American Must-Reads: The Things They Carried

by The Cowl Editor on February 14, 2019


Life is too short to read everything. It may even be too short to major in American studies, history, or English. This column, brought to you by professors in American studies, history, and English, highlights the books you simply cannot let pass, whatever your major. Start your list! 

by Dr. Margaret Manchester, Assistant Professor of History


When Ken Burns and Lynn Novick aired their 10-part series The Vietnam War in late 2017, many Americans paused in a moment of national self-reflection.  The telev


ision series has also sparked interest among Americans who were born after the war ended and who want to know more about the experiences in Vietnam and its ongoing significance in American memory.  Why were American soldiers there?  What did it mean for the Americans and Vietnamese who fought? What are the legacies of the war?  

The Things They Carried is one of the best contemporary works about the war experience, written by Tim O’Brien, who himself served in the 23rd Infantry Division. The work is a collection of short stories, narrated by O’Brien and linked together by the common experiences of the soldiers in his platoon.  It is a modernist work, circling back repeatedly and enabling readers to view the same event from a multiplicity of perspectives.  

O’Brien asks, “How to Tell a True War Story?” The central actors in the book become familiar, and the readers believe the stories that have been told despite O’Brien’s disclaimers that they are not true.  Students in my classes who have read this text believe the authentic voices in the novel and they have indirectly experienced war through its characters. It is powerful and compelling, funny and chilling.  Ultimately, the real truth lies somewhere between the truth of the story and the audience who seeks it.