Mrs. S. Aiken
September 9, 2009
The Weight of Emotional Burdens in “The Things They Carried”
In the unforgivable jungle of Vietnam, young soldiers are forced to carry heavy artillery and supplies. Still these frightened men choose to take on the additional weight of pictures, letters, and other things that remind them of home. These things can be weighed in pounds and ounces. However, the emotional burdens Tim O’Brien describes in “The Things They Carried” are the most difficult weights they have to bear.
O’Brien lists the required supplies carried by all of the soldiers and gives examples of the personal things each soldier chooses "to hump," which means "to march" or "to walk" (1037). Interestingly though, there is little mention of the specific war gear carried by the main character in the story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. O’Brien gives great detail of the internal, emotional struggles that weigh so heavily on the Lieutenant. Cross physically carries letters, photographs and a “simple pebble, an ounce at most,” all given to him by a junior at Mount Sebastian College, named Martha (O’Brien 1039).
Paragraph after paragraph details the practical items, such as the three pairs of socks and Dr. Scholl’s foot powder carried by Dave Jenson, along with the more untraditional items like the “premium dope” carried by Ted Lavender, who O’Brien describes as “scared” (1036-1037). Between the long lists of things the Lieutenant’s men carry with them are beautifully detailed descriptions of Cross’ uncontrollable thoughts and fantasies about Martha, and his deep love for her.
O’Brien doesn’t offer as much detail into the emotional baggage carried by Cross’ men, but certain conclusions can be drawn from the information he does give. Another character, Kiowa, is described as a “devout Baptist” who carries a copy of the Old Testament, which was given to him by his father (O’Brien 1037). He is also carries the tremendous weight of “his grandmother’s distrust for the white man” and a hunting hatchet (O’Brien 1037). These emotional and physical items suggest that Kiowa, who is Native American, struggles to put the necessary trust into his fellow soldiers, as a result of his upbringing.
Ted Lavender, in reaction to his fear, takes Tranquilizers and smokes dope. O’Brien refers to these items as necessities, which implies that Lavender has developed a drug addiction. Dave Jensen, who carries extra socks, foot powder, ear plugs and high carotene vitamins, seems to have an overwhelming fear of disease. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, which doesn’t offer much insight, however, he is also the soldier who cuts the thumb off of a young Vietcong and gives it to an otherwise gentle soldier, Norman Bowker (O’Brien 1042). The act of cutting off a young boy’s thumb and then kicking him in the head indicates that Sanders is struggling with some emotional instability, and a lack of respect for life. These issues may be a direct result of the war, or may have been present earlier in his life.
The effects of these emotional struggles is illustrated by Cross’ inability to control his daydreams about Martha. He finds himself unable to focus on the dangers around him. Even as Lee Strunk is searching the tunnels in Than Khe, facing unknown dangers, Lieutenant Cross loses himself in an elaborate daydream. Immediately after Strunk emerges from the tunnel, Ted Lavender is shot and killed by a sniper.
After Lavender’s death, the men sit and smoke his dope as they wait for the chopper to arrive. During this time, Cross begins to think of Martha again, but this time he realizes his inability to control his thoughts is a problem. Although it is unlikely that Cross’ lack of focus had anything to do with this tragedy, he is riddled with guilt when he realizes his love for Martha interfered with his duties as first lieutenant and platoon leader.
Some of the men, like Sanders, deal with the emotional strain of Lavender’s death by making jokes. Kiowa talks endlessly of the way Lavender fell when he was shot. He tells Bowker Lavender fell “like cement” (O’Brien 1044). When there is no one left to talk to, Kiowa returns to the familiar comfort of his Bible.
O’Brien puts a lot of emphasis on the weight of the physical items the soldiers have to carry. Some weigh only a few ounces while others weigh over 20 pounds. The task of carrying the combined weight of these items is hard to imagine. Still, considering the endless danger they face in Vietnam, the emotional baggage each man carries is a much heavier burden. “Grief, terror, love, longing- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien 1046). Long after the heavy artillery is lifted from their shoulders, the emotional scars will remain. The experience of the war itself is a weight the soldiers who survive will have to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Tim O’Brien. “The Things They Carried.” Literature The Human Experience. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007. 1037-1049.