“The Weight of the Things Carried” Book: “The Things They Carried” Author: Tim O’Brien
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In the book titled, The Things They Carried, the author, Tim O’ Brien, depicts a world where traumatic memories and crushing emotional baggage are far heavier than any combat pack or assortment of weapons that has ever burdened the back of a soldier. The author, O’Brien, explores the physical and emotional burdens that the soldiers of the Vietnam War “hump” or carry with them. The author portrays the things the soldiers carry throughout the story as both literally tangible items and figuratively intangible burdens. The reader is able to learn a great deal about the soldiers and their character by analyzing the things they carry during war. However, the story is not so much about the physical things the men of Alpha Company carry, but rather the emotional burdens that are not easily left behind. The image of carrying is conveyed through the weight of the physical items the soldiers “humped”, and through the metaphysical burdens of: escaping reality, fear, grief, love, and the responsibility for one another.
The thirteen troops of the Alpha Company and their Lt. Jimmy Cross are portrayal of young American soldiers that bear the burden of the physical and metaphysical things they carry or “hump” during the Vietnam War. And”among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water” (O’Brien 2).
These items can make the soldier’s pack weigh up to twenty pounds, along with other necessary items for protection. It was SOP, or standard operating procedure, for all soldiers to wear jungle boots weighing 2.1 pounds, a steel helmet weighing 5 pounds, and a nylon covered jacket weighing 6.7 pounds. In addition to the weight of their gear, they still had to lug around guns, extra ammunition, plus special supplies depending on their current mission. It is common for soldiers to carry up to half their weight in what they consider necessary supplies. All of these items serve as protection but also embody the weight of what the soldiers physically had to hump in order to survive.
Along with the weight of the procedural items, every soldier carries his own personal items, which convey the image of carrying in a figurative sense. The personal items the soldiers carry symbolize a means of escape from reality. For example: Henry Dobbins carries extra rations of peaches in heavy syrup to eat with pound cake, which exemplify his escape back to his mother’s kitchen. Ted Lavender carries tranquilizers, and marijuana to escape the pain and injury of the war. Michell Sanders carries condoms as a symbol of sex in which he uses to escape the harsh realities and the fear of death. Norman Bowker carries a diary as his outlet to purge himself of the horror that surrounds him. Rat Kiley escapes war through his imagination by carrying comic books. In order to escape the realities of war, he enters a fantasy realm that reminds him of his childhood back in America. Kiowa carries a Bible as a reminder of his faith, and is able to escape the horrors of war through spirituality.
The author allows the reader to conceptualize the personal items the soldiers carry as a means of escape, but also as a false sense of protection to cope with their fears of war. For example: Kiowa carries along with his Bible, moccasins for silence, as his personal illusion of safety. However, the moccasins will not break his silence, but the noise incurred by all of his gear will. Dave Jensen carries night vision vitamins which are high in beta-carotene. Again, the vitamins will not greatly improve his vision in the dark jungles of Vietnam. Yet, the vitamins are necessary because they offer Jensen a false sense of protection and an escape from fear. Lt. Cross carries a good luck pebble given to him by Martha, his love back home. Jensen carries a rabbit’s foot, and Norman Bowker carries the severed thumb of a dead Vietcong. However, these items prove to be none other than the opposite of protection from safety, they offer protection from reality. Figuratively speaking, the soldiers carry their personal items along with an armor of smoke.
The weight of the things the soldiers carry only gets heavier as the story progresses. The author offers a sufficient amount of detail for the reader to visualize the weight of the things the soldiers end up carrying throughout the whole war, both literally and figuratively.
“They carr[y] all the 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” (O’Brien 21).
And with the addition of the burden of grief the soldiers feel, came responsibility. Lt. Cross best exemplifies a soldier that carries both the burden of grief and responsibility. Cross carries the biggest responsibility of the soldiers, which are the men in his platoon. However, his preoccupation with his love for Martha leads to the death of Ted Lavender, and therefore Cross carries the burden and weight of grief due to his lack of responsibility. “He was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly for Martha, and for himself, because she belong[s] to another world…and because he [realizes] she [does] not love him and never [will]” (O’Brien 220). Cross’ burden of grief from the loss of both Martha and Lavender, change his character for the better. Lavender’s death shows him the error in his ways, and that he cannot carry the weight of grief and guilt during a time of war along with carrying the responsibility for the lives of his men.
With emphasis, the author symbolizes’ Lt. Cross’s very name. This allusion to the Bible, and to the literal image of the cross, represents the greatest burden that has ever been carried. Lt. Cross’ name sake serves as an allegory to Christ. Cross, as Christ did, must carry the weight of all of his men upon his shoulders. He is responsible for the outcome of their lives. The weight of responsibility that Lt. Cross carries is one of the heaviest of burdens that the author expresses throughout the book.
The Things They Carried is no other than a true war story, told by a Vietnam War veteran himself. Like the Alpha Company, Tim O’Brien and all the soldiers that served during the Vietnam War carried various items, whether it is was the weight of their equipment, or the burden of carrying their friend’s dead body. Each soldier endured not only the weight of the physical items, but bore the mental and emotional weight the war added to them. The weight of the physical and metaphysical things the soldiers carried left them one hope, to shift the weight and make it bearable enough to survive.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York : Broadway Books, 1990.