The Things They Carried is a novel written by Tim O’Brien and published in 1990. The novel is set during the Vietnam War and tells the story of a group of American soldiers and their experience in the war. The character of Rat Kiley is one of the main characters in the novel.
Rat Kiley is a medic who is known for his practical jokes and his sense of humor. However, Rat Kiley also has a dark side. He is haunted by the death of a friend in the war, and he often tries to cope with this grief by joking around. While Rat Kiley may seem like a carefree character, he is actually carrying a great deal of pain with him.
In “The Things They Carried,” a short story by Tim O’Brien, the reader experiences each of the characters’ methods of coping with the horrors of the Vietnam War through what they carry; how symbolically they utilize these items as a means for remembrance of what they have left behind, to escape what they deal with every day, and for some, a false sense of security and/or control over violence and death that surrounds them.
The character of Rat Kiley, in particular, is an interesting study in how someone can use humor as a means of survival in the face of such tragedy.
Though he is not the focus of the story, Rat Kiley plays a significant role in helping the reader understand the emotional toll that the war takes on each soldier. He does this primarily through his jokes and pranks, which often take on a darkly humorous tone. For example, he once shot a squirrel with his M-16 and then skinned it alive “for fun.” While others might have been repulsed by this act, Rat found it amusing and would often tell the story to anyone who would listen.
In some ways, Rat’s dark sense of humor can be seen as a way of coping with the horrific reality of war. By making light of the situation, he is able to distance himself from the emotional pain and suffering that comes with it. Additionally, his jokes often serve as a way to break the tension in moments of intense stress or danger. In this way, Rat Kiley represents the many soldiers who used humor as a means of survival during the Vietnam War.
While Rat Kiley’s character is fictional, his story is based on the real-life experiences of Tim O’Brien and other soldiers who served in Vietnam. The use of humor as a means of coping with trauma is a common theme in war stories, and “The Things They Carried” is no exception. Through the character of Rat Kiley, Tim O’Brien offers a glimpse into the mind of a soldier struggling to make sense of the violence and death that surrounds him.
Every character in the narrative “humps” an item of escape, whether it be in the form of a fantasy, hallucinogenic medicines, or altered states of consciousness. Lt. Jimmy Cross’ approach to freedom is love. His preoccupation with Martha, a girl from home named Martha, is described in vivid detail.
From the moment she first enters his life, he has been analyzing her letters, staring at her photographs, and even “sometimes eating the envelope flaps,” (392) while knowing that she is not receiving his affections.
The fact that Martha’s picture is a volleyball player, suggests she herself does not know how to play the game of love. The object Rat Kiley escapes through is his medical kit. The contents of the kit are described in great detail, everything from “the standard supplies: scissors and forceps and hemostats and gauze pads and cotton swabs,” (394) to “a little black case for malaria pills,” (395). The medical kit becomes an extension of Rat Kiley himself, as it is never more than an arm’s reach away.
He even sleeps with it next to his head like a teddy bear. The medkit represents Rat Kiley’s desire to help and heal others. This is in direct contrast to the character of Kiowa, who’s religious beliefs stop him from using the contents of the kit. The two characters have a conversation about this in which Rat Kiley says, “I just hate to see a guy go down and not do nothing about it, you know? That’s all I can say. I just hate to see it happen, that’s all,” (397). The reader gets a sense that for Rat Kiley, the war is one big injury that he is trying to tend to.
Another character who carries an object of escape is Mitchell Sanders. His is a “slick black poker deck…with hologram cards,” (400). The deck is a symbol of Sanders’s ability to give the men what they need, when they need it. He is the one who can barter for “morale items,” (399) like cigarettes and soap.
The fact that the cards are holograms suggests that Sanders is able to see things that are not there, or at least not as clearly as others can. This could be interpreted as his ability to see the future. He is the one who warns the men about booby traps before they walk into them, and he always has just the right card to play in any situation.
The character of Rat Kiley embodies many of the qualities of a good soldier. He is able to put aside his own fears and desires in order to help others. He is selfless, always putting the needs of the men before his own. The fact that he carries a medical kit with him at all times shows that he is always prepared and ready to lend a hand. The contents of the kit are a symbol of Rat Kiley’s desire to help and heal others.
Rat Kiley uses his comic books as an outlet for his creativity, much like Kiowa carries a New Testament bible not just to read but also because of the comforting scent of it.
The characters use whatever they can to find a way back to themselves, and in the meantime, they help each other get through the day. The young men are incredibly close because their lives depend on it; “if you weren’t together, the fear was overwhelming. It was like being scared all the time, the fear of dying. The fear of not being able to talk about it. The fear of just being in the jungle day after day after day” (79).
Rat Kiley is the medic and he “loved his work,” (78) because he was good at it and he could make a difference. The other men admired him for his knowledge and skill as well as his compassion. Kiley was the one who “carried the main aid kit, sixty pounds of supplies including morphine and plasma and a small red case filled with surgical instruments” (79).
He was also the one who had to deal with the aftermath of what the others did; he had to clean and bind their wounds and sometimes amputate their limbs. He was the one who had to see the pain in their eyes and try to ease it, not only with his medical skills but also with his humor.