The Soldierly Code: War Trauma and Coping in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried


  • Jenna Campbell Field


Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is sometimes portrayed as a work about soldiers that shows the brotherhood created in war and the ways soldiers struggle once they heroically return from a warzone; however, through a postmodernist narrative framework, the episodic novel becomes not a glorification of war but a denigration of it. O’Brien’s work is steeped in the nega-tives that come from war and shows how those negatives impact the lives of soldiers both during and following their time in combat. Further, O’Brien’s novel takes the romanticized notions of war and gives them an upside-down quality to illustrate how patriotism can create isolation, the concept of duty can create murder, and following orders can make it impossible to cope with the things soldiers do in the name of survival. Because the novel is fundamentally grounded in the soldier’s experience, reading O’Brien’s work as a glorification of the soldier is easy, but by reading it as a denigration of the soldierly code, which privileges silence and duty over personal health and well-being, the novel expands into a search for methods of coping with trauma and perpetrator’s guilt. The postmodernist view then cements each of “the things they carried ” as a thing that has removed O’Brien’s soldiers from their humanity and community. Through this understanding, this paper seeks to describe the impact of the soldierly code of silence, isolation, and duty and the way each act to dehumanize O’Brien’s soldiers.


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