The Things They Carried
“You just don’t know,” she said. “You hide in this little fortresses…and you don’t know what it’s all about. Sometimes I want to eat this place, Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country—the dirt, the death—I just want to eat it and have it there inside me.”—Mary Anne
“Mary Anne made you think about those girls back home, how clean and innocent they all are, how they’ll never understand any of this, not in a billion years”
“You come over dirty and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same. A question of degree. Some make it intact, some don’t make it at all. For Mary Anne Bell, it seemed, Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug.”
The Things The Carried is a series of war stories, which tend to be all-male ventures. If women appear at all, they appear far away in the text, idealized girls to go home to, who will welcome heroes back with open arms and legs. They become utterly alien and removed from the circumstances the soldiers are trapped in. In the title story of the novel, the officer in charge of O’Brien’s company has a girl exactly like that, except that she’s not his girlfriend and never will be. This is the first hint that O’Brien will attack the idea of gender roles, of the fundamental purity of femininity, as much as he attacks all other notions of war.
The most important story, from a feminist standpoint, is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” in which one of the soldiers in O’Brien’s company relates an incident at his last posting. An Ohioan boy flew his girlfriend in from Cleveland to live with him.
The story portrays Mary Anne, the girlfriend’s systematic destruction of their ideas of an essential feminine nature aloof from the war. At first she is well made up and in sexy clothes, constantly having sex with her boyfriend, but soon she starts throwing on tank tops and shorts against the heat, wandering down into the village and learning how to shoot. Her boyfriend becomes worried, and they begin to fight.
Then one night, she vanishes with a group of soldiers isolated from the rest of the men, who regularly engage in offensive action against the Vietcong. The boyfriend assumes she’s sleeping with someone else, which is true, but she’s in the jungle participating in an ambush.
Mary Anne becomes saturated with death and blood and violence, she positively glories in it, proving forever the falseness in the wartime idea of femininity. At the end of the story (so the narrator was told) she vanishes into the jungle, becoming some wild thing, utterly inhuman.
The story challenges every idea of gender roles that have been cemented in these hyper-masculine soldiers, and in doing so challenges their idea that there is an essential different feminine identity. While being female, Mary Anne is never engaging in some sexual affair with other soldiers, and in fact seems to get her rocks off from killing, from the jungle itself. She is destroyed by the war, and her apparent total destruction reflects the shattering of the beliefs long held by the men around her. She begins at one end of the feminine spectrum, all the boys falling in love with her, and ends at the other end, a wild woman. She is an extreme example of the realization that no one is safe, that no one is special, that women are as human as men and war destroys us all.