The Vietnam War was one of the longest military conflicts in U.S. history, claiming the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and wounding more than 300,000. Estimates place the number of killed or wounded North and South Vietnamese at roughly four million soldiers and civilians—roughly 10% of the population.
In 1959, North and South Vietnam were divided along what is known as the "17th parallel." The North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front sought to unify the country under Communist rule; the South Vietnamese army struggled to maintain independence. In 1964, the U.S. Congress authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to take steps "to prevent further aggression" and keep the South Vietnamese government from collapsing, or as Woodrow Wilson once pledged, to "make the world safe for democracy."
In 1965, the U.S. sent ground troops to South Vietnam and began a series of bombing missions over North Vietnam called Operation Rolling Thunder. Densely forested countryside prevented the effective use of tanks, provided cover for guerrilla fighters and medical evacuations, and allowed helicopters to transport troops and supplies. By the end of 1966, the U.S. had nearly 400,000 troops fighting in Vietnam; by the start of 1969, the draft was in full force and that number had increased to 540,000.
In mid-1969, strategies shifted as it became more evident to American soldiers, politicians, and citizens that the U.S. efforts in Vietnam were not prevailing. Newly elected President Richard Nixon responded by withdrawing 25,000 troops.
Unlike in World War II, there was no front in Vietnam, the danger was pervasive and unrelenting, and the most common measure of "success" was counting the dead bodies of the enemy. The average age of U.S. service members in Vietnam was 19, seven years younger than in WWII, making soldiers even more susceptible to psychological strain.
Although the war claimed countless Vietnamese civilian casualties, Americans were shocked when they learned about an incident that occurred in March of 1968. In what is known as the My Lai Massacre, members of a U.S. infantry company slaughtered more than 300 Vietnamese villagers, including women, elderly men, children, and infants. As news of this incident and other failures of the war broke in Western publications, the American peace movement gained momentum.
Large antiwar protests spread across America. The morale among troops—particularly those coming home from the war to a country with little empathy for what they had experienced—was low. Suicide, alcoholism, divorce, and unemployment were more rampant among veterans of Vietnam than of any other war in U.S. history until then.
In January 1973, the warring governments signed a peace accord, ending open hostilities between North Vietnam and the U.S. However, the conflict between Vietnamese forces continued until the fall of Saigon in South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
The complexity of the struggle and the reasons for America's involvement are still widely debated. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is the most famous tribute to the war. Designed by Maya Ying Lin and constructed in 1982, the memorial is a stark black granite wall with the names engraved of American service members killed and missing in the war.
"War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead." —Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried
Introduction to the Book
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) is considered one of the finest books about the Vietnam War. Far from a combat story of pride and glory, it is a compassionate tale of the American soldier, brimming with raw honesty and thoughtful reflection.
The book's narrator follows a platoon of infantrymen through the jungles of Vietnam. We see them trudge through the muck of a constant downpour, get hit by sniper fire, pull body parts out of a tree, laugh while they tell their stories to each other, and fall silent when faced with making sense of it all—both in the moment and twenty years later.
Central to the book is O'Brien's unique style, which blurs the lines between fact and fiction, then examines how and why he does just that. O'Brien challenges readers to ponder larger philosophical questions about truth and memory, and brings the reader closer to the emotional core of the men's experiences. "For the common soldier," O'Brien writes in "How to Tell a True War Story," "war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true."
The Things They Carried is not just a tale of war, and the book's themes are no less relevant today than they were decades ago. This award-winning work is a brutal, sometimes funny, often profound narrative about the human heart—how it fares under pressure and what it can endure.
"You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever." —Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried
Major Characters in the Book
Tim O'Brien is the narrator who never wanted to fight in the Vietnam War and remains haunted by memories even 20 years after he returns to America.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is a solitary, pensive platoon leader who cares about his men. He carries photos and letters from the girl he loves back home in New Jersey, who doesn't love him back.
Bob "Rat" Kiley is a likeable and skilled medic who braves danger to keep his fellow soldiers alive. He carries comic books, brandy, and M&Ms.
Kiowa is a kind and moral soldier from Oklahoma, a Native American, a devout Baptist. He carries an illustrated New Testament, worn-out moccasins, and his grandfather's feathered hunting hatchet.
Norman Bowker is a quiet boy from Central Iowa who strives to live up to his father's expectations and finds he can't relate to anyone back home after the war. He carries a diary and a thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse.
Henry Dobbins is a large, strong, dependable, unsophisticated machine gunner. He carries extra rations and wears his girlfriend's pantyhose tied around his neck.
"They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried." —Tim O'Brien, in The Things They Carried