In the Classroom

Study Questions
Go Read
Vietnam War
In the Classroom
Student Responses

“The Things They Carried” in the Classroom

Tim O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carried” offers numerous opportunities for interdisciplinary, reading, group, research, film, and writing assignments.  Below are some possibilities:

 Reading Assignments

  1. Have students read and compare “The Things They Carried” with other American war-related literature, including Ernest Hemmingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “To Du Street” and “Facing It,” Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Robert Bly’s “Counting Small-Boned Bodies,” Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, or the more recent Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.
  2. Have students read and compare “The Things They Carried” with news accounts of soldiers in Iraq.
  3. Have students read “The Things They Carried” in the context of readings on the history, causes, and effects of the Vietnam War.
  4. Have students read “The Things They Carried” with examples from the anthology Both Sides Now, which includes poetry written about the Vietnam War by Americans and Vietnamese.
  5. Compare this story and other accounts of war with those by women, such as Margaret Fuller’s Foreign Correspondence of the Tribune, which includes her accounts of the war for Italian independence in the 1840’s, Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers, or Joan Didion’s Salvador


Group Assignments

  1. Have students makes lists and groupings of the “things” the soldiers “carried” in the story.  Have them discuss and analyze the categories of things the soldiers carried.
  2. Have students identify the “things” they carry with them in a variety of settings: school, work, family gatherings, relationships.  Ask them to discuss the role memory plays in their lives and how it affects their encounters with new people and new situations.
  3. Have students discuss what they know about the Vietnam War and how that knowledge influences their understanding of the story.  Encourage students who feel comfortable sharing personal experiences in the Vietnam War (or any war) or relationships to people who served.


Research Assignments

  1. Have students research the Vietnam War links on this website in order to better understand the context of the story.  How does this story compare with factual information about the Vietnam War?
  2. Have students research other American writers who have written about war, especially writers who experienced war themselves – Ernest Hemmingway, Walt Whitman
  3. Many writers who examine war, including O’Brien, focus on the psychological aspects of warfare.  How does “The Things They Carried” examine the psychology of war?  Research mental conditions including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to learn how war affects men.
  4. How do men and women experience war differently? Based on your reading of war literature by men and women, research how war affects them differently.


Film Assignments

  1. Pair readings of this story with any number of films about the Vietnam War.  I have found Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Stanley Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket to be the most useful because they follow individual soldiers and how they react to the war environment and other soldiers.  You might show Platoon in class or combine one or more film clips with class discussions about the story.
  2. Pair readings of this story with clips from Ken Burns’ Vietnam, particularly those parts of the documentary that involve the reading of soldiers’ letters home, which have the same casual feel of much of the writing in “The Things They Carried.”


Writing Assignments

  1. Compare the experience of soldiers in “The Things They Carried” with the portrayal of Vietnam soldiers in any work of non-fiction, including documentaries, histories, anthologies, or films.  What makes this a story that reflects the experience of real men in war?  What makes this a work of literary fiction?
  2. Consider war as a gender issue.  How does war affect men adversely?  How are the men in “The Things They Carried” affected by the Vietnam War?  In what mental and physical condition do you imagine they will return home (if they survive)?  What challenges will they face?
  3. Analyze novels, poems, and stories of war by men and women.  Are there similarities?  Differences?  How are men represented in works by women?  How are women represented in works by men?
  4. Using your own personal experience of war or a relationship with someone who has experienced war firsthand, analyze this story as a reflection of war.  Is it an accurate depiction?  Why or why not?
  5. Analyze “The Things They Carried” with another Vietnam War story or poem, or with another work of literature that reflects other war experiences.  What does war experience in one country and time period share in common with war experience in a completely different country or time period?
  6. Why do writers write about their own war experience?  Research writers such as O’Brien or Hemingway and the effect war experience had on them.   How did it influenced their writing?
  7. Think of a traumatic or difficult time in your own life.  What “things” did you carry with you?  Compare the things you carried with those of the soldiers in the story.
  8. Compare the war experience of soldiers in “The Things They Carried” with the war experience of soldiers in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (or another film about the Vietnam War).
  9. Compare the experience of men in war in “The Things They Carried” with the effects of war on men who have returned home in O’Brien’s “How To Tell a True War Story.”  Consider the psychological impact of war on men.
  10. How does your reading of “war stories” such as “The Things They Carried” affect your perceptions and beliefs about wars in which American soldiers are now fighting?  What kinds of information about war do we have access to in stories about war that we do not have access to through the news media?  Why is that information withheld from the public?  What do you know of "war stories" emerging from American soldiers in Iraq who have returned home?

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