Why Is The Things They Carried Banned?

Instructor: Kiesa Kay

Kiesa Kay has taught college English and has a master's degree in English, with honors.

Learn more about why some people felt the need to challenge and even ban Tim O'Brien's novel, 'The Things They Carried,' which focused on the author's own experiences in the Vietnam War.

Banning a Book

Most of us know that cussing can get you kicked out of school, but did you know this can happen to books, too? Believe it or not, cussing and graphic language in 'The Things They Carried' got that book kicked out of more than one school. Read on to learn more about how and why some people consider this remarkable book (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) as a must-read, while others consider it harmful and bad.

Why Do Books Get Banned?

When people who have authority opt to ban a book, it means they are restricting access to that book in certain settings, such as school libraries and classrooms. A decision made by a select group of people means that a much larger group of others don't get the chance to see or read the banned books. The reasons for the restrictions can be based in religion, politics, or morality.

In 1982, the American Library Association began to keep track of books banned across the nation, and so far, more than 11,000 books are on that list. One of the books on the list is 'The Things They Carried', by Tim O'Brien. He published the book in 1990 and it blends truth and fiction to tell the story of the Vietnam War using the names of real people as characters. O'Brien is a Vietnam veteran, and he even created a character in the book with his name.

O'Brien dedicated the book to the men of Alpha Company who fought alongside him in Vietnam. The book was extremely popular, landing on many best-seller lists. But before long, trouble began brewing as school boards across the country decided the book didn't belong in classrooms and school libraries. The book was eventually banned in several places, including Arlington Heights, Illinois; George County, Mississippi; and Pennridge, Pennsylvania. Let's learn a little bit more about each of these cases.


Profanity, or inappropriate language such as swearing, led to the banning of the book in some circles. A reverend and teacher led the charge to try to ban the book in Pennsylvania in 2001, arguing that the book's language was inappropriate and unchristian. In George County, Mississippi, the school board voted unanimously to ban the book, despite an outcry from teachers and parents. School board members stated that O'Brien's book contained profanity that was unacceptable in an educational setting. And when supporters argued that it was an important perspective on the Vietnam War, the board responded that students could learn about the war from plenty of other more appropriate books available in the library. Supporters identified those types of words as the language of war, which is messy and violent and intense, but school board members stood firm and banned the book. The board did not prohibit students from reading the book--students were still able to read O'Brien's book if their parents' purchased it elsewhere. But the board made sure that the book was not in the school library and teachers were not allowed to use it in their teaching.

Sex, Drugs, and Violence

In 2007, a lone school board member in Illinois identified a group of books, including 'The Things They Carried', that she felt should be omitted from student reading because they had references to sex, drugs, and violence. Because the book focuses on actual events during the Vietnam War, the violence tends to be graphic and disturbing. The school board member was in for a fight--people petitioned against the banning of the book, and more than 1,000 people argued for hours and hours about the group of books up for ban. Ultimately, the school district decided to keep the challenged book in school libraries and classroom discussions.

Images of War

As a somewhat truthful representation of the Vietnam War, the book contains many harsh and disturbing images of war, including specific descriptions of wounds and events that are quite harrowing. The title refers to the things that soldiers carry with them into dangerous situations, and O'Brien did not hold back or pull any punches in depicting the horrors of war. Many teens believed that if they were old enough, at eighteen, to go to war, then they surely ought to be allowed to read about the realities of war in their teen years. Would-be censors focused primarily on the profanity in the book.

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