When I first read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I sincerely thought that it was a memoir of some sort; the book was dedicated to the characters, one of the character’s name is Tim O’Brien (who also is a writer in the novel), and the chapter called Notes mentions how Bowker had read Going after Cacciato and responded with a letter.
And it’s interesting that O’Brien said that he did, in some sense, write the book like a memoir, but only as part of his strategy of adding that element of truth and reality into a work of fiction. By doing so, O’Brien sought to put his reader into the midst of the experience of the Vietnam War and to use fiction to tell the truth through a different mode – storytelling. Unlike newscasts and reports we see on TV about war, storytelling helps us overcome our insensitivity towards war, painting us a different picture and story, unlike the statistics and constant reports that have numbed us into insouciance. Through fiction, through the stories, the author can “squeeze the human heart,” for literature was never a “happy hour time.”
The end goal, O’Brien says, is to make us — the young people — “understand the complications and the ambiguities of these things, and to hear it from someone who has not only gone to a war, but devoted a lifetime to suffering from it.” This echoes some of what he mentioned in another interview, when he was asked about his opinion on the current wars in the Middle East. He said he was quite surprised at the lack of attention and thought given to these wars by the public. In some ways, these wars are similar, in that the reasons in which we went to war were unclear and obscure. Certainly, there is no draft today, but O’Brien still wants us, as a society, to “move beyond the notion that we can always accomplish what we want through a war,” to see what war forces each and every one of us to carry.