Breath of Clarity

Psychological Impact of the Vietnam War.

The novel “The Things They Carried” and film The Deer Hunter both capture the lessons that consequences of gruesome warfare have to offer. In “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien composes a set of stories from the Vietnam War to convey the effect that this brutal conflict has on its soldiers. In The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino demonstrates the impact that fighting in Vietnam has on three men, by showing their change in character over the course of their experience before and after combat. In spite of some definite contrasts, several key similarities in selected scenes from The Things They Carried and The Deer Hunter show that effective communication maintains sanity. This argument is shown through multiple scenes from the book and film.

In the chapter called “Style” the ability for a young girl to communicate non-verbally through dance, in the midst of dealing with the death of her entire family, allows her to stay sane. As the soldiers are bringing her dead family members out of the burning house, O’Brien describes that the girl is “quiet, […] composed [and] sometimes smiling to herself” when she is dancing. Over the course of the chapter Azar, a member of the platoon, repeatedly asks “Why’s she dancing?” and Henry Dobbins, another member of the platoon, replies, “it doesn’t matter why, she just was” (O’Brien 135-136). Regardless of the reason why the girl chose dance as a way to cope with her situation, it proves to be an effective way to communicate the fact that she is heavily affected by her family’s death. Dancing is a typical method of self-expression for any artist and serves as an effective strategy of coping with her loss. It simply helps her to keep calm in a time of such tragedy. The fact that she feels the need to dance shows that, indeed, she needs something to restore her sense of comfort, but at the same time, shows that she will have the strength to overcome this tragedy. While the young girl is able to unleash her emotions, there are some individuals who wish they could, but simply can’t do it on their own.

The inability of Norman Bowker, a fellow war veteran of O’Brien’s, to communicate emotional distress makes him go insane and eventually commit suicide. Before Bowker passes away, he suggests that O’Brien write a story based on the typical Vietnam War veteran who is heavily impacted by the field of combat, and as a result cannot get his life straightened out when he returns back home. Bowker describes this soldier as one who “wants to talk about it, but […] can’t,” and then confesses that this request is ultimately driven by self-motive, when he says, “I’d write it myself except I can’t ever find any words, […], and I can’t figure out what exactly to say.’” (O’Brien 156-157). There is a clear barrier that is keeping Bowker from being able to communicate his emotions on his own. In these words, he pleads O’Brien, in desperation, to free him from the misery that he can no longer withstand of not being able to communicate his post-war thoughts. O’Brien uses “juxtaposition to associate physical burden with emotional burden” in his novel to explain that a soldier can “achieve a feeling of freedom […] and catapult themselves out of Vietnam […] only by stripping themselves of the physical gear of the war” (Korb). Over the course of the war, soldiers slowly let go of certain objects that hold them back, and with that release of physical objects comes this emotional relief tied to them. Norman Bowker is never able to let go of this build up of emotion through the use of effective communication, and therefore can never reach this freedom of sanity.

On the contrary, Tim O’Brien’s ability to communicate effectively through the use of story telling allows him to maintain a sense of sanity. O’Brien explicitly confesses to his audience that a lot of the events that he’s talked about never happened, because he wants to explain why he’s written this way. O’Brien explains that his method of communicating truth through fictional events has proven to be beneficial by describing that “what stories can do, […] is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. […] I can make myself feel” (O’Brien 179-180). The only way that he can access these true emotional memories is by conveying them using these stories that have untrue events. The fact that he feels compelled to write an entire book with false stories shows how his desperation to communicate his emotion. Perhaps, this is because he notices the incredible effect that communicating can have on his state of mind. If this method works for him then there is no reason to discontinue the practice of writing these stories. The article entitled “Unraveling the Deeper Meaning” explains that “O’Brien’s war stories are not about recovering from trauma; they are about accepting indeterminacy and learning to live not through Vietnam but with it” (Chen). O’Brien exhibits a true strength by writing these stories. O’Brien really acknowledges all of these intense emotions that the average person would have trouble bringing out. The reason why he is able to maintain sanity is because he recognizes in his novel all of the aspects of his these feelings that bothered him and chooses to work through them, instead of ignoring their existence. Communicating them does not only serve as an opportunity for his audience to understand him, but it also helps him to gather and organize his own thoughts. The characters in the film show some of these same behaviors in different circumstances to demonstrate how the effective communication can impact one’s level of sanity.

When Stanley, a close friend of the soldiers back home, mimics Russian roulette to make light of the war, Mike practices insane behavior as he ineffectively communicates the disturbance he felt participating in the actual game by nearly killing Stanley. In Mike’s first moments reunited with his friends, Stanley asks, “How does it feel to be shot at?” Mike replies, “It don’t. It don’t hurt, if that’s what you want to know” (Cimino). Mike isn’t able to communicate, even with his closest friends, the pain that he felt in the battlefield. It’s easier for him to avoid conversation on the topic and act as if everything was completely fine. When Mike has trouble communicating effectively at an appropriate time, it causes him unleash his emotions in a ridiculous way when Mike pulls the trigger of an empty gun directed at Stanley to scary him. This insane action served as Mike’s way of telling his friends that he was indeed upset by the shooting practices that took place at war. It is ineffective, however, because the fear distracts the friends from focusing on the message that Mike is trying to convey. Cimino demonstrates that the actuality that the game of Russian roulette itself was played in Vietnam is insignificant, considering the fact that it serves as a “powerful and fitting symbol of war” and explains, “successive scenes in which a pistol is pointed at a man’s temple evoke memories of one of the war’s ugliest visual images” (Wall). This memory of Russian roulette was debatably the most traumatizing part of the war for Mike and the fact that Mike can’t even communicate his heaviest feeling to his friends back home is a huge concern. The images in Mike’s head were so powerful that he isn’t able to resist taking drastic measures to let them out to communicate them in an unhealthy way and ends up showing signs of insanity when he takes drastic measures violently against his innocent friend.

Mike’s inability to communicate his love to Linda, the woman who promised to marry Nick, causes him to suffer emotionally his first days back home. When Mike first arrives back from the war, he goes to the pay phone for the purpose of reaching Linda, but cannot bring himself to make the call. Mike returns to the house to pick up his gear and ran into Linda when he was there. When Linda asks, “can’t we just comfort each other?” Mike says, “I don’t know. I just feel distanced, very far away. I’ll see you later” (Cimino). Mike doesn’t effectively communicate the truth that he really does need someone to love him, someone that can comfort him, just as he did with his fellow soldiers during the war. There are moments where Mike really craves that love, for example, when he is alone in his hotel room crying. Making himself open to love and vulnerable, instead of keeping this commitment to staying bold and strong after the war would allow Mike to unleash his struggles with the support of another individual and free himself of all the impact that the war has had on him.

In the scene comprised of Nick’s funeral, Cimino emphasizes the necessity to effectively communicate, by illustrating that the only way Nick’s loved ones are able to get over his death is through singing together. The article “Deer Hunter: History or Art?” says, “they quietly sing ‘God Bless America’- not […] to express cynicism about their country, but to voice […] that something has happened to them of such enormity that its full impact is not yet evident and is not now- and may never be- available to them for articulation” (Wall). The mourning individuals still are at the point where they don’t fully understand Nick’s death, but feel it necessary to express in some way that they hope the war was worth it considering the amount of grief that it causes them. The article “Political Game” notes that the singing does not only convey their love for Nick, but also “reaffirms their own sense of community” (Kinder). They were silent and very upset. Then, they all joined in singing transferring the feeling of emotional isolation into common feeling that could be shared among the group. All of the individuals were trying to deal with the grief by themselves, because they couldn’t find an appropriate way to cope with the rest of the group. All of Nick’s loved ones were on the verge of breaking down in tears until John started singing “God Bless America,” and the others joined in. The singing was a vehicle of emotional expression. It was how they communicated their sadness and it was the only way that they could get out of the troubled emotional state that they were feeling. Without communicating the emotion, they would be stuck in this feeling of sadness, grieving over Nick’s death. They all realized that they would overcome Nick’s death together, and this made the emotional struggle more bearable. They made a toast to him, celebrating his death, rather than spending a significant amount of time in deep sadness, and smiles slowly began to fill the room. This sense of unity that the group established helped them all to move on. Without this feeling of togetherness, the loss of love that came as a result of Nick’s death would have never been restored. This would have caused the friends to experience a series of sadness and loneliness that would have grown to be too enormous to overcome and stay sane.

The book The Things They Carried and movie The Deer Hunter effectively illustrate what it means to be human. The war brings such significant trauma to its soldiers that often it allows its outside witnesses to recognize human weakness very easily. The struggle that humans face in communicating their real emotions is a common difficulty among all people. For various reasons illustrated in these two pieces, many times it is ironically very strong to show emotions that are often regarded as weak. The reward for an individual who expresses their emotion is too great to hold back. By expressing emotion, the general interconnectivity among the human race can improve, because everyone will have an easier time understanding one another. The ability to sympathize with other human beings makes us feel less alone, and gives us stability needed to make focus on the enjoyment of life, rather than spending everyday struggling to stay sane.