Tim O’brien’s “The Things They Carried,” discusses the protagonist, whose name is Tim O’Brien. He talks about an event that happened when he was fighting in Vietnam. The story discusses the various experiences of O’brien and the fellow soldiers who were at his side during the missions. The same characters reappear several times in throughout the stories. Various aspects of the story are intangible, which makes them better described in fiction, rather than fact-based. In the text, Obrien utilizes various physical and mental “things” that are in the possession of the soldiers with the Alpha Company to describe the emotional burdens that the soldiers are dealing with.
One of the burdens that O’brien describes is the need for the young soldiers to deal with the tensions between the fantasy world and the reality. Realizing that this disruption exists disrupts Cross’s stint as being the resident dreamer in the Alpha Company. Lietenant Cross believes that it is because he was obsessed with his idea of Martha and the life that he wanted the two of them to live after the war, that he was negligent in his duties. He views the death of Ted Lavender as being the result of this negligence that he has. The story is the conflict that is found between love and war, and this is expressed in Ted Lavender’s death and the disillusionment that is then experienced by Lieutenant Cross. This signifies a lust for war during this conflict.
Cross reacts to the death of Ted Lavender in a way that reveals the horrors of being in the war, and how it can make a man gloomy and cynical to the point of no repair. Cross carried vivid images of Martha in his mind prior to Lavender’s death. During this time, he is obsessed by thoughts about whether she is a virgin and why she signs her letters so tantalizingly, “Love.”
Among the intangible aspects are fear and guilt. Other aspects of the story are detailed in their observation of physical objects, including morphine, matches, M&M’s candy and M-16 rifles. Cross carries with him the reminders of the love that he has for Martha. She is a girl who is from his college where he lived in New Jersey. She hasn’t given him an indication that she also has feelings for him, but he is completely taken by her. He carries with him the letters that they share in his backpack. He treats these as if they are good luck. After finishing a long day of marching, Cross unwraps one of the letters that he received from her and then he imagines himself returning to her one day. Martha is an English major that is writing him letters that have the lines of poetry quoted in them. She is careful to never mention the war. The letters are signed “Love, Martha,” but Cross knows that she probably doesn’t actually love him. He is careful not to get false hope from the letters. Much of his time is spent wondering if Martha is a virgin. Not only does Cross carry her letters, he also carries her photo. Among those are one of her playing volleyball. While he takes great solace in the letters and photo, he also holds close to himself the memories of her. One of those memories is from when the two of them went on a date to see Bonnie and Clyde at a movie theatre. Cross remembers touching Martha’s knees during the movie’s final scenes, and then Martha just looked at him and then made him put his hand back. Now that he is away from her, he wishes that he had taken her to bed after carrying her up some stairs. Then he would touch her knee many times. What pains him perhaps more greatly than the war is the fact that his feelings for Martha will likely never be returned.
But it wasn’t just Cross that carried things on the battlefield. The narrator, O’brien, talks about the various thing that all of the men who were involved carried. Many of the things they carried included marijuana, chewing gun, pocket knives and mosquito repellent. But other than the physical things they carried, the men also carried their thoughts and views. One of the people in the book is named Henry Dobbins, who is a machine gunner. He is a very large person and so he carries extra rations around with him. He also carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose with him around his neck. Another man names Ted Lavender carries with him marijuana and tranquilizers, which help calm himself down. There is also a religious guy named Kiowa, who carries with him a copy of the New Testament that is illustrated. It was a gift from his father.
Other items that the men carried were basic things like a compress, just in case there was a fatal injury. There is also a two-pound poncho that someone uses as a raincoat, but it can also be converted into a tent or groundsheet. The majority of the characters are regular people who rank very lowly and they are soldiers. They carry with them a basic M-16 assault rifle, as well as several rounds of ammunition and magazines. Some of the men also carry with them grenade launchers. Every one of the men carry with them the figurative weight of their memories of their lives before they entered the war. They are also burdened with the weight of each other. The men also carry with them the burden of being in the war itself, and the war comes with it so many other hindrances to these people’s lives. The war comes with devastating weather that is difficult to overcome. Dusty soil is also something that the soldiers have to battle on a daily basis. The rank of each person was also a determinant of what they carried. For example, Cross carried with him the compasses, maps, as well as the responsibility for keeping his men alive. Rat Kiley, who is the medic, carried with him the morphine, tablets for malaria and the various supplies needed to address serious wounds.
It is the things that these men carry that are the biggest burden to them. While the physical barriers are much to bare for many of the men, the memories are what drives most of them to a state of disrepair. For example, one of the men has such a loaded backpack, that is becomes a burden to him and helps lead to the result of him falling to the ground. This was during a time when the company was on a mission to destroy a tunnel complex. Cross is imagining that the tunnels are collapsing onto him and Martha. He is so distracted by wondering if she is a virgin and on the way back after he goes to the bathroom, Lavender is shot to the ground. He falls especially hard to the ground because his backpack is overloaded. But even after seeing this, Cross isn’t able to stop thinking about Martha. Most of all, he is thinking of her so much that it is interfering with him carrying out his duties. Instead of focusing on
helping his fellows, he is thinking about the poetry that Martha loves to write, and about her smooth skin.
After Lavender falls, the soldiers are waiting for the helicopter to take his body. During their wait, they start to smoke his marijuana. While they are doing this, they are making jokes about Lavender’s tranquilizer abuse and they say that he was likely too numb to feel any of the pain after he was hot. After this, Cross decides to take him men to the Than Khe village, and this is where the soldiers shoot the dogs and chickens, and they burn everything in sight. After this, they march throughout the late afternoon. During the evening, they decide to stop and Cross digs a foxhole into the ground and he sits inside of it at the bottom. The whole time, he is crying. Others sit in the darkness and they discuss the short span that is between life and death. They are trying to make sense of everything that is going on around them. They were discussing how quickly it was that Lavender was dead. One second he was zipping up his pants, and then the next second he was dead. One of the men is thinking about how unholy that type of death was and he wanted forget about it as easily as Cross. But what he doesn’t know is that Cross can’t help but be infatuated by Martha, and he thoughts are consumed by her. These thoughts both acted as a hindrance to the men and they acted as something that could help them get through the days during this dark reality.