Before publication in 1990, five of the stories, including "The Things They Carried," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "The Ghost Soldiers," and "The Lives of the Dead," had been published in Esquire. "Speaking of Courage" was originally published (in heavily modified form) as a chapter of O'Brien's earlier novel Going After Cacciato.
In the short story "Good Form", the narrator makes a distinction between "story truth" and "happening truth." O'Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers. Critics often cite this distinction when commenting on O'Brien's artistic aims in The Things They Carried and, in general, all of his fiction about Vietnam, claiming that O'Brien feels that the realities of the Vietnam War are best explored in fictional form rather than the presentation of precise facts. O'Brien's fluid and elliptical negotiation of truth in this context finds echoes in works labeled as 'non-fiction novels.'
In 2010 on the twentieth anniversary of its publication, The Things They Carried returns to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in paperback. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has reissued both the hardcover and paperback with new jackets. The book is also available as an ebook for the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader, and in the iBookstore for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.