12 Harrowing Facts About The Things They Carried

Fact and fiction blend together in Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories about the Vietnam War. A character named “Tim O’Brien” fights alongside his comrades, while another soldier tells a story that gets revised later in the book. As O’Brien (the real O’Brien) has said, sometimes fiction tells the truth better than nonfiction. Here, we take a look at the facts, and only the facts.


O’Brien served close to a year of active combat as part of 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, including a stint in My Lai just months after the notorious massacre. He was injured by a grenade explosion, worked a desk job for a while and was sent home in 1970.


O’Brien maintains that the majority of the events in The Things They Carried come from his imagination (it is labeled as a work of fiction, after all). Which isn’t to say they have no basis in truth. There are, O’Brien writes, “story-truths” and “happening-truths,” the distinction being fictional reality versus factual reality. Yet “story truths,” O’Brien believes, often convey emotional and philosophical truths in more effective ways. A fictional account of a soldier’s death may better convey a sense of fear and loss than a factual account. “That’s what fiction is for,” O’Brien said during a lecture at Brown University. “It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient.”


After several months in the field, O’Brien secured a clerk’s role that included filing paperwork, typing reports, and overseeing the publication of the divisional newsletter. It was called “The Professional,” and it included regimental reports and other news sanctioned by the Army. Of course O’Brien loathed it: “I despised that job, and I especially despised that ridiculous newsletter,” he wrote. “But it beat getting shot dead.”


At the beginning of his book, O’Brien offers a dedication to the soldiers of Alpha Company, and a few in particular: Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa. These are, the reader comes to learn, some of the main characters from O’Brien’s stories. And they’re all made up. In an interview with NPR, O’Brien says he spent more time with his characters than he did with any soldiers in combat, who were constantly cycling in and out. He also wanted to emulate the conventions of a memoir. As he told The Austin Chronicle, “I was hoping I could seduce the reader into thinking, ‘Maybe I’m reading nonfiction.’”


O’Brien worked briefly as a reporter at The Washington Post before turning his attention full time to writing fiction. In addition to his novels and stories, O’Brien also wrote a memoir for The New York Times titled “The Vietnam In Me” that discussed his battle with depression and his return to Vietnam in 1994.


O’Brien wrote a memoir about his time in Vietnam called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. He also wrote a novel titled Going After Cacciato about a soldier who leaves Vietnam and travels to Paris. It won the National Book Award for 1978, beating out John Irving's The World According to Garp and The Stories of John Cheever. O’Brien says the book is based on a fantasy he always had about going AWOL.


The Things They Carried has become a staple in high school and college curriculums across the country—a fact that surprises O’Brien, who always thought the themes of trauma and the shifting nature of truth to be unappealing to all but a small group of adult readers. “I had imagined an audience of literate people on subways and going to work and in their homes reading the book,” O’Brien told NPR.


Although it’s a novel about the Vietnam War, O’Brien prefers to think of it in terms of larger ideas. It’s about storytelling and the shifting nature of truth. It’s about the things all of us carry. “The book was meant to be a bridge between the experiences of all of you, the things you carry through your lives,” O’Brien says.


Including a critically acclaimed one-man play in St. Paul, Minn.


But it has yet to be made into a major motion picture, according to O'Brien.


The exhibit includes artwork and artifacts from more than 20 artists who are veterans of the war. There’s also a re-creation of a soldier’s tent shelter fully decked out with equipment and personal effects.


Spend six hours listening to the Breaking Bad star’s smooth, somewhat menacing voice as the narrator, and you'll get a real feel for the book. Take it from critic A.O. Scott: “Cranston attacks O’Brien’s sober, sinewy prose with a slightly scary authority.”

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?