The Things They Carried (1990) by American Novelist Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried is a story by O’Brien about soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The author skillfully creates a vivid picture of the world soldiers live in, which consists of the things they carry, i.e. physical and emotional burden. What each of them carries reflects their inner struggle, shows their humanness, vulnerability and tension between reality and fantasy world and what it sometimes resulted in.
The list of things the men carry is very detailed. It is not merely a description of a backpack contents; it is reflective of the circumstances they have to endure, their personalities, and their mission. They take only the things they need to survive, physically and emotionally, and every item has its weight. Not only did they carry their backpacks, their ammunition was also extremely heavy. ‘On their feet they carried jungle boots – 2.1 pound.’ Other important item was a green plastic poncho that ‘weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce’ (Updike, Kenison 617).
What soldiers had to carry depended on a mission they had to embark on, their capacity and their specialty. The doctor had to carry heavy medical supplies, the lieutenant carried heavy maps and measuring instruments, while others had to carry more weapons. The list is very long, and each detail provided more insight into the personality of each member of the team (Bloom 23).
In addition to the necessary items, there are also personal things that need to be ‘humped’. Those were personal belongings of sentimental value. The list of items soldiers carried is completed with their names, which allows the reader to create an image of each soldier without describing their appearance. After all, there are more important things in war than a soldier’s appearance.
Some soldiers carried a diary, a comic book or an illustrated New Testament, while others carried toothbrushes, soap, etc. Soldiers carried some items because they were superstitious. This is a recurrent hidden theme of the story – soldiers’ fear and uncertainty of what they are doing and whether they will survive or not.
Symbolism Soldier’s Inner Struggle and Love
The main character, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, is a young man of only 22, who is in charge of his men; however, he is overtaken by his love to Martha, who he is daydreaming about. The author shows how important this love is for Jimmy by often talking about it, starting from the first line of the story and continuing with it untill the very end of it when a young lieutenant makes a decision to put it behind him and to get rid of everything that reminded him of Martha.
There were many reasons for his decision. From the very beginning of the story, it is obvious that the girl does not reciprocate his feelings, even though her letters always had ‘Love, Martha’ in the end. Jimmy might not want to believe it, but he knew that the words did not reflect her feelings; however, he wanted to hope that there is a prospect of her returning his feelings some day. He fantasized about what their relationships might be, that is why he also wondered, whether Martha is a virgin or not. He did it almost uncontrollably by citing the evidence that spoke either in favour or against it, and it was difficult for him to even know what he preferred in that regard.
In a way, his love for Martha was something that kept him distracted from the reality of his present life, where everything was so different. Dreaming about Martha was a way of escaping to the other world, unlike his. In her letters she never mentioned the war, ‘except to say, ‘Jimmy take care of yourself’ (Updike, Kenison 616). Apparently, this was another detail in her letters that Cross felt uneasy about – the author repeats this fact twice, in the first paragraph of the story and then almost at the very end of it, when the lieutenant accepted reality he was living in, which Martha ‘was not involved in’. He understood that ‘she signed the letters ‘Love’, but it was not love, and all the fine lines and technicalities did not matter’ (Updike, Kenison 630). As nice as letters sounded, they were only distraction in his life that were not worth suffering the danger he was putting himself and his men through daydreaming about what is not real. ‘It was a war, after all’, and that was the reality he was faced with. He was realistic about it. There was that new hardness in his stomach. No more butterflies, Cross was accepting the reality and its harshness.
Influence The Death of Ted Lavender on Soldiers
The death of Ted Lavender had a profound effect on his combat comrades. His death was mentioned several times before the author gives account of how it actually happened. (Baxter, Turchi 158). This way of narration builds up the tension and emphasizes significance of the event, preparing the reader for the following action. Even the list of items the soldiers carry is explained and narrated through Lavender’s death. For example, when explaining value and importance of a heavy green plastic poncho each of them carried, the narrator also says that Ted’s body was wrapped in his poncho before it was taken by the chopper. In his many accounts, the narrator mentions Lavender and his death by referring to the timing of the event. This repetition shows that the moment of senseless death, when it was least expected, was remembered by all the men (Baxter, Turchi 159).
However, right before explaining the details of Lavender’s death, the narrator tells the story of Lee Strunk who went into a tunnel hoping to die before it exploded. That was a routine duty that had to be performed each time before exploding a tunnel. That was also a horrible duty no soldier wanted to perform; therefore, each time they had to cast a lot to see whose turn it would be to go in. It was a dreary task of crawling into darkness where each of them had to face many fears – some real and others imaginary – of how it might go and what they might encounter there. The task of waiting for one to return was just as taxing for his comrades as it was for him to go, or, possibly, even more so. And seeing one emerging out of the hole was a happy event for all. However, the happy return of Lee Strunk was abruptly interrupted by Lavennder’s death (Heberle 197).
From what could be viewed as a grave, Lee Strunk was interrupted by the sudden death of Ted Lavender. That shocked everyone. They were worried about what might have been a dangerous mission for Strunk and did not think death might be looming elsewhere. It never occurred to them that such a trivial activity as peeing might end up being a grievous event. Everyone was ready for what they expected. They each carried enough weapons to protect themselves; however, being at war, brought a lot of unexpected occurrences that one could not foresee. Each of the men had fears and they fought to hide it. The shame was a great motivator in forcing them to move ahead. They did not go to war because they wanted to become heroes, but because they were ashamed not to do so.
They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment (Updike, Kenison 628).
The Tragedy of War
This is the greatest tragedy of war: men are dying and causing death and destruction for no other good reason than saving their pride. After the death of Lavender, Cross takes his troops to the village to burn it down to inflict the pain they themselves were unable to cope with. Lavender’s death was senseless and not honorable, although they reported him as KIA.
However, what set Ted Lavender apart from the rest of the crew is the fact that ‘he was scared’ (Updike, Kenison 619). Apparently, they all had their moments of almost panic fear that they wanted to conceal from others. However, Ted Lavender was the only one whose fear was very evident for others and the content of his backpack reflected it, because he ‘carried tranquilizers’, ‘six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity’ (Updike, Kenison 617). Apparently, it was hard for him to constrain his fears, even in what seems to be a trivial situation that did not require him to use his drags. Even on the day of his death, he took tranquilizers before going peeing. Undoubtedly, drugs not only dulled his fear, but his other senses as well.
When his comrades were waiting for the chopper to come to take his body, they were smoking ‘dead man dope’. It seems they needed their feelings to be dulled, too. The shock was so great that Kiowa, who saw how it happened, repeated many times how Lavender fell under the weight of his backpack (Bloom 23). Another way to dull the sense of helplessness and guilt was to ‘trash the village’ by erasing it completely will all the chickens. This was one of the senseless and unnecessary activities, just like many other they performed, because ‘they had no sense of strategy of mission. They searched the village without knowing what to look for, nor caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not’ (Updike, Kenison 625).
What they were engaged in was not only dangerous but purposeless. And they could not escape it because the pride would not let them admit their fear. They thought of those who inflicted minor injuries on themselves as cowards. However, they were envying those who were able to board the ‘great bird’ and fly to freedom. The war claimed its casualties, whether alive or dead, because those who escaped it suffered emotionally, and those who stayed on the battlefield knew death was everywhere, and they were happy just to be alive. Significantly, for anyone involved in war ‘there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry’ (Updike, Kenison 625).
After burning down the village of Than Khe and marching for several hours in the heat and they struggled to overcome their trauma in the evening. It is only in the evening that ‘Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling’ (Updike, Kenison 626) and allowed himself to cry. The violence dulled their senses for the time being, but it did not take away the pain and heavy burden of what had happened. Soldiers carried many practical things with them. They also carried ‘all the emotional baggage of men who might die’. Among those were ‘grief, terror, love, longing… shameful memories… the common secret of cowardice barely restrained.’ They also ‘carried their own lives. The pressure was enormous’ (Updike, Kenison 628).
After Ted Lavender was killed, Lieutenant Cross had another weight added to his burdens. He felt guilty of having neglected his duties and fantasized about Martha instead of securing the perimeter and watching over his men (Bloom 24). He blamed himself for Lavender’s death, even though no one else placed the blame on him. The narrator explains why Cross was ‘not there’: ‘He was just a kid at war, in love… He couldn’t help it’ (Updike, Kenison 623). Therefore, whether Lieutenant’s conclusion about the responsibility he takes upon himself for Lavender’s death is right or wrong, the guilt overtakes him and he decides to change (Baxter, Turchi 160). The key scene the whole story is evolved around takes very little span of time, but it has lasting consequences.
Kiowa was also heavily traumatized by Lavender’s death, and that is why he kept retelling the story. However, he was not as deeply hurt as Jimmy Cross, and although he saw the lieutenant’s suffering and wanted to ‘share the man’s pain’, he could not possibly know that Jimmy cried not so much for Lavender, but more for himself and Martha. Prior to the account, he allowed himself to fantasize about what his life could be like when the war ended by entertaining possibility of Martha returning his love. In a way, it was like the need to take drugs for Lavender. The lucky pebble he received from Martha only reinforced his state, although he knew Martha ‘wasn’t involved’. Thinking about her and realizing that death could come at any moment he also fantasized about things he should have done, such as being more aggressive with the girl.
However, he also remembered that she had never returned his affection and the only time he put his hand on her knee she looked at him in such a way that he had to take away his hand. He knew all the time that Martha’s love is only a fantasy, but he deliberately allowed himself to live in a fantasy world, rather than accepting the reality. Lavender’s death shook him up, just like it did others. However, being in charge, he felt responsible for it, and realizing that the price of him living in a fantasy was human life of his fellow soldier, he decided to finally end his fascination and concentrate on his responsibilities of being a leader. He had to mature and forsake the destructions that kept him from carrying out his duties. The fantasies were sweet, and that is why it was hard for him to put them aside. Also, him being able to dream about a girl that loves him gave him some meaning and purpose to keep on fighting and surviving. However, he chose another purpose, i.e. that of carrying for his men.
He realized that it would not be easy to stop daydreaming, even after burning the letters and photographs because ‘the letters were in his head’. He also realized that burning the letters was only a gesture, because it could not change the fact of Lavender’s death and it ‘couldn’t burn the blame’ (Updike, Kenison 630) he placed upon himself. He made the resolution how he would act from now on. He would fulfill his obligations by maintaining discipline and being in command. If need be, he would be tough and would not care whether he was loved by his men. Love ‘was not now a factor’ (Updike, Kenison 632). He resolved to distancing himself and being strong. He would also confiscate the remainder of Lavender’s dope to keep his men from being dulled, just like he himself got rid of his ‘fantasy drug’. The war quickly toughened him (Bloom 25). Although the war involved many deaths, the death of Ted Lavender was something that Jimmy Cross could not forget about or forgive himself for.
The Things They Carried Summary
The story told by O’Brien has an unusual approach by relating the content of soldier’s backpacks to their struggle in the war, their inner turmoil and traumas. The senselessness of war and its cruelty is described from the view of soldiers, who are fighting because not to do so will mean embarrassment. The war involves great sacrifices and abandonment of dreams and fantasies. Young Lieutenant Jimmy Cross has to make the tough choice between his imaginary love and his responsibility. Whether he is really responsible for the death of Ted Lavender or not, he feels guilty about it and this added emotional burden causes him to make resolutions to bare his obligations without destructions and at the cost of personal sacrifices.