Posted on 14 October 2008 by admin
By Ronnie Wright
In his short story The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien reveals the horrendous physical conditions and fears a man will subject himself to in order to save his reputation.
The story takes place around 1968. It’s a story about an Infantry Platoon fighting in the jungles of Vietnam and the weight, both physical and emotional, that they must carry. These modern day warriors were equipped with every piece of equipment you could imagine. Most of what the soldiers carried was largely determined by necessity, such as can openers, pocketknives, helmets and flack jackets (O’Brien 281). The combined weight of these items was between fifteen and twenty pounds (281). Some additional items they carried were determined by rank and field specialty and included many heavy items like radios, weapons, and ammunition (283). Some items they carried were because of superstitions (287). One soldier carried a rabbit’s foot while another carried a thumb that had been cut from the dead VC body (287). They also carried items for emotional comfort such as a bible or a pair of a girlfriend’s pantyhose (287). The combined weight of everything they carried was a tremendous load to hump under some extremely adverse conditions. The weather conditions in Vietnam are harsh with very hot and humid days and bitterly cold nights. During the monsoon season everything is drenched with rain and covered with mud. War does not wait on the weather. The terrain in Vietnam is either hilly or covered in rice paddies. This leaves only two options for most soldiers who travel on foot, either up and down hill or knee deep in muddy rice paddy. Both of which make for miserable humping. These soldiers carried their loads like mules (288). “They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, … toiling up the hills and down into the paddies, … just humping, one step and then the next [...]” (288). To ease the strain they would often throw away rations and “blow their Claymores and grenades” (288). The physical weight of equipment was not the only thing these men carried.
They carried the burden of emotional weight as well. At the beginning of the story we find Lieutenant Cross, the Infantry Platoon Leader, reading some letters from a girl named Martha. These letters are more than the friendly writings of a girl back home, they actually represent home to Lt. Cross. He finds himself obsessed, to the point of ignoring his duties, with thoughts of Martha and home. At one point, when he thinks there may have been a cave-in in a tunnel one of his men was searching, “without willing it, he was thinking about Martha … [and] could not bring himself to worry about matters of security” (286). As a result of his daydreaming, one of his men, Ted Lavender, is shot and killed. This was his way of dealing with his fears and desire to return home. Most of the men carried photographs and Lt. Cross carried two of Martha (282). These photos would bring back memories of the times he spent with her (282). “He [remembers] kissing her good night at the dorm door” (282). And now that he is away at war and might never return home to her, “he [thinks] of new things he should’ve done” (282). These photos are a symbol of home and a reminder of better times before the war. After Ted Lavenders death Lt. Cross burned Martha’s letters and both of the photographs (292). He realized that he had to face his fears of death and accept the fact that he also has the weight of responsibility for his men’s lives to carry (282). Lt. Cross’s men were also forced to carry their fear of death and had other ways of dealing with it. “Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal” (291). They used hard words like greased, offed, lit up, and zapped while zipping to ease the pain of death much like we would call pig flesh pork in order to make it easier to swallow (291). Using such language disguises the reality of the situation. These men were not only afraid of dying they were even more afraid of showing their fear of dying (291). They were soldiers and men. They had to be tough and macho (291). To show ones fear would have been seen as weakness. They held their fear inside and would dream of the freedom flight back home (292). For many that flight included a metal box draped in old glory. Those who returned home alive took on another weight that many have never been able to unload, and that is the guilt of having fought in Vietnam.
Lt. Cross and his men had the chance to flee the country into Canada and avoid going to Vietnam altogether, as did many other young men facing the draft. However, their pride would not let them stain their reputation with cowardice. They were more concerned about what other people would think about them than they were about their own safety. These young men, who acted so brave in combat, were too much a coward to refuse to go to Vietnam. As a result, they were made to endure, not only the heavy weight of equipment under adverse conditions, but also the enormous amount of emotional weight as a result of the constant fear of dying. And, they did it all just to save their reputations.
O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 4th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1991. 280-294.