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In the novel The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien demonstrates many ideas about war, survival, corruption, and powerlessness through his collection of short stories. Throughout his book, O’Brien describes many incidents that happen merely because of chance and luck. In these short stories, O’Brien teaches that it is impossible to generalize about war. In a dark irony, war is awful but is not always awful because war corrupts soldiers, but at the same time makes the soldiers feel alive. One central idea that O’Brien writes about that soldiers are powerless over their own survival in the face of war, and that the fate of a soldier is down to chance and luck.
This theme of survival based on luck is shown several times throughout the novel, in instances where a soldier’s survival was purely dependent on chance and luck. In one particular story, O’Brien writes about a soldier who never was injured: “Dobbins was invulnerable. Never wounded, never a scratch. In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty [a landmine], which failed to detonate. A week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight, no cover at all, he just breathed deep and let the magic do its work” (O’Brien 112). O’Brien writes about a soldier named Henry Dobbins who survived without any injury purely because of chance. When Curt Lemon steps on the landmine, he dies, but when Dobbins steps on a landmine, it fails to explode. Neither of these men did anything different, and yet one lives and one dies, revealing the prominent theme of chance in the book.
Another scene in which the theme of chance is clear occurs after Kiowa’s death: “You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate…You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx of a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.” (O’Brien 169-170). After Kiowa’s death, O’Brien describes all the things one could blame for his death. The fact that it is possible to blame so many things for Kiowa’s death demonstrates that many factors had to be present for Kiowa’s death. If just a few of these factors had been changed, it is very well possible that Kiowa would have survived the war. Consequently, Kiowa’s death was based purely on chance because the presence of many of these factors is based on chance.
Many of O’Brien’s stories relate to the overall theme of the powerlessness of a soldier in war. A soldier’s life is dependent on chance and luck to the point where the soldiers have little to no say in whether they live or die. This idea is present in Jimmy Cross’s thoughts after Kiowa’s death: “In his head he [Jimmy Cross] was revising the letter to Kiowa’s father. Impersonal this time. An officer expressing an officer’s condolences. No apologies were necessary, because it [Kiowa’s death] was one of those freak things, and the war was full of freaks, and nothing could ever change it anyway.” (O’Brien 169). Kiowa’s fate was purely based on chance. In order for Kiowa to have died, a few things must have happened. First, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had to make the mistake of obeying his superiors rather than his own instinct. Second, the place they chose had to be the village toilet, in low ground and vulnerable to enemy fire. Third, it had to have been Kiowa who died. These chance factors demonstrate how Kiowa’s death was merely a result of a few random happenings. Had one of these factors not happened, Kiowa may have survived the war.
O’Brien’s description of the heavy mortar rounds hammering the blind and confused platoon in the dark displays that it could have been any of the soldiers who died. This theme is present every time O’Brien writes about fellow soldiers dying; in fact, this idea is present whenever O’Brien recounts the boredom the soldier’s felt during parts of the war, and is used extensively throughout the book. O’Brien also establishes that the soldier’s understood their own powerlessness over their survival. “Even in the deep bush [forest], where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring.” (O’Brien 27-28). By saying that the war was boring, even with the fact that one could die “any number of ways,” these soldiers are bored, rather than nervous or anxious, because they realize that their survival is purely down to luck. All of these events relate to the overall theme of the powerlessness of a soldier over a soldier’s own fate in a war, because the life of a soldier is simply based on chance.
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