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The Physical and Emotional Burdens the Troops Carried in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

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Tim O’Brien, the author of the famous story, “The Things They Carried,” is an award-winning author who is known for his depictions of the Vietnam War and experiences throughout this war. He served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman in Vietnam from February 1969 to March 1970. Post war he chased his graduate degree at Harvard University (chipublib.org). In an interview in 1990 O’Brien stated, “Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is. In Vietnam men were constantly telling one another stories about the war. Our unit lost a lot of guys around My Lai, but the stories they told stay around after them. I would be mad not to tell the stories I know” (chipublib.org). One of O’Brien’s most popular pieces he wrote was “The Things They Carried” which is a blend of memoir and fictional stories. This literary work is filled with extreme detail on how the war affected the troops during and even after the war.

Specifically, this story fixates on the physical and emotional burdens these soldiers carried with them throughout the war and their post-war lives. O’Brien discusses the multitude of things that the men at war would carry. They take certain things with them that soldiers are always expected to have on them at all times. Some of these items include guns, bags, grenades, ammo, food, water, and items such as those. But they would also carry personal items such as Kiowa’s Bible and moccasins, or Jensen’s vitamins. Though, the men carried more than just physical items. They have certain things that will always stay with them such as emotional and figurative things. In the very beginning of the story, O’Brien discusses, in detail, the physical things that the men carried. These physical items ranged between necessities, personal items, and even things that were partly a function of rank and partly of field specialty.

In addition to the three standard weapons, they carried whatever was accessible, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or using something as a form of survival. They carried “catch-as-catch-can”. At certain times, in countless situations, they carried M-14s and CAR-15s and Swedish Ks and grease guns and captured AK-47s and Chi-Coms and RPGs and Simonov carbines and black market Uzis and .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAWs and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks and bayonets and C-4 plastic explosives. Lee Strunk carried a slingshot, which he used as a weapon of last resort. Mitchell Sanders carried brass knuckles with him and Kiowa carried his grandfather’s feathered hatchet. Every third or fourth man carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine, which is 3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades that weighed 14 ounces each. Also, each man carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade that was 24 ounces. Some men carried CS or tear gas grenades and others carried white phosphorus grenades.

According to O’Brien, “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried”. O’Brien made sure to incorporate how heavy every piece of equipment was in his writing because he wanted his readers to realize just how heavy the physical burdens of these men really are. However, the physical items that they lug with them are not limited to items issued by their generals. Many of them also carry superstitious things that they think might help throughout the war. Jimmy Cross has his, “good-luck charm from Martha. It was a simple pebble”, and “Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose wrapped around his neck”, and Kiowa “always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins”. Whether it is comfort to them, or for religious purposes, or just plain superstition, most of them have some sort of personal item that they take along with them throughout the war. Even though they already have tons of pounds of equipment to carry, they still choose to carry these things.

However, this is very justifiable because most of these items are something personal to them from home, something to remind them of what they have waiting for them back at home, which gives them hope that one day they will return there and reunite with loved ones. Hope is an important aspect throughout the entire story and is always necessary with men who are at war, because without hope they would have nothing left to fight for and their morale would be absolutely gone. Also, very often, they carried each other, the wounded, weak, or both combined. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, emblems of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, and plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, such as malaria, lice, ringworm and leeches, paddy algae and various rots and molds. Most importantly, “they carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces”.

The most burdensome of things carried by the men, is the emotional baggage that is composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. These were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, because they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many regards this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down or blown off, it would always be there lingering in the back of the soldiers’ minds. They also carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to do so. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the embarrassment of disgrace. They crawled into tunnels and walked and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite the horrific unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured and they kept trudging along. They did not succumb to the obvious and “easy” alternative, which was simply to close their eyes and fall.

Each man equally carries within himself a longing for escape from the irrational and terrible reality of war.  Some make their temporary escape through sleep, as Kiowa does. Others manage to survive through daydreams, like Lieutenant Cross, or through sedative drugs, like Ted Lavender. Every man waits for the “blessed moment when a plane, or ‘freedom bird’, will lift him above the ruined earth, the sordidness and death, his own shameful acts, into the lightness of air and the promise of home”. Throughout the story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries the emotion of love. This weighs on him enormously throughout the war because he can never get his mind off of Martha, even though is it evident that she does not love him back. This infatuation with Martha causes emotional detachment from the war and from commanding his troops. When Ted Lavender dies, Cross blames himself for not being focused because he was too busy daydreaming about Martha instead of paying attention and taking responsibility for his men. Cross spent the night crying in the bottom of a foxhole that he dug up.

The next morning in the pouring rain, Cross decided to burn all of Martha’s letters she had ever sent him and two of her photographs. By doing this, Cross concludes that he will never have fantasies about Martha ever again and will not allow her to cloud his mind and judgment any longer. He had to remind himself that his job is not to be loved but to lead. However, even though he no longer physically carries these items because he burned them, he still emotionally carries them throughout the story because he can never get them out of his mind. Jimmy Cross’s character represents the responsibility of the intense effects has on those who are leaders and too immature to handle it. As a sophomore in college, Jimmy Cross signed up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps because it was worth a few credits and because his friends were doing it. But he didn’t care about the war and had no desire to be a team leader. As a result of this carelessness, when he was led into battle with several men as his responsibility, he is hesitant in everything he does. After losing one of his men due to him not paying attention because he was thinking of a girl, he knew he had to get his priorities straight and be a true leader for his men.

He did not realize the immense amount of responsibility that being a leader entailed until he lost one of his men, which resulted in him feeling guilty about it for the rest of his life. Kiowa is another example of one of the soldiers who carries an emotional burden with the tremendous weight of “his grandmother’s distrust for the white man”. This could propose a difficulty to trust his fellow soldiers. They find different ways to grieve over the fallen soldiers, but never do forget them. Like O’Brien says in one of his interviews, “The thing about remembering, is that you don’t forget.” According to Amy J. Krajeck, a journalist who wrote about one of her encounters with O’Brien, imagination was the key factor in O’Brien’s sanity, and though he didn’t realize it at the time, it served as the ‘medicine’ he needed to circumvent the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. His inventive stories serve as a type of therapy to heal the mind from the anguish-filled moments of war while explaining the wide range of emotions associated with battlefield experiences. A soldier’s fears, love, memories, sorrows, and loneliness are what matter most in war, not the actual battles or fighting.

While objectifying his experience and sorting through his emotions, O’Brien explains to Krajeck the importance of a soldier’s imagined recollections, which is to more fully understand the emotional outcomes of war rather than focusing on the controversy. He establishes the significance of imagination in the healing process that is necessary after being exposed to increased emotional stress. Similarly, in Farrell O’Gorman’s journal, he displays the critical points of his interview with Tim O’Brien. O’Gorman went on to explain how O’Brien felt that his piece, “The Things They Carried,” depicts Vietnam as “both this war and any war”. Throughout the interview, O’Brien proclaimed that “despite the general American perception of the war as an abnormality or unique, Vietnam was not really an exception”. O’Brien also denies that his war was “especially chaotic and formless”. Later on in the interview, O’Brien stated, “Every war seems formless to the men fighting it… We like to think our own war is special: especially horrible, especially insane, especially formless. But we need a more historical and compassionate perspective. We shouldn’t minimize the suffering and sense of bewilderment of other people in other wars”.

According to journalist Robin Silbergleid, O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” acknowledges the “epistemological problem of postmodernity – the loss of certain knowledge – and establishes the credibility that more traditional readers, perhaps, desire. After all the book is written ‘by who has experienced (the events of Vietnam) to the fullest’. Therefore, Silbergleid is trying to depict that this piece of literature is especially important and valuable because it is written by an individual who has experienced these events first hand, unlike other writers who compose literary pieces about war without any personal experience in battle. The young men who fought for their country in Vietnam were exceptionally brave. After the war, the psychological burdens the men carry during the war continue to define them. Those who survive carry guilt, grief, and confusion, and many of the stories are about these survivors’ attempts to come to terms with their experience. War is a very hard thing for non-soldiers to comprehend when one starts to talk about the stories of what happened when they were just simply marching around the jungle. However, the emotional and physical things these men carried are heavily shown throughout O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” and presents reasoning for why these men did the things the did and felt the things they endured.

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