many truthful aspects that are evident in armed struggles. On this note, O’Brien writes that, “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness” (O’Brien 20). Based on this illustration, the sentimental immaturity among most of the soldiers in Vietnam forces them to find new ways of coping with the murder of their enemies as well as the deaths of their comrades in action.

The need to discard heroism in the novel is imperative since it illustrates the various tribulations that soldiers undergo in war. Accordingly, O’Brien takes note of these difficulties by exhibiting them as emotional turmoil. One of the ways in which this is evidenced is based on the intimate connections that are developed among the soldiers during the war. The establishment of these relationships serves as the falling point for the combatants due to the loss that death causes as they take part in advancing the objectives of their respective country. In this respect, the occurrences of death that takes place among the soldiers functions as a facet that separates them from each other. In the end, the soldiers are emotionally distraught and experience a considerable sense of despondency and lack of motivation. Despite the development of a language that assists them in coping with the separation, it is impossible to ignore the sad but factual events that occur during war.

The rejection of heroism in the novel also offers a realistic portrayal of the wavering temperaments of courage. As asserted, O’Brien’s repulsion of heroes in his novel acts as a crude way of showing factually the demoralizing events that occur in armed struggles. Normally, traditional war novels represent courage as a consistent element. However, when O’Brien is coerced into a choice involving reporting for the respective Canada draft, he actually discovers that his comprehension of bravery is considerably incorrect. O’Brien was convinced that courage was finite. In this particular event, the author learns that the aspect of courage tends to be interlocked together with shame and fear. He notes that, “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (O’Brien 21). For him, most of the actions committed by individuals are not provoked by valor, but by the emotion of shame.

Consequently, O’Brien refuses to include any heroes in his war narrative in order to illustrate the emotions of guilt that soldiers tend to experience when participating in the killing of other combatants. The protagonist’s character is seen as attempting to unload the emotional burden that he carries since he took part in the war. O’Brien does not fully forgive himself and his actions for being incapable of asserting a moral stance against the armed struggle as a replacement for enlisting for the army. In addition, the demises of his fellow combatants regardless of their side within the war and his own survival add to his feelings of guilt. In one of these instances, O’Brien fixates over a youthful Viet Cong combatant that he killed via a grenade by imagining the soldier as similar to him (O’Brien 89). The demise of Kiowa is illustrated in a manner that forces the reader to believe that the respective soldier was the one responsible for mortar assault imposed on the platoon.   

Further representation of guilt reveals the extents that soldiers go through in order to attain redemption. O’Brien rejects heroism since he desires to portray the turmoil that soldiers experience while taking part in warfare. Even though Kiowa may have been the one who caused destruction on O’Brien’s platoon, his death imposes a significant and deep impact on him. As such, he manages to return to the site after twenty years in order to gain closure. His re-immersion to the field he once despised acts as a symbol of baptism. On the other hand, the need for closure or personal redemption is more difficult among other characters. For instance, Lieutenant Cross bears the burden of guilt for all the people that have died throughout the courser of the war because of his consistent thoughts concerning Martha rather than watching and observing possible ambushes (O’Brien 54). Others such as Norman Bowker end up committing suicide due to the despondent recollections of the war.

Aside from illustrating the feelings of guilt and the search for redemption, O’Brien’s rejection of heroes in the novel also illustrates the normalcy of the soldiers that take place in warfare. At the end, O’Brien represents each soldier as an actual human being by exposing his or her flaws and insecurities. For instance, Cross comes across initially as a capable and courageous leader. Nonetheless, as the stories progress, it is revealed that the Lieutenant is far from brave and actually full of fear as well as remorse. The letters he receives from Martha limit him from being observant which eventually leads to the death of a soldier. Moreover, his faults as well as disgrace are deposited on every individual. In this respect, O’Brien proves that war can actually expose the worst qualities in everyone. He asserts that, “You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same” (O’Brien 114). For instance, the war causes Mary Anne to change into a ruthless and dangerous combatant.

Lastly, the lack of the presence of heroes in O’Brien’s novel serves as an imperative reminder that war cannot be generalized through the actions of a single individual. Establishing heroic characters in war narratives rejects other experiences that occur during armed struggles. As such, it fails to illustrate the actual and different events and situations that occur during warfare and combat. In respect to this, O’Brien asserts that, “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out, you can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning” (O’Brien 72). The author’s emphasis on the realities of war illustrates the difficulty involved in generalizing war. Every armed struggle is comprised of a series of experiences that vary widely and in the end, reveal contradicting truths. Therefore, the implication is that facts themselves contradict the expectations that persons assert concerning things that seem true.


In conclusion, the heroic persona based on the view of O’Brien comprises an individual that commands considerable influence within the actual world. This is particular in contrast with a war hero, whereby individuals are seized or gripped by the excessive despair and horror that occurs in armed struggles. Hence, with respect to The Things They Carried, the event of war cannot make room for a hero. In the novel, O’Brien recollects the experiences he underwent as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Such narratives involve actual heroes who were at home and averting participation in combat. In summary, the experiences that O’Brien faced as a soldier force him to acknowledge that there are null heroes in war. In the end, such allusions of heroism only conceal the real events and circumstances that soldiers face unwillingly.

Work Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990. Print.

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