The plot of The Things they Carried is set during the peak of the Vietnam War with the protagonist being Tim O’Brien. The first person to meet death is a soldier of low rank Ted Lavender who took to tranquilizers and marijuana to ward of war related anxiety. He is shot and his superior takes on the guilt because at that time he was thinking of an unrequited love; this guilty feeling haunted him even after 20 years following the war. There were other deaths in Alpha Company. O’Brien narrates the death of Lemon who fell to a rigged mortar. Lemon was weak hearted and fainted during one routine checkup but to show he was tough he agreed to have a good tooth pulled out in The Dentist. Another person Strunk died from a landmine. In Friends Strunk and his friend Jensen had made a pact; if one was seriously wounded the other would swiftly kill him and end his agony. But when reality struck Strunk begged for his life and Jensen complied; but when en route Strunk succumbed to his wounds, Jensen was relieved. There is guilt related to the death of popular Kiowa involving his closest friends O’Brien and Bowker.
The point of view is first hand narrative. The stories are in the form of memories. Two decades after the war O’Brien is looking back at the age of forty three while residing in Massachusetts. "Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should have done" (O’Brien, 4). In the story a list is made of all the items his colleagues in Alpha Company carried during their assignment. The ‘things’ are often intangible like fear and guilt while others are specific objects like rifles, matches, pain killers and sweet candy. There are multiple stories but the characters are the same. O’Brien recounts in On the Rainy River what preceded his own enlisting in this army. His initial reaction to the draft notice was to run away to Canada and avoid taking part in something he did not believe in but family feelings and guilt about his anti-war feeling overpowered his political beliefs.
This point of view is appropriate for this story because it is a war story and this genre is best depicted through first hand narration because the gruesome experience cannot be visualized otherwise. It provides a real life experience of the battlefield and makes it possible to enumerate sentences like "My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame" (O’Brien, 49). The horrific feeling of the war is only narrated articulately if it comes from a person who had experienced it all. It also becomes much more believable for the readers. This specific point of view is the only possible approach from a literary context. If the story was told from the perspective of a third person then the description of the battle and its loss would have surely failed to convince the reader (Chen, 91).
The exposure to guilty feelings of old friends triggers the author to take up the pen. In two stories he confronts his own guilt for killing a man in My Khe village. He draws a picture of what the life of this man would have been if he had not been killed by O’Brien. He also wonders how he can explain all this to his daughter aged nine. In the last narration he attempts to show that stories can save people and come to terms with confusing guilt over the past.