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Katie Chase

Paper III
Tim OBriens The Things They Carried and Yusef Komunyakaas Warhorses each
display different effects of the Vietnam war on man. OBriens series of intertwining stories
carries a more hopeful tone, suggesting that, though he still carries his own memories from the
war, he is now healed. Komunyakaas work instead conveys unto the reader a sense of perpetual
shock from which he continues to suffer. Many similar works, including Marvin Bells Mars
Being Red and Brain Turners Phantom Noise demonstrate the effects of trauma on other
individuals. This functions to show how the effects of trauma are not consistent; everyone suffers
alone.
OBrien opens his novel by describing the physical and emotional weight of the war. He
claims that all soldiers within his platoon carried ghosts and the emotional baggage of men
who might die (OBrien 9, 20). Here, OBrien establishes the strain on the psyche caused by a
hostile environment. He suggests that even though the war has been over for years, he still
continues to struggle with the phycological consequences of his actions. The structure of this
novel as a series of intertwining stories reveals the memories which appear to be particularly
haunting to the author; certain instances are repeated throughout the entire work, suggesting that
they are particularly haunting. The repetition of the shocking death of OBriens comrade Kiowa
signifies OBriens sense of guilt towards this scenario, and shows how the bubbles where
Kiowas head should have been constantly recur in his mind (OBrien 164). OBrien describes
the most shocking part of the war as the sudden realization that youre not human
anymore (OBrien 200). Instead, soldiers revert back to their primal characteristics. Then, once

back in a normal society, they are forced to practice their humanity after having lived without it
for so long; they forget how to live without knowing that they might die. It is this loss of
innocence that makes the trauma from war so difficult to cope with. However, OBrien ends his
novel on a more positive note; he claims that stories can save us, suggesting that by writing
down his thoughts and feelings on the war, he is coming back into contact with his humanity
(OBrien 213). He claims that by writing down his memories, he is a attempting to preserve a
young and innocent version of himself with a story (OBrien 233). In this sense, OBrien
appears to be somewhat healed from his experience in the war.
Komunyakaa, too reflects on the effects of the horrors of the Vietnam war. However,
rather than suggesting that his emotional state is healed after the war, he appears to be
permanently contorted by the trauma he experienced. Komunyakaa suggests that soldiers are
forced to carry their ghosts around, claiming the after the war they owe their lives to this
phantom (Komunyakaa 32). In turn, he claims that the sense of guilt that one experiences does
not fade, but rather continues to control its victims, stating you cant remember when you began
to live his unspoken dreams (Komunyakaa 32). Komunyakaa, too, suggests that he is strongly
affected by such guilt as he feels responsible for the deaths of others. However, the memories
that haunt his most are signified by graphic imagery, rather than subtle repetition as in OBrien.
One particular instance of this occurs when Komunyakaa describes the time he was forces to
bash in the skull/ of a dying GI who sounded like a pigeon/ tied to a hunters stool,/ cooing
with his eyes sewn shut (Komunyakaa 66, 67). In this sense, Komunyakaa, similar to OBrien,
suggests that man loses his sense of humanity and innocence in times of war. However, unlike
OBrien, Komunyakaa suggests that it is impossible to preserve or regain ones innocence. He

instead claims that a soldier will beg to be forgiven/ for each carbine, shell, or grenade/ your
hands lingered on, but such inhuman acts can never be forgiven; he is left permanently broken
after experiencing the trauma of war (Komunyakaa 80).
Though OBrien and Komunyakaa detail similar experiences in Vietnam in The Things
They Carried and Warhorses, they develop very different emotional states following the war.
This vast difference in their psyche displays how individuals cope with trauma in vastly different
ways. The struggles of coping with the trauma of war can also be seen in Marvin Bells Mars
Being Red and Brain Turners Phantom Noise. In Mars Being Red, Bell struggles to reenter his
civilian life after returning from war. Though he manages to slip into a normal lifestyle, small
occurrences within his daily life can trigger traumatic memories and that the fear of death
remains a part of his, stating there are nights when the moon scares him (Bell 45). Turner in
Phantom Noise appears to have returned to a typical civilian life as well, but struggles to adjust
to a life without constant fear of death. He is haunted by his memories and subtle occurrences,
such as the falling of a hardware screw trigger traumatic memories, such as the pin of a grenade
falling to the ground. The differences in how all these individuals cope with the trauma of war
signifies the complexity of the human psyche and its response to trauma.