As of to date, the current United States war on Iraq has caused over 110,000 military deaths (Associated Press). That is over 110,000 lives remembered, fellow soldiers affected, families affected, and husbands/wives abandoned. Death can be defined as the cause or occasion of the loss of life. To analyze the concept of death, we look at Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, where death is more than prevalent. In this novel, there are death can be broken down in a few ways; death of personality, death in battle, death outside of battle, and how people cope with death. As quoted by an unknown author, “Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives,” this ideology focuses on how people need to live their life. In a time of mourning, how does one continue to live their life when someone close to them passes away?
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Death is inevitable but in most cases hard to accept. There are many ways to handle your emotions when a love one dies, while no single pathway through grief within the novel exists, there are common ones that are discussed by O’Brien In The Things They Carried, death is constantly experienced in the lives of soldiers during the Vietnam war. The novel overall provides several instances of the soldiers finding ways to cope with death by telling jokes, telling stories, and through expression of emotional reactions.
Obrien jokingly saying, “Not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spinsâ€¦the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom..down” (6). This quote exemplifies how some of the soldiers tell jokes to cope with death. O’Brien not only tells a story about death. He simply shows the reader a soldier’s death, and emphasizes its matter-of-factness, it candidness, by having the victim die taking an innocent piss, not blasting away multiple enemies before going down in a hail of bullets, or some other unrealistic glorified manner. Even as they reflect on a life lost, O’Brien shows how telling jokes can back-fire and leaves one feeling guilty. “A classic caseâ€¦Biting the dirt, so to speak, that tells the story” (165). As Azar tells a joke about the death of Kiowa, Norman Bowker responds saying “Enough!” (165). Azar later apologizes to Norman Bowker feeling remorseful for the jokes that he tells. He expresses to Norman the feeling he feels that, by telling the jokes, he’s responsible for Kiowa’s death. Bowker eventually says that “it was nobody’s fault” because “nobody knew ’til afterword” (166). It is ironical to see how the two very different topics of death and humor can come together. Although Azar was unsuccessful, telling a joke usually brings laughter, which can collaboratively bring happiness. The combat of emotions between happiness and sadness (in which death brings) somehow works. Especially in a time of stress and mourning, O’Brien correctly depicts how telling a joke can be a remedy for coping with death.
Often times, telling a story and remembering someone can assist in helping to cope with death. O’Brien describes how stories told about those who have passed are meant to keep the memory of the deceased. “One of the things all of the soldiers carried was the “weight of memory” (14). O’Brien can actually attest to the idea that stories are told to alter truth “story-truth” (179). This allows us to see the connection made between storytelling and coping with death. To exemplify this, we look at The Lives of the Dead story in the novel when O’Brien writes about when he listened to a story about Curt Lemon. He remembers how Rat Kiley reminisced, “you’d never know that Curt Lemon was dead. He was still out there in the darkâ€¦But he was dead” (240). By the same token, O’Brien uses a reflective story to save his childhood friend’s life, “and as a writer now, I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body – her life (236).” He continues to bring Linda to life in the story where she “can smile and sit up. She can reach out touch my wrist and say, “Timmy, stop crying””, which allows him to cope with the death of his mother (236). O’Brien and the other characters in the novel are capable of coping with death through the imagined that the existent cannot give.
Unfortunately, not everyone can find a coping mechanism when they lose someone close to them. Often times an emotional reaction is triggered by the memory of the deceased. Some react in a very stoic manner, like Norman Bowker when Kiowa brought up Ted Lavender’s death. “We all got problems” Bowker said and Kiowa responded “Not Lavender” (18). Bowker then humbly said, “Do me a favorâ€¦Shut up” (18). O’Brien also depicts how one can cope with death even if they have a feeling of guilt that they may have caused the death. The superseding love that Jimmy Cross had for Martha was obvious early on in the novel. O’Brien writes “Because of his absent mind he felt like he had killed his fellow solider Ted Lavender” (172). An outburst reaction or feeling of guilt is not an unusual feeling when someone losing a friend. Even within war where grown men fight to stay alive, there are feelings of emotion. Here, Jimmy Cross already showing a strong sense of love throughout the novel, reacts as though love was the reason for Lavender’s death. So, to cope with the death and guilt, he throws away the things he carried that reminded him of the love he shared for Martha.
For each soldier in the war, to deal with the traumata of the war, it was necessary for them to find ways in coping with death of a fellow comrade or of a loved one. Coping with the stress and liability of war is not an easy task for anyone, but in The Things They Carried, O’Brien illustrates how grown men deal and cope as much as they can, while only using just a few possessions. They learn how to cope with death by telling jokes, storytelling, and through their emotional reactions. Finding ways to cope with death is a daunting task for anyone because, the death of a loved one is a very difficult ordeal to overcome. But as difficult as the loss may be, it is important to find a coping mechanism that best suits you and move on with your life.
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
b c d[dead link]Gamel, Kim (April 14, 2009). “AP Impact: Secret Tally Has 87,215 Iraqis Dead”. Associated Press (via ABC News).
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