In Tim O’Brien’s fictional war novel, The Things They Carried, he juxtaposes images of true horror and beauty in order to expose the complex aspects of war. O’Brien brings the past back to life, illustrating the war exactly as it occurred to him, without removing any of the uncomfortable parts. He describes the soldiers’ various encounters with chaos and corruption, making sure to highlight the natural state of the world among them. These lighter-hearted details allow readers to process the difficult situations and see them from a different perspective.
By taking an approach that challenges the traditional view of war as solely frightening and destructive, O’Brien is able to connect the ugliness of battle with the emotions and beauty of nature.
In describing Curt Lemon’s unfortunate death, O’Brien reveals how the tragedy has both elements of terror and of grace. This horrifying story in the chapter, “How to Tell a True War Story,” exemplifies the undeniable presence of beauty in even the most terrible parts of life.
O’Brien tells that “when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” . One-half step to his side “from shade into bright light,” and Curt Lemon disappears; he is consumed by the beautiful blossoms and vines as if he is part of the tree. O’Brien recalls how he found “pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines” while cleaning the tree with Dave Jensen.
As they continued this jarring task, Jensen mourned in the form of singing, ironically repeating the peaceful and mellow tune of the song, “Lemon Tree.”
In narrating this situation, O’Brien chooses not to solely focus on the disgusting and bloody condition of the remains, but to focus intently on the final appearance of Curt Lemon alive, as he is glistening in the sunshine. In this way, O’Brien has been able to cope with the utter anguish of the situation, and separate his comrade’s death from the beauty of his life. Likewise, Curt Lemon’s best friend, Rat Kiley, also struggles in grieving his sudden passing. He reacts violently, attempting to alleviate his pain by releasing his aggression. Upon discovering a baby buffalo, Kiley chooses the animal to be the target of his torture, as “it went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off its ear”. Rat Kiley’s behavior “wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt”, so that another living being could feel pain as he felt it. Kiley’s actions of brutality are accompanied by his tears of agony, as he longs for the return of his best friend and finds it difficult to control himself. While his immediate response is gruesome in nature, it indirectly allows the terrifying story of war to transform into a heartbreaking story of love. Even in the worst situations, nature makes its presence obvious, allowing those in despair to find comfort in its beauty.
Later when O’Brien struggles mentally over the death of the Vietnamese soldier, he addresses the unaltered condition of nature amid war’s brutality. In this period of the book, O’Brien tortures himself as he deviates between the fictional story of the soldier’s life and the terrifying image of his death. When reflecting on the battered condition of the corpse, O’Brien feels defeated and cannot control his emotions. He is unable to process what he is staring at, ceaselessly repeating the gory details about how “one eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole” (124). In contrast, nature could be found all around the corpse, as the bloody trail had “a row of trees and tall brush,” along with “small blue flowers shaped like bells” (121). Even a beautiful butterfly could be seen “making its way along the young man’s forehead” (120), illustrating the idea that the beauty of nature does not disappear even amongst human disaster. The world continues, and these unexpected pieces of nature remain, settling themselves in any spot available, ironically even at the scene of a death.
Within his novel, O’Brien not only includes the terrifying realities of war, but also the presence of life and authentic emotions within war. War is not commonly known to be a pleasant affair, yet in his war stories, O’Brien allows glimpses of beauty and love to be seen. As depicted in O’Brien’s accounts of the enemy soldier and Curt Lemon’s death, images of beauty catch readers off-guard as they are not traditional details in a war story. O’Brien has a greater objective in juxtaposing these conflicting details, fully conveying the emotions and fears behind war altogether. As O’Brien explains in his novel, war stories are never completely accurate; in order to understand the deeper meanings contained within, one also needs an illustration of the lives behind them. Ultimately, O’Brien accomplishes this by creating a clear connection between the natural world and the unnatural aspects of war.