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The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien
1990

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Tim O'Brien's work knows that the author is a Vietnam vet who frequently revisits his war experiences in his writing. This piece starts with the title, literally enumerating the things, both tangible and intangible but mostly of the material, measurable type, that the combatants carry around. This could be incredibly dull in a less nuanced writer's hands, but the literalness of listing all those items, and their respective weights, gives the piece its initial grounding in the quotidian reality of the soldiers' lives. I didn't bother with the arithmetic--I'm almost afraid to break out the calculator and tally up the sheer poundage pressing on any particular combatant's back on a given day. It's the kind of weight where the author will list the ounces of each item, because when you're talking about that kind of weight, every ounce counts. The litany of concrete things, ounces and pounds makes its point to such an extent that the "weight of the world on his shoulders" cliche doesn't need to be voiced and might not even be relevant. The immediate picture it paints is no less valid for its literalness: a picture of young men in varying degrees of innocence and cynicism, carrying untold tens of pounds of armor, weapons, ammo, tools, rations and other supplies around on their persons in all weather, over all kinds of terrain, in the execution of a war they didn't start and in most cases had no choice but to fight.

But actually that's not the point. )

March 2012

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