Historical Context for The Things They Carried

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

1968 to 1970 were traumatic time, both in the United States and in Vietnam. Draft dodging, war protests, and massacres both at home and abroad inflamed tensions between soldiers and the people at home.

Historical Context for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried is a 1990 book by Tim O'Brien that deals with his experiences getting drafted into the Vietnam War, where he served from 1968 to 1970. This lesson will cover the historical context of that time frame in the United States and in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War, 1955-1975, was a military conflict between North and South Vietnam, fought to try and stop communism from spreading further. The communist forces of North Vietnam, also known as the People's Army of Vietnam, were aided by the guerrilla group the Viet Cong as well as the Soviet Union and China. South Vietnam was aided by the United States and other anti-communist forces.

More than 214,000 United States soldiers were killed or wounded during the war. Many of them were very young, right out of high school, and had been drafted into the war. The horrors faced by these men--the muck, the fear, the sense of unreality--were all reflected in O'Brien's book, used as themes to truly immerse and even educate the reader in the terrifying realities of the war. This huge number of American casualties, as well as the high number of civilian casualties (over 500,000) in Vietnam caused massive war protests and draft dodging in the United States.

Draft Dodging

A draft, or conscription of men aged 18-26, was in effect when the Vietnam War started. Many complained that the draft was unfair, since more poor and uneducated people were called. There were many restrictions to the draft, including college attendance, poor health, and job description.

Many men publically burned their draft cards.
Draft Card Burning

To try to address the unfairness of the draft, the government ended many of the restrictions and held a lottery. On December 1, 1969 the government held the first draft lottery since 1941, where men aged 19-26 (born 1944-1950) were called based on their birthday. The first birthdate called was September 14th, and the last was June 8th. There were two more lotteries, in 1970 and 1971. The draft was ended in 1973, though men are still required to register with the Selective Service by their 18th birthday.

During the course of the war, more than 120,000 men were thought to have dodged the draft. Of those, about 30,000 went to Canada or other countries to avoid military service. Canada did not consider draft evasion a crime and welcomed the deserters into the country. They were officially pardoned in 1977, but many decided to stay in Canada permanently.

Vietnam War Protests

Vietnam War Protests

Two things mainly drove the protests that cropped up and divided the country during the Vietnam War. The first was the draft, which forced many unwilling men, often in their teens, to fight in a war across the world. The other major factor in the protests were the high number of casualties the Vietnamese people suffered at the hands of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. More than half a million Vietnamese civilians, many of them women and children, died during the conflict.

Much of the protesting and atrocities of war were covered by media, inflaming the protests. The opposition to the war became caught up in the anti-establishment hippie movement, and protesters were mostly young students.

Kent State Massacre

On May 4, 1970, the protests came to a head at Kent State University in Ohio. Unarmed students protesting the war were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard. Thirteen students were shot, and four of them died. Two of the killed students weren't even protesting and were simply walking from one class to the next. This shooting led to further protests around the country, including a strike that more than 4,000,000 students participated in.

This is the Pulitzer prize winning photograph of the aftermath of the Kent State Massacre.
Kent State

Soldiers in Vietnam

Most of the soldier in Vietnam were barely more than kids. Tim O'Brien describes this in his book, including the nearly non-existent training and the harsh conditions faced in the war. In many cases, this led to poor decisions where civilians and soldiers alike were hurt. The media coverage of the war increased the anger and unrest of the people in the United States.

Soldiers celebrating in Vietnam
Soldiers celebrating in Vietnam

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