The novel comprises of twenty two chapters that are not chronological, although they are all intertwined. The author is also a character in the book by the name of Tim O’Brien. The story gives an account of soldiers of the Alpha Company, after they return from war in Vietnam.
In the first chapter- “The Things They Carried”, soldiers of the Alpha Company are mobilized to go to war in Vietnam. They carry personal items that the author uses to develop their characters. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross takes with him photos and letters from a lady called Martha, who he has fallen in love with. He is so preoccupied with the thoughts of Martha that his love for her is clouding his judgment. Martha on the other hand does not reciprocate his love.
Each member carries all the necessary supplies for the mission plus their most prized possessions. Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose and extra food, Ted Lavender carries tranquilizer pills, Dave Jensen carries hygiene products and vitamins, Mitchell Sanders takes with him condoms, a radio and brass knuckles, Norman Bowker carries a diary and Kiowa carries a New Testament Bible, moccasins and a hunting hatchet.
The first soldier to die is Ted Lavender, who is shot dead while using the bathroom. Lieutenant Cross feels guilty for Ted’s death. He believes that if he had not spent so much time fantasizing about Martha, then he could have prevented the attack. He subsequently burns her letters and photos and fully concentrates on his duties as a leader.
The next chapter is titled “Love”. Years after the war, Lieutenant Cross visits the narrator in his home. O’Brien is shocked that Cross still has a photograph of Martha playing volleyball, although he had burned it in Vietnam. Cross explains to him that Martha gave him another one after they bumped into each other at a high school reunion. Despite him telling her that he loved him, she does not accept his advancements. She has joined a Lutheran missionary and has sworn a life of celibacy. O’Brien, who is a writer, requests for permission from Cross to write a story about their meeting. Cross however is not comfortable with O’Brien writing his story with Martha. The author interrupts him and says he will not.
In “Spin”, the author recollects about their life in Vietnam. Though the memories are in fragments, the author relates both the good memories and the bad ones. He remembers an incident where Mitchell Sanders mails body lice to a local draft board. He also remembers nightly checker games played by Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker. His daughter wonders why he is still fixated on his troublesome past. O’Brien however tells her that memories fade, but stories will forever remain.
In “On the rainy river”, the writer goes back to the summer of 1968. He is 21 years old and has just been drafted to serve in the army. Since he had been an avid anti-war campaigner, he felt he was not morally obligated to go to war. He contemplates running away to Canada, however he retraces his decision and goes to war for fear of being put to shame and getting caught by authorities. In this chapter, O’Brien narrates a secretive story that he has never told anyone.
The next chapters “Enemies and Friends” is about two soldiers, Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk. They get into a fight after Jensen’s penknife goes missing. Strunk is overpowered and his nose subsequently broken by Jensen. Jensen fears retaliation from Strunk, and using a pistol, he breaks his own nose to appease Strunk. He later learns that Strunk was the culprit behind his missing penknife. However, their friendship and loyalty to each other grows stronger.
They make a pact that if either of them was seriously injured, then the other would a find a way to execute the injured one. Things take a bitter turn for Jensen when Strunk steps on a mortar. He loses his leg as a result. Strunk is fearful that Jensen will kill him, while Jensen cannot bring himself to fulfill what they had agreed. He is however relieved when Strunk succumbs to his own wounds.
“How to tell a true war story” is about Curt Lemon who accidentally dies after playing catch with a grenade. Rat Kiley decides to write to Lemon’s sister about the whole incident. She however does not reply back and this offends Rat. O’Brien remembers in detail how Lemon’s body was completely disfigured with bits of flesh on trees. After Lemon’s death, the soldiers come across a baby buffalo and try to feed it. Rat shoots it multiple times to torture it. They eventually dump the buffalo in a well to die.
In “The Dentist”, events occur after Lemon’s death. O’Brien finds it hard to mourn him, as he considers Lemon a careless man, who lived a risky life, without much thought of the repercussions. The author recalls an incident Lemon had with an army dentist. He was so afraid of the dental checkup that he passed out on the dentist’s chair. To redeem himself from the embarrassing situation, he forced the dentist to pull out a good tooth.
O’Brien recaps Rat Kiley’s story in the “Sweetheart of the song Tra Bong”. Stationed at Tra Bong, with an elite force known as the Green Berets, Rat’s friend Mark Fossie brings his girlfriend to stay with him. She has a change of lifestyle and even begins to disappear for days. This frustrates Mark and he sets to learn about her whereabouts. It turns out that she has joined the Green Berets and loves the thrill of war. She eventually disappears into the mountains and becomes a fulltime killer.
“Stockings” is about Henry Dobbins. Wrapped around his neck is his girlfriend’s stocking, which Henry believes prevents him from getting shot. His girlfriend breaks up with him, but he still wraps his neck with her ‘lucky’ stockings. In “Church”, the Alpha unit rests at Pagoda and interacts with monks, who live there. The monks have a particular liking for Henry, who contemplates joining them after the war.
O’Brien is very obsessed with a dead man in “The Man I Killed”. He imagines the man’s life based on his physical appearance. Kiowa is angered and tries to stop him from analyzing the dead man, but he is not able to. In “Ambush”, a nine-year-old Kathleen asks her father if he has ever killed. O’Brien lies to her that he has never, but hopes that she would revisit the matter as an adult. Just like in the previous chapter, O’Brien recounts about the Viet Cong soldier that he killed.
The unit enters a ruined town full of dead bodies in “Style”. They are surprised by a young girl, who dances in joy in the rubble, despite losing her family members. That night, Azar dances to mock her. This irritates Henry who wants Azar to dance better like her. “Speaking of Courage” is about Norman Bowker, who goes home after the war only to find his best friend is dead and his girlfriend has married someone else. With no one to talk to, he lives a lonely life. He is particularly disturbed that he could not get a Silver Star medal and imagines what the conversation would be with his father regarding his underachievement.
“Notes” is basically a letter that Bowker sends to O’Brien narrating his story in “Speaking of Courage”. O’Brien, who had transitioned well into civilian life, is shocked by the letter. Three years after sending the letter, Bowker hangs himself. In “In the Field”, all members of the Alpha Community look for Kiowa’s dead body. Bowker finds him and starts contemplating what to write to Kiowa’s father. He however abandons the idea of writing the letters and decides to play golf.
O’Brien reveals in “Good Form” that some of his stories are made up. He asserts that whatever unfolds in the story is more important than the actual events. He even confesses that he never killed the Viet cong. Ten-year-old Kathleen visits the Vietnam with her father. She does not understand why the war was fought and why her father was taking her to a weird smelling field. O’Brien buries Kiowa’s moccasins and says his last respects in the “Field Trip”.
In “The Ghost Soldier”, O’Brien recounts how he was shot twice. The first time, Rat Kiley came to his rescue and gave him proper medical care. Rat was not present the second time he was shot and he had to get medical treatment from Rat’s replacement, Bobby Jorgenson, who nearly killed him due to negligence. He plots revenge on him with the help of Azar. They eventually squash the rivalry between them after O’Brien and Azar do a prank on him.
“Night Life” is an account by Mitchell Sanders about Rat Kiley, who becomes extremely scared of the Vietnamese army that was building up rapidly. Unable to cope up with the rising tension, he shoots himself in the foot and is flown to Japan to recover. Lt. Cross vouches for him that it was an accident. The last chapter, “The Lives of The Dead”, O’Brien reveals that the purpose of stories is to perpetuate the lives of the dead. He believes stories are the only avenues where the dead will forever be present with the living. He narrates how his first love, Linda died from a brain tumor. However, her death did not prevent him from going on dates with her in his mind.