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The Things They Carried: A Close Look at the Vietnam War sample essay

“The Things They Carried” is a short story written in 1986, which is later included in a collection of short stories of the same name. They are true stories about the experiences of the author, Tim O’Brien, and his fellow American soldiers during the Vietnam War (Blyn 189). Through the unique format, humanity in the middle of the ravages of war is explored. The first story, “The Things They Carried” does not only focus on the physical things that the soldiers carry, but also on emotions and motivations that they carry in their lives, especially in their lives as soldiers during war. The short story suggests that the only time that they will not be carrying anything is when they are dead.

“By using the simplicity of a list and trying to categorize simple items the soldiers carried, O’Brien reveals the real terror of the war itself. And the categories go from the tangible – foot powder, photographs, chewing gum – to the intangible. They carried disease; memory. When it rained, they carried the sky.” (Mason 829)

“The Things They Carried” is a short story with an innovative plot flow. Instead of proceeding like many war stories or any short story for that matter, it conscientiously describes many of the things that the soldiers carry. It is almost like an exposition of what soldiers need to bring for each of their varied missions. This is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. “The memorial is just a list of names” but the “power is in the simplicity of presentation and in what lies behind each of those names” (Mason 829).

The story does have two main story lines, one that happens internally in Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ mind and the other, which is a major loss that the whole group experiences. Jimmy daydreams about Martha’s love and lives in the warm comfort of the illusion while in the middle of the harsh reality of war. However, he has to choose between indulging in his fantasy and facing the reality of leading his men into battle. A major event that helps Cross decide is the death of Ted Lavender, one of his fellow American soldiers.

The story begins with Cross daydreaming about Martha. He is obsessed with the junior from Mount Sebastian College. He keeps her letters, imagining them to be “love letters.” His imagination adds romantic meetings that have never happened, and he “tastes envelope flaps knowing her tongue had been there,” while wondering if Martha were still a “virgin.” (O’Brien 605)

Her letters and his love for her are some of the things that Cross carries with him. The short story proceeds to describe the other soldiers’ burdens. They are said to carry “peculiar little odds and ends,” with different purposes: for silence, as night sight aid, back up weapons and even security blankets, like the “panty hose wrapped around” Henry Dobbins’ neck, which is his girlfriend’s. “They all carried ghosts” (O’Brien 610).

“Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore. They were pressed together, and the pebble in his mouth was her tongue. He was smiling… He was just a kid at war, in love. He was twenty two years old. He couldn’t help it” (O’Brien 611).

Cross only longs for a normal life. As a twenty two year old, he dreams of romance, and the life that Martha lives in college. Thinking about her while at war provides a distraction that seems necessary to his sanity; the daydreams cushion the full impact of the situation that he is in. Instead of facing war with all of his senses, he leaves his heart and mind with Martha; he therefore carries Martha with him. The other soldiers have their own comforts that help them survive physically and mentally. The extra weapons that they bring are not only there for physical protection, but also for assurance.

Even Ted Lavender has once embraced the comfort brought by the things that he carries: “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April” and “Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity”. (O’Brien 606) Lavender has become dependent on a drug that either provides him enough courage to go into battle or that dulls his senses. He carries more than the physical burdens that weigh down his body; his fears have robbed him of sleep, so tranquilizers have become a necessity.

“But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried thirty-four rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than twenty pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear” (O’Brien 608).

The above quoted paragraph, together with the two other quotations on Lavender, signifies the many burdens that weigh down each of the soldiers. The escape that Cross achieves every time he thinks about Martha is justified by the extreme effects of the horrors of war on the other soldiers. Fear is one of the most, if not the most, major burdens that they share.

However, they cannot leave this particular burden because as American soldiers, they are expected by their fellow Americans to keep their courage and fight for their country’s beliefs. They are supposed to be tough, with their greatest fear as blushing. What can make a soldier blush is the embarrassment caused by the dishonor of being dubbed as a coward. The expectation is an additional burden which makes them continue (O’Brien 616).

What can also be noticed in the instances that Ted Lavender has been mentioned is not only the emphasis on the things he used to carry but also on the emphasis that he has been shot and killed. In each of the instances, the things that he used to carry are described as things that he carries before he is shot and killed.

This is similar to what goes on inside Lieutenant Cross; he tries to escape the full force of reality of war by thinking of Martha, but reality has a way of bringing him back to face it. The reader is given a list of things the soldiers carry to ease their burdens that do not have physical weights, then he or she is constantly reminded of the violence of war through the death of Lavender.

“He was now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence. It wouldn’t help Lavender…but from this point on he would comport himself as a soldier. He would dispose of his good-luck pebble…On the march he would impose strict field discipline…He would insist on clean weapons. He would confiscate the remainder of Lavender’s dope…he would call the men together and speak to them plainly. He would accept the blame for what had happened to Ted Lavender…they would no longer abandon equipment along the route of march” (O’Brien 618).

In the end, Cross chooses reality over Martha. He understands that there are so many responsibilities attached to his position as a soldier. It is something that cannot be done half-heartedly without consequences. He “changes from a romantic youth to a man of action and duty” and “is carried forward by his determination not to be caught unprepared again” because he understands the situation for what it is: “a life and death situation” (Mason 830).

“The Things They Carried” does not have an ordinary treatment of a plot. Like the rest of the war stories by Tim O’Brien, it aims to portray as accurately as possible the true experiences of soldiers during the Vietnam War while trying not to cater to the expectations of “upliftment” at the end of the story. Though the soldiers each have their own “deflective techniques for dealing with pain” they ultimately have to assert themselves and take control (Mason 830).

Works Cited

Blyn, Robin. “O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” The Explicator (2003): 189-191.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. “On Tim O Brien’s The Things They Carried.” The Story and Its

Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

829-830.

O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried. “The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to

Short Fiction. Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1999. 605-618.

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