Where the Ground Was the Enemy
Setting as Character in The Things They Carried
Mikayla M. Zobeck and David M. Owens

In the midst of the nuance and complexities of contemporary literary theory, sometimes the most basic questions about a particular work still yield substantive insights. So it is with Tim O’Brien’s postmodern classic The Things They Carried, a work of fiction over which critics and lay readers alike have written and said much. College professors and high school teachers bring the book into their classrooms, and it has been a favorite among community reading programs and groups. Many of these more community-based programs attempt to parse out questions based on the traditional elements of fiction: setting, character, plot, point of view, theme, and style. The primary setting is Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam, along with secondary locations in the United States. Surely the narrator, who shares the same name as the author, is the protagonist. But the answer to the subsequent question of who or what is the antagonist is not so apparent. One might immediately point to the military enemy, the Vietcong, but then be hard-pressed to find them within the pages. One might argue that the war itself is the antagonist, or that it is the psychological burdens associated with physical trauma, violence, grief, loss, and guilt that the soldiers carry—all plausible responses. However, the elements of character and setting have an especially close relationship here. Vietnam serves as more than just the setting for The Things They Carried. In fact, O’Brien so thoroughly personifies the land itself that it becomes a character, and, more specifically, becomes the primary antagonist faced by the narrator and his comrades. 

The author’s own understanding of place can be a useful starting point for examining the importance of settings in The Things They Carried. In talks and interviews, for example, O’Brien has been very forthcoming about the impact of his youth in Worthington, Minnesota. In 1991, he described Worthington, explaining, “on one side of town…you’ll see soybeans, on the other side of the highway, fields of corn. It’s a place that gives new meaning to the word flat.” In addition, he talks of this town as “god-forsaken,” and remembers wondering how he could escape such a place (“President’s Address”). O’Brien says that at a young age he escaped the “source of loneliness and frustration I felt growing up in this town” through books (“President’s Address”). But despite reading and writing to escape the place of his youth, O’Brien captures that very terrain in the pages of The Things They Carried.

In a brilliant bit of the sort of genre blurring that characterizes The Things They Carried, the terrain of Worthington forms the fictional setting for troubled character Norman Bowker’s repeated driving circuits around the lake near his Iowa home.¹ Bowker’s town not only has many of the physical features of Worthington, but its citizens mirror the attitudes of O’Brien’s as well. In “Speaking of Courage,” the narrator explains, “the place looked as if it had been hit by nerve gas, everything still and lifeless, even the people. The town could not talk, and would not listen.” At this point, describing the town as unable to communicate is ambiguous—town could refer to the townspeople, or the place itself, or both. In the
following sentence, the narrator makes an important move: “‘How’d you like to hear about the war?’ [Bowker] might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt” (137). Now the ambiguity is gone; the storyteller has personified the place. It blinks and shrugs. With this bit of anthropomorphism, the town, a place originating in the author’s own life, has become a character in the story and one that stands in opposition to the war-haunted protagonist. This same craft technique plays out on a much larger scale throughout The Things They Carried with the landscape of Vietnam itself.

Author O’Brien served in what became one of the most notorious areas of Vietnam—the region within Quang Ngai Province nicknamed Pinkville, which included the village of My Lai, site of the infamous massacre by American soldiers in March of 1968.² O’Brien, however, did not arrive in Vietnam until February of the following year. As he explains it, “I was assigned just by serendipity to a battalion that had the Pinkville area, the My Lai area.” American soldiers dubbed this area Pinkville because “in military maps it was shaded a bright kind of shimmering pink” (PBS Interview). At the time, O’Brien, as with most infantry soldiers and most Americans, did not know the recent history of the region. It was during O’Brien’s tour in Vietnam that the grim story became public. Besides the My Lai Massacre, the province had also suffered the destruction of many villages, particularly high numbers of civilian casualties, and many inhabitants moved into refugee camps. O’Brien recalled the feeling of walking among the local people:

I was walking through these villages where this horrible atrocity occurred prior to my arrival to Vietnam. And part of our fear for the place, of the place, and part of our real terror of being told you are going into the Pinkville area had to do with the hostility that you could read on the faces of the people there, even among the little children. [It] was hostility mixed with fear. (PBS Interview)

In another interview, O’Brien mentions that the Pinkville area was littered with landmines, which meant that the land seemed to claim more victims than the Viet Cong snipers did. He recognizes that the soldiers were afraid of the land in much the same way that young children are afraid of dark closets and monsters under the bed (Smith, 111).

In an essay, O’Brien elaborated on the landscape he had witnessed in Quang Ngai: “Back in 1969, the wreckage was all around us, so common that it seemed part of the geography, as natural as any mountain or river” (O’Brien 1994, 53). O’Brien then goes on to explain an important consequence of that context: “With so few military targets, with an enemy that was both of and among the population, Alpha Company began to regard Quang Ngai itself at the true enemy—the physical place, the soil and paddies” (53-54). It is particularly significant that “the true enemy” for O’Brien and his fellow infantrymen was “the physical place,” not the people whose faces displayed hostility mixed with fear, or the Viet Cong (of which they saw relatively few), or the North Vietnamese Army. That is to say, in the imagination of the soldiers, the terrain of Quang Ngai Province began to take on frightening human qualities.

O’Brien offered an even more deeply retrospective reflection on the role of place in an interview in November of 2009. In it, he explains how he experienced Vietnam, and the impact of Pinkville’s history on his perception of the location. According to O’Brien, knowing the history of a place “shades” one’s view of it, and, in a place like Pinkville, “you feel the ground has still got a little heartbeat of evil inside of it, and of human, human shortcoming that still seems to beat with that, for me anyway” (PBS Interview). O’Brien speaks of a place as if it has a heart, and a malicious one at that, one that suffers from human shortcomings. This startling personification of the land itself appears in how he writes about Vietnam in The Things They Carried. Throughout the novel, the land assumes a variety of human characteristics—so many, in fact, that the place itself becomes much more than the setting for the story in a conventional sense. Indeed, it becomes a principal element in opposition to the protagonist and his comrades. In short, the place is a principal antagonist.

The personification of Vietnam is extensive, taking multiple forms, even becoming a leitmotif. Before examining how O’Brien’s eponymous narrator endows Vietnam with human qualities, it is worth noting that he also makes the country a source of metaphorical food for human beings. One soldier comments that Vietnam is a “Garden of Evil” where “every sin’s real fresh and original”(76). Obvious biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden aside, a garden is a place that provides food to nourish people, and “real fresh” sounds like ad copy for a grocery vendor. Similarly, in a memorable moment of “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” the young civilian woman named Mary Anne, who descends into savagery after falling in with a team of Green Berets, explains to her puzzled fiancé, “Sometimes I want to eat this place. The whole country—the dirt, the death—I just want to swallow it.…It’s like this appetite” (106). Geophagy, the practice of eating soil or clay, is often the result of a craving born from a diet deficient in minerals. Here, however, Mary Anne craves something wicked, not healthy. It is a  craving for something that nourishes the growing brutality within her. That evil essence in the ground itself also becomes the soul of the personified Vietnam in The Things They Carried. On at least one occasion, it is a land with eyes. Company medic Rat Kiley tells Mary Anne’s story and explains, “Late at night, when the Greenies were out on ambush, the whole rainforest seemed to stare in at them—a watched feeling” (110). Most frequent, however, are instances of personification involving the human voice—hardly surprising in a novel whose chief concerns are the power and purposes of storytelling. It makes sense to have the land itself talk—to tell its own story, to be one of the many voices throughout The Things They Carried.

The voice of the land is central to one of the more memorable vignettes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in which fellow infantryman Mitchell Sanders attempts to tell narrator Tim O’Brien of the bizarre experiences of a six-man patrol on a mission to an isolated listening post. Sanders claims that the patrol begins hearing “chamber music,” “gook opera and a glee club,” and “all kinds of funky chanting and Buddha-Buddha stuff” (71). Sanders, along with those in the patrol he describes, appears to believe that these sounds are not products of the human tongue. He claims that the mountains are speaking. According to Sanders, “The rock—it’s talking. And the fog, too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses. Everything talks…. The whole country. Vietnam. The place talks” (71). It is hard to imagine more vivid or emphatic oral personification than this, as Sanders describes the terrain as a self-aware, verbal being. As Sanders later struggles to articulate the point of his tale, he explains, “The moral, I mean.…Nobody listens.…Trees and rocks—you got to listen to your enemy” (73). The connection here is explicit—the terrain talks, and it is the enemy.

As if to make the landscape more fully human, additional instances occur throughout the book in which soldiers think of Vietnam itself as alive and imbued with intent. For example, in “Ghost Soldiers,” narrator O’Brien observes, “The land was haunted.…Late at night, on guard, it seemed that all of Vietnam was alive and shimmering” (192). Here again is the motif of terrain as a living thing with a certain evil spirit or malicious intent. Author O’Brien talks of the intimacy a soldier in Vietnam experienced with the ground on which he stood, a phenomenon that has long been associated with soldiering, especially for those serving at sites of violent events or particularly exotic terrain or both. Of his service in the American Civil War, for example, Ambrose Bierce wrote that “Our frequent engagements with the Confederate outposts, patrols, and scouting parties…fixed in my memory a vivid and apparently imperishable picture of the locality…. These spirited encounters were observations entered in red” (420-21). As was a common experience for infantrymen in Vietnam, O’Brien found the unfamiliar, exotic beauty of the landscape striking. In a 2012 interview, O’Brien explained, “the land just blew us to smithereens. We were afraid of the physical place” (quoted in Smith, 111). Most American soldiers found themselves fighting on terrain that that was indeed strange and striking: paddy land, rugged green hills, and thick tropical forests. Again, this fear of the “physical place” is entirely consistent with the sentiments expressed by O’Brien’s narrator in The Things They Carried.

Probably the most profound example of this terrain-as-enemy motif occurs when the patch of inundated, stinking ground the narrator calls “the shit field” becomes the primary culprit in the death of Kiowa and a secondary preparator in the post-war suicide of Norman Bowker, two of the narrator’s platoonmates. In this particularly memorable and frequently referenced vignette, Jimmy Cross’s platoon hunkers down during a very rainy night in what turns out to be a village’s open waste-disposal field, and, while there, mortar shells also begin to rain down on the helpless Americans. As the narrator tells it, “it was still raining…the mortar rounds seemed to come right out of the clouds.… The field just exploded” (141-42). Significant here is the omission—the incoming shells do not seem to come from enemy mortar tubes, but from the very low hanging clouds. And it is the ground that explodes, not the shells. Similarly, the emphasis is not on the people who fired the shells, but on the field where they landed.

When American soldiers in The Things They Carried think of the ground as an enemy, it is not surprising to see them react to it with violence, literally attacking the land as a psychological response to an inability to close with the Viet Cong. Stefania Ciocia explains, “In O’Brien’s writing, the lure of savagery takes a particularly poignant form in the account of episodes of gratuitous violence against the environment” (2012: 30). And characters do take out their innermost inexpressible emotions on the environment around them. When Mitchell Sanders tells the story mentioned earlier of soldiers on a listening post hearing haunting sounds, he describes their response:

the guys can’t cope. They lose it. They get on the radio and report enemy movement—a whole army, they say—and they order up the firepower…All night long, they just smoke those mountains…They blow away trees…and whatever else there is to blow away. Scorch time. They walk napalm up and down the ridges…It’s all fire. They make those mountains burn. (71)

Here the Americans are reacting against the landscape with a vengefulness more typically reserved for a human enemy. Author O’Brien confirms this was the case with many of his comrades, explaining that “There was no tangible object to attack except the land itself” (quoted in Maclear, 274).

When one regards the physical setting of The Things They Carried as a character, and the antagonist at that, it may seem a rather obvious iteration of the classic human-versus-nature theme, certainly not a new direction in fiction. Such beloved tales as Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” are literary forerunners. If anything, London, along with some other American naturalists, treats nature in a manner more consistent with O’Brien. That is to say, the naturalists tended to regard nature as a malevolent force out to crush struggling humans. In contrast, Crane’s protagonist in “The Open Boat” famously learns in an epiphanic moment that nature “did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent,” a view more consistent with the literary realists (381). There is, however, a fundamental difference between these classics and The Things They Carried—the war. An armed enemy, the obvious and expected antagonist, occupies the ground, and plays the role of an intermediary of sorts between the American soldiers and the land itself. O’Brien neither depicts a direct, one-on-one struggle with nature, nor does he describe grand clashes with the Viet Cong. What personifying the land as antagonist does, then, is allow the narrator to subtly efface the role of those fighting the Americans, thus demonizing the landscape rather than its people.

What may strike many readers of The Things They Carried is the absence of climactic scenes of firefights or protracted battles with a human foe. Readers never see O’Brien’s platoon engaged in the traditional infantry mission of closing with and destroying the enemy. An unseen sniper kills Ted Lavender; booby-traps kill Curt Lemon and Lee Strunk, and a mortar barrage from a distant enemy causes Kiowa’s death in the shit field. The Viet Cong and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army are conspicuously absent throughout. But this demonizing of place rather than people is entirely consistent with a narrative persona who does not have a personal animus toward the Vietnamese. That lack of enmity becomes apparent early. In “On the Rainy River,” narrator O’Brien makes it clear that he is not in favor of the war in Vietnam. He explains, “the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons…. Back in college, I had taken a modest stand against the war”(38-39). Thus, the narrator does not view the North Vietnamese or their sympathizers as enemies.

This becomes even more apparent when one notes that the only enemy soldier present in the book is the young Viet Cong killed (or maybe not) by the narrator’s grenade in “The Man I Killed.” As the narrator stares at the grisly result of the explosion, he begins to tell an imagined biography of the dead man. As many have noted, that story bears remarkable semblance to the narrator’s own life story: a scholar, not a fighter; a small-town upbringing with expectations of patriotic service; inward reluctance to go off to war; a lack of hostility toward the enemy. The narrator makes this very clear when he explicitly confesses, “I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy…. The grenade was to make him go away…I wanted to warn him” (126-27). Thus, even in an ambush situation in the jungle at first light, O’Brien avoids demonizing the enemy and, instead, humanizes him. To do otherwise would violate the narrator’s own stated ideology about the war. To do otherwise would also violate author O’Brien’s own convictions. In addition to the comments cited earlier about the people of Quang Ngai Province, the author told an interviewer that, while there, he felt part “occupying evil guy” and part “terrified” (PBS Interview). Given all this, it makes sense that the land itself, the terrain, would become an antagonist—the oppressive, ever-present, audible, and visible enemy.

The physical and psychological trauma that this terrain-as-enemy antagonist wreaks on the American soldiers of The Things They Carried is nowhere more dramatic than the nightmare in the shit field. The complex nature of guilt becomes a prominent theme of this particular war story. After Kiowa is wounded and drowns in the muck, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross blames himself for not moving to better ground. Norman Bowker blames himself for becoming unnerved by the overwhelming stench and losing his grip on the sinking Kiowa. A nameless “young soldier” blames himself for turning on a flashlight under a poncho to show a picture of his girlfriend to Kiowa just moments before the rounds began falling (163). Even Azar, the platoon’s perpetual sick-jokester, confesses that “I felt sort of guilty almost, like if I’d kept my mouth shut none of it would’ve ever happened. Like it was my fault” (168). The collective guilt is a complex thing, and as Lieutenant Cross reflects on it, he begins musing:

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 river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper…

and so on for five more lines of text (169-170). Significantly, in this catalog of blame, the military enemy occupies only the one brief mention cited above.

In one of his many commentaries on writing, narrator O’Brien emphasizes how essential it was that he articulate “the terrible killing power of the shit field” (153). The field killed more than just the platoonmates’ friend, Kiowa. It took a terrible toll on each of them, too. Returning to the country years later with his young daughter, narrator O’Brien describes the feelings of what he lost to this location to show her the “Vietnam that kept [him] awake at night” (176). In an emotional scene, he muses:

This little field, I thought, had swallowed so much. My best friend. My pride. My belief in myself as a man of some small dignity and courage…all the old ambitions and hopes for myself sucked away into the mud…. I blamed this place for what I had become, and I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been. For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and the horror. (176)

Thus, this piece of geography becomes emblematic of the entire war itself and all that it took from him. Vietnam listens to the soldiers, talks to the soldiers, and destroys the soldiers. Vietnam itself truly was the force to be reckoned with—Vietnam was the enemy.

In The Psychology of Writing, Ronald Kellogg claims that humans create meaning by “creating, manipulating, and communicating symbols” (5). People collect individual experiences and attempt to make sense of what they see, hear, touch, and taste. Both author Tim O’Brien and the narrator of The Things They Carried take in the sights, sounds, textures, and tastes of the landscape of Vietnam and transform that landscape into a personified symbol of the war itself. If the two O’Briens cope with the shortcomings of place in their youths by inventing stories about it and giving it human qualities, then they do so to cope with the trauma and tragedy of Vietnam. In classrooms and
reading groups alike, The Things They Carried can be studied as a classic story of love, loss, guilt, storytelling, and the ground that was the enemy.


Mikayla M. Zoebeck is a student at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Born in Vietnam, she was adopted by American parents as an infant. In 2018, she returned to her native country, found her birth parents, and was so struck by the land itself that it, in part, inspired her to write this essay.

David M. Owens is a senior research professor at Valparaiso University, where he retired as a professor of English in 2017. He teaches part-time at Hope College. He served for twenty-one years as an infantry officer.



1 When discussing the novel, readers sometimes encounter difficulty separating its author from its narrator. This article’s authors have attempted to do so by describing the former as “author O’Brien” and the latter as “narrator O’Brien” or simply “narrator.”

2  A company of American soldiers, primarily those in a platoon led by Lt. William L. Calley, slaughtered almost all civilians of the My Lai village on March 16, 1968. The platoon from C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (AMERICAL) killed old men, raped and killed women and girls, dragged infants and children into a ditch and executed them with a machine gun, and shot others point-blank. The soldiers slaughtered most of the village’s livestock and burnt a majority of the village itself. There is general agreement that there were 504 casualties, including 182 women (seventeen of whom were pregnant), 173 children, and fifty-six infants. (Information in this note is summarized from Maclear, 1981: 272-73 and Editors, n.d.: History.com).


Works Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. “George Thurston: Three Incidents in the Life of a Man.” The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition II, edited by S.T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz, U of Tennessee Press, 2006, pp. 420-23.

Bruckner, D.J.R. “A Storyteller for the War That Won’t End.” N.p., 3 Apr. 1990. Web. Accessed 3 Nov. 2018.

Ciocia, Stefania. Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O’Brien and the Power of Storytelling. Liver-pool University Press, 2012. JSTOR. Web. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.

Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The Portable Stephen Crane, edited by Joseph Katz, Penguin Books, 1969, pp.360-86.

Editors, History.com. “My Lai Massacre.” HIST-ORY. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.

Kellogg, Ronald T. The Psychology of Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Maclear, Michael. The Ten Thousand Day War, Vietnam: 1945-1975. NY: Avon Books, 1981.

“Minnesota Author Biographies: Mnhs.Org.” Minnesota Historical Society. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

 O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Mariner Books, 2009.

_____. “The Vietnam in Me.” The New York Times Magazine, 2 Oct. 1994, pp. 48-57.

_____.  “President’s Address.” Writing Vietnam Conference. Brown University, 21 April 1999. Web. Accessed 5 May 2019.

PBS. American Experience “Interview: Author Tim O’Brien.” N.p., 2009. Web. Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.

Smith, Patrick A. Conversations with Tim O’Brien. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central. Web. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.

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