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Analysis of The Things They Carried Essay


The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien was an infantryman in during Vietnam War. He used those experiences to write many short stories including The Things They Carried. The story portrays how, "the things they carried" were weightless in comparison to their feelings of love and loss, fear and shame, and the torturous memories of death. "They all carried emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight."

The things they carried were determined by superstition and personal desires. In the beginning of the story we are introduced to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross is in love with a girl named Martha, and carries letters and pictures she has sent him. He also carries a good-luck pebble he received from Martha, and daydreams about her during their long marches. One day the Lieutenant and his men are marching through Than Kae, Cross is daydreaming as usual, when Ted Lavender is shot in the head and killed. They then "carried" Lavender to a helicopter. Before Lavender died he carried six or seven ounces of dope, which the men smoked after Ted was killed. Other men carried canned peaches, comic books, condoms, bibles, as well as personal weapons like slingshots, brass knuckles, and hatches. They shared the responsibility of carrying a 28lb mine detector. The detector was not extremely useful because of the shrapnel embedded in the ground, but it was still carried for the "illusion" of safety in a dangerous environment. All these things were to either help remind the men of home and what they were fighting for, or help them forget where they were and what they were doing.

The things they were required to carry depended on the mission, job title, as well as standard necessities. "Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, a .45 caliber pistol, as well as a strobe light." The RTO (radio transmissions officer) carried a 26lbs PCR-25 radio. The machine gunner carried an M-60 which weighed 23lbs, loaded. All of them carried standard M-16s with around 20 rounds which weighed 17lbs. They carried silent awe for the terrible power of the things weapons they used. "In the heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flak jackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease the strain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow up their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same thing."

The emotional baggage they all carried, in many cases, were the things they wanted to lay down the most. Jimmy Cross carried the responsibility for his men. Cross blamed himself for the death of Ted Lavender. They all carried Ghosts. They all carried the weight of their memories. They carried each other, the wounded and weak. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not in battle, it was just an endless march, village to village, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They carried their own lives. For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when the squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said "Dear Jesus" and flopped around on the ground and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. They carried the burden of wanting to run or stop running, the burden of hiding and being cowards in front of their fellow soldiers. This was one of the heavier burdens. They carried their shameful memories. They carried their reputations. They were too frightened to be cowards.

"For all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry." This was their heaviest burden. The fact that there would never be an end to the things they carried, not even after the war. They all looked for a release, some kind of comfort that was not coming. Late at night when they were alone on watch, as they would watch the planes fly over head they would dream of home, of great sleeping cities and "Golden Arches of McDonalds." They yelled "It's over, I'm gone! I'm sorry, motherfuckers, but I'm out of it, I'm goofed, I'm on a space cruise, I'm gone!"

At the end of the story O'Brien gives us look into the struggle that Lieutenant Cross goes through with Lavenders death. He writes "The morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha's letters. Then he burned the two photographs. Lavender was dead. You could not burn the blame." It was here Jimmy Cross gave up the burden of his love for Martha. It was here that Cross decided he was going to focus on getting his troop together and "impose strict field discipline Commencing immediately, he'd tell them, they would no longer abandon equipment along the route of march. They would get their shit together, and keep it together, and keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in good working order." The death of Lavender reminded Lieutenant Cross that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. He was dispensing with all love, his men's as well as his own love for Martha; it was now not a factor in his life.

Each soldiers experience in the war was devastating in its own way. The men would go home carrying the pictures and memories of their dead companions, as well as the enemy soldiers they killed. "They all carried emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight." These were the things that weighed the most, the burdens that the men wanted to put down the most, but were the things that they would forever carry, they would never find relief from the emotional baggage no matter where they went.

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