The Things They Carried, in its entirety or in excerpts, serves as a springboard text to discuss the complexities of the Vietnam War and war in general with its honest and at times graphic portrayals of death, trauma, and grief. However, the book’s larger questions about truth, memory, loss, and grief also compel readers to connect to the stories–and process their own experiences– even if they do not have war connections or traumas. In fact, in an NPR interview in 2004, O’Brien acknowledged that young readers “bring such fervor to [reading the book] that comes from their own lives, really. The book is… applied to a bad childhood or a broken home. And these are the things they’re carrying.” (National Public Radio, 2004)
Before reading The Things They Carried, teachers can provide background information on the Vietnam War. Students should be given enough information and context in order for them to understand the book’s plot, themes, and relevance to American history, but not so much that it overshadows their personal engagement with the text. In addition, students should understand that Vietnam War veterans still suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome as well as other repercussions of combat trauma. Some helpful statistics that can contextualize these conversations include the 58,220 U.S. casualties in the Vietnam war, with 1,611 soldiers still unaccounted for (CNN Library, 2017).
Additional, brief resources on the Vietnam War provide background and context. Students can read excerpts from nonfiction texts such as Elizabeth Partridge’s (2018) Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, which offers striking perspectives, events, and images. Showing clips from the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, The Vietnam War, or the HBO documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (, which features letters from American soldiers in the Vietnam war, can help students better understand soldiers’ experiences. In addition, Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center and Archive contains teaching resources, including lesson plans as well as an ample collection of war-related primary and secondary sources. When exploring these materials, teachers can utilize Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s (2015) close reading techniques as they encourage students to point out contrasts or contradictions as well as absolute and extreme language.
Making personal connections
Providing historical context can enhance students’ understanding of textual events, but helping students personally connect to The Things They Carried helps students invest in the story and consider their own stories about death–the ways that they have, or have not, experienced loss–and, in turn, open their minds to understand, connect with, and compare their own experiences to O’Brien’s stories about death and loss. Thus, an autobiographical writing prompt (Wilhelm, 2007) can be assigned to help readers frontload and connect personally with the text (See Figure One). Teachers should not shy away from responding to these prompts along with the students. Regarding the topic of death and grieving, Ungemah (2017) affirms this critical witnessing, saying, “Just as we ask students to be their true selves in the classroom–to be honest, open, and vulnerable–as a pedagogical imperative, we must do the same” (p. 54).
Having students consider the ways that minds form, process, experience, and perhaps even revise various experiences–as each prompt encourages them to do via their consideration of different outcomes– can, in turn, encourage them to weigh how their “truths” align with O’Brien’s “truths” (i.e. happening-truth, story-truth, and others) employed in O’Brien’s stories. For example, O’Brien’s account of killing a man considers several different people at fault, showing the reader how O’Brien uses storytelling to process this event from different angles. Students can be asked why they considered different outcomes in their own stories, and how such fantasizing helped or hindered their ability to make sense of what happened. They could also analyze how O’Brien’s multiple perspective strategy helps him process these experiences in healthy ways and in turn explore how to use this strategy for themselves.
O’Brien uses storytelling as a way to bring back to life those whom he has lost. He tells his stories, to others but perhaps most importantly to himself, as a way of saving his own soul, of trying to make sense with who he now is and who he wants to be. In similar ways, students have or will encounter traumatic events in their lives just as O’Brien encountered trauma in his life. When writing, students can be prompted to think about how they felt and how they remember this person. Mirroring O’Brien’s control over his stories, students can be reminded that they may not have had control over the events in their lives, but they do have control over how they write about such events and outcomes.