Tim O’Brien, the narrator in “The Things They Carried” is very engaging in his definitions and explanations of the various ‘things’ that the soldiers carried. These things ranged from physical burdens comprising of ammunition and other social amenities and necessities such as food and medication to emotional baggage such as fear of shame, unrequited love, and fear of death. They also carried intangible things such as their reputations, their loneliness, and other psychological conditions. All these ‘things’ contributed to how these men carried themselves in the war. For instance, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s love for Martha contributed to his negligence, which in turn cost the platoon the life of Ted Lavender. In most instances, the physical burden of each man best relates to the emotional baggage that is burdening him. For instance, Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck for comfort. This reflects his longing for her, his loneliness even. The same applies to Jimmy Cross and Martha’s letters at the bottom of his rucksack. Another good example is Ted Lavender who carries tranquilizers and Marijuana because he is scared.
“The things They Carried” is a very symbolic story. However, it is also plain in its relation to the different constitutions of people. The net effect is that regardless of the differences in the ‘things’ that O’Brien discusses, he succeeds in weaving a unified theme throughout the story. A theme of the weight a war can bear on a young man’s life. His graphic description of the death of Ted Lavender as one minute he was simply zipping up his fly after relieving himself and the next “boon-down” and he was dead. The sanctity of life seems to lose its significance while at war as Kiowa feels that the death of Ted seemed somewhat unchristian. This was because Ted had simply flopped down and gone without any dramatic flips or stunts. Jimmy Cross as the platoon’s leader bore the weight of the guilt and confusion of his platoon over this death and he embraced the blame. He also sacrificed his letters from Martha as a sign of conviction to concentrate on the war.
In the story, O’Brien states that some of the things that the men carried depended on their functions as prescribed by rank and their fields of specialty. To explain this, he uses Jimmy Cross as an example. He carried maps, and compasses as required of a leader so that he could chart the way that the platoon would follow on a “hump” or march. He also carried an a.45 caliber pistol that was unique to his rank, which the other soldiers would carry when they went into a tunnel before blasting it. This was the case on the day Ted died (April 16). Besides the obvious physical implications of these materials, the psychological and mental implications also attach. By extension, Jimmy as the leader carried the responsibility of his men’s lives during the war. O’Brien best illustrates this point when narrating how hard he took the death of Ted Lavender. Other things that the men carried by the requirement of their specialty included morphine, malaria tablets, and M&Ms, which Rat Kiley the medic carried, and the M-60 that Henry Dobbins carried as the machine gunner. Most of the men’s ranks were PFCs or Spec 4s, which means that they carried M-16, riffles.
The men also carried things that depended on the nature of the mission. For instance, when they were going to mountainous terrain, they carried extra mosquito nets, machetes, and canvas tarps. They carried the 28-pound mine detector when they ventured into an extra hazardous terrain. However, even then, when all the men carried particular ammunition about a specific mission, the differences in their personalities surfaced. So that for instance when they were in an ambush mission, Kiowa carried Moccasins so that he would remain stealthy. Sometimes, superstition dictated what these men carried. For instance, Martha had sent Lieutenant Jimmy Cross a good luck charm pebble and he carried this in his mouth. Norman Bowker carried the dead thumb of a certain young man that Mitchell Sanders gave him. The men also carried the ‘unweighted’ burden that was their reputations. This weight prevented them from either killing themselves for an easier way out or shooting themselves to get a free ticket out of Vietnam. Therefore, they feigned courage whenever they got scared or mocked their mates who had succumbed to their fears. Whenever there was an ambush and they lost their composure, they did not talk about it, preferring to feign macho attitudes instead of exposing vulnerability.
It is important to note that in this story, Tim O’Brien is not too keen on stylistic devices, as much as he is interested in relating his experiences on the war. He relates stories that seem superficially exaggerated but that are potent with feelings and emotions. This makes it evident that the story may not exactly fit a factual definition to the letter, but it is an accurate estimation of his feelings and the feelings of those on the war. He captures beautifully the ravaging effects of war on people on both sides. For instance, after Ted’s death, the platoon stormed into Than Khe village shooting and killing everyone in their way including dogs and chickens. This portrays the ambiguous and arbitrary nature of war, the savagery it brings out in the participants
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin / Seymour Lawrence, 1999.