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“The Lives of the Dead” is a short story written by Tim O’Brien, featured in his book The Things They Carried, recollecting on his time fighting in the Vietnam War. In this story, O’Brien utilizes first-person narrative to reflect on his childhood girlfriend’s death and the first time he experienced death in war. Death affects everyone differently, and O’Brien openly struggled with killing in war more than the other soldiers in his company. In “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien combines images of his childhood girlfriend’s tumor with the other soldiers’ dehumanizing language to confront his exacerbated war trauma and address the fact that trauma affects everyone differently. O’Brien’s story brings human awareness to veterans with PTSD to encourage readers that it is healthy to experience their emotions and openly discuss trauma.

O’Brien’s trauma from the Vietnam War was exacerbated by his experience with death as a young child. When he was only nine years old, O’Brien’s childhood girlfriend, Linda, died of a brain tumor. His trauma from Linda’s death is evident through his extensive imagery and contrasting diction complexity to describe her tumor. O’Brien recalls the first time he saw her tumor, saying, “a smooth, pale, translucent white. I could see the bones and veins…the exact structure of her skull” (222), “little patches of grayish brown fuzz” (222), and “large band-aid at the back of her head, a row of black stitches, a piece of gauze taped above her left ear” (222-223). The extensive imagery and detail used to describe Linda’s tumor illustrates the shock and trauma this memory has caused him; decades later, he is able to remember exactly how her head initially looked. Things a young child would have noticed, color and texture, are the main observations. O’Brien uses contrasting diction complexity, in phrases such as “patches of grayish brown fuzz” (222) versus “translucent…bones and veins” (222), to blend a child’s memory with an adult’s recollection. Recalling this memory with both an adult’s and a child’s perspective, as well as his use of extensive imagery, shows that this is an event he has thought about throughout his life. O’Brien’s decision to include this memory suggests that he is advocating for remembering and reflecting on the dead. O’Brien’s early experience with death stayed with him and caused him to view death in war differently than the other soldiers.

The other soldiers dehumanize death in war in order to cope, which differs from how O’Brien handles death in war. When a man was killed, the other soldiers high-fived the corpse, made mocking comments, and held a “funeral without the sadness” (215). Despite the pressure from most of his company, O’Brien refused to interact or even look at the body. The first time O’Brien saw a corpse in war, an elder man, he reflects, “All day long I’d been picturing Linda’s face” (215) and told his friend, “that poor old man, he reminds me of…my first date” (216). Death in war immediately reminded the author of Linda, a relation that exacerbated his trauma. Intrusive memories of a traumatic event are a form of PTSD, and veterans who suffered prior trauma have higher instances of war-related PTSD (Reisman 624). Many of the other soldiers had not experienced the death of a friend or family member before the war. The early loss of a close friend caused O’Brien to suffer each death in war more deeply. The author told his friend about Linda in hopes of justifying his differing response to death and includes this memory to point out to the reader the fact that everyone handles trauma differently. Some soldiers coped with death by dehumanizing and mocking the enemy, while O’Brien preferred to avoid interactions with corpses and bring the dead back to life in his memories and stories. O’Brien describes the other soldiers’ dehumanizing language, saying:

I learned that words make a difference. It’s easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn’t human, it doesn’t matter much if it’s dead. And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter. A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut…’Just a crunchie munchie,’ Rat Kiley said as he stepped over the body. (O’Brien 226)

The soldiers utilized chip food metaphors to describe the corpses in order to cope with death, helping them to view the bodies as more dispensable. These metaphors imply if one does not think much of walking over a chip on the ground, they should not internalize walking over a corpse in war. Although O’Brien does not partake in the other soldiers’ coping mechanisms, discussing them brings a human awareness to PTSD in veterans and causes the reader to reflect on how they handle their own trauma.

O’Brien’s intimate discussion of Linda sharply contrasts the dehumanizing metaphors and actions of the other soldiers. By not openly denouncing the coping mechanisms of the other soldiers, readers are able to notice a contrast and individually reflect on concealed and cumulative trauma, as well as the different ways people handle their own experiences. The author’s inclusion of Linda in his war story reminds readers that there is often more to the story than what is on the surface; in this case, O’Brien suffered more trauma in war due to the previous loss of his friend. O’Brien passively advocates for respecting and remembering the dead, as opposed to dehumanizing or forgetting their lived experience. He writes:

Stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. (O’Brien 213)

The repetition of the word “and” gives a list aspect to the people he has lost – a list of people he is dedicated to not forgetting. Regardless of how relevant each person was in O’Brien’s life, and even if O’Brien did not kill them; they are on his remembrance list. O’Brien feels it is important to keep the dead alive in his mind, even if it does cause him to feel death more deeply than the other soldiers. One study highlights that dehumanizing the enemy may help short-term coping, but the “ethical warrior” who does not lose sight of each life’s value remains mentally stronger in the long run (Hoban and Gourlie 14). Although O’Brien does not comment on the morality of the other soldiers’ actions, his inclusion of their grossly dehumanizing dialogue in his story implies that their coping method is inferior because it requires the unethical dehumanization of life. Discussing death after war can be a taboo topic for veterans; through his writing, O’Brien encourages readers, especially veterans, to confront their trauma and remember the value in each life.

The sharp contrast between the author’s reflection of Linda’s death and the soldiers’ treatment of death in war causes readers to reflect on different reactions to trauma. Trauma that a person endures prior to war exacerbates trauma that occurs during war (Reisman 624). It is imperative to look at the whole person’s life, not just a single incident. O’Brien’s heartfelt explanation for writing about war and death helps readers see soldiers as humans rather than just warfighters and brings awareness to PTSD in veterans. Although “The Lives of the Dead” is a recollection of soldiers’ experiences, it pushes all readers to confront their own trauma, even if it would be easier to degrade or forget it. By sharing his war stories, O’Brien communicates the harsh realities of war and death, and advocates for readers to not forget or disguise previous tragedies. It is imperative to remember and reflect on tragedies in order to learn from history, appreciate the decency and morality of human life, and to develop empathy for other people and cultures.


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