In the Book the Things they Carried Pictures how Men Face War

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Updated: Aug 15, 2023
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Baseball is known for being America’s pastime, where we often see players throw killer fastballs or hit a grand slam. However, we also witness displays of temper. Many players use different methods to express their emotions when they strike out. For example, some players chew tobacco to calm their nerves, while others vent their anger by throwing helmets on the ground. This isn’t a new phenomenon; we constantly see different ways people deal with external conflict, and how these experiences shape them into different people.

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Despite variations within these responses, a common pattern emerges: once-naïve men, after experiencing violent combat, morph into a new being, finding various coping mechanisms during and after war.

The opening scene of Apocalypse Now, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Kim Aubry, exhibits characters’ reactions as they disembark from choppers and confront a hazardous war zone. Ironically, while bombs are being dropped nearby and toxic gas fills the air, Colonel Bill Kilgore remains unflinching and impassive even when a deadly bomb crashes nearby. In contrast, his troops crouch in fear for their lives. This juxtaposition between new, naive soldiers and the hardened Lieutenant displays how war can profoundly distort a person’s reality. In one famous scene, Kilgore pronounces “..the best smell is napalm in the morning,” a disconcerting sentiment when compared to a “normal” civilian who would likely associate pleasant morning aromas with coffee, for instance (Coppola and Aubry).

This film illustrates how exposure to the harsh realities of war can drastically alter a person’s idea of a “normal” everyday life. There’s a brief scene where a Vietnamese mother, clutching her young son in desperate fear, runs towards the soldiers for help while bullets are being fired in every direction. Unlike his men, who would likely dismiss her, Kilgore yells, “I’ll take care of this…and get that [gun] out of here”. He arranges a chopper to fly the woman and her son away to safety (Coppola and Aubry). This act of kindness shows that even in the darkest of times, when it’s easy to lose all hope, humanity can always be found. As a coping mechanism, Kilgore employs an “insane” approach: he treats life as an ironic joke, a morality-free war where death is inevitable, but where one can still hold on to the last shred of “innocence”.

In the novel, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Michell Sanders, an “RTO” in the Vietnam War, deals with the chaos of war by having a conversation with one of his group members, Henry Dobbin, about finding the didactic purpose of war. This conversation is initiated after Sanders cuts off a dead Vietnamese boy’s thumb (O’Brien). The conversation begins with Sanders stating, “[do you know what the] definite moral here [is Dobbin?]” Dobbin, perplexed by the question, replies that he sees no moral. “Exactly,” Sanders says, “there are no morals in a war without morals” (O’Brien). The “thumb” symbolizes how war transforms the mentality of once youthful boys into those of predatory men, their actions reflecting their disconnection from society back home.

Even Sanders, who was once a hopeless romantic carrying condoms in his bag, ironically found little use for them in the war. However, in the context of the novel, this indicates that he was once a “normal” adolescent before he began cutting off body parts (O’Brien). The “there it is” underscores Sanders’ method of coping – finding morals in stories or events. This approach contrasts sharply with the reality of a nation sending thousands of young men into a bloody conflict that cannot be won, only to turn them into unrecognizable people. Upon their return, they are haunted by the grisly images of the unspeakable things they witnessed.

Moving on in the book “The Things They Carried,” Ted Lavender is one of the young men in Lieutenant Cross’s group, who likely were drafted into the conflict in Nam unwillingly. Lavender’s heavy use of drugs was his way of remaining sane. For instance, he “was [so] scared [he] carried tranquilizers [and] dope” until his death (O’Brien). Ironically, when his comrades describe his death, it is portrayed as though he simply “dropped down [and] the unweighted fear … [and] 34 rounds of [ammunition]” without a flinch dragged his body to the ground (O’Brien). Furthermore, it is highlighted how his consumption of so many “relaxers” numbed him to the extent where he died without evident pain or struggle. He was merely trying to cope with the surrounding chaos. Even his decision to “hump” extra bullets as a precautionary measure to protect himself from enemies didn’t help him survive. He transitioned from a numb being dreading death at every step, to a deceased but liberated soul free from the horrors of war (O’Brien).

The song “Sam Stone” by John Prine tells the story of a war veteran who comes home a changed man with new habits. Unfortunately, instead of returning proudly to his “wife and family…with a Purple Heart [medal],” he brings his expensive coping mechanism (Prine). The Vietnam War is still one of the most controversial conflicts in which America has ever been involved, due to questions regarding whether the red, white, and blue nation should have entangled itself in another country’s problems. Many soldiers were spit upon and hated upon their return, so during Sam’s time serving in Nam, “all his nerves shattered” from experiencing horrific scenes in the treacherous jungle. When he arrives back into everyday civilian life, the use of dope and “grass… ease[s] the pain,” enabling him to coexist with the life happening around him (Prine). Once a family man, he now has a “hundred dollar habit…[that leaves] a hole in daddy’s arm where all [the family’s] money goes”. Eventually, he “pops his last balloon” and overdoses “alone” because he has lost the “fun” in life since returning home as a different man than the one who left for war; drugs were his escape from the pain and memories of war.

While the war was happening in Vietnam, back in the United States many college students formed peace protest organizations that opposed the war and what it stood for. Some of the older generations promptly rebutted the “rebellious” youth by dismissing their voice as unimportant. However, couldn’t this be regarded as their coping mechanism? Voicing their opinion that wanted to be heard? To stand up for their fellow classmates who were caught in a lottery of death? In the end, every individual has their own way to cope with life happening around them, unfortunately, at times, they are assessed wrongly.

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In the Book the Things They Carried Pictures How Men Face War. (2022, Aug 21). Retrieved from