Burdens of the Mind
In this story, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, we see a parallel being drawn contrasting and comparing the similarities in the physical burdens that the soldiers carried on their backs with the emotional burdens each man carried in their minds. I see the author showing us that the psychological burdens that each man carried were as heavy as or heavier than the physical burden of the material items that they carried. We can understand many of the articles that these soldiers carried were for the necessity of being a soldier in a war situation.
The P-38 can opener, water containers, mosquito repellent, salt, lighters, C rations and wrist watches, these, among many other things were some basic necessities they carried. These items all together weighed about 20 pounds. Then we see that they carried the tools of a soldier, some items specific to the rank and mission of each solder. These items included a radio, compasses, maps, code books, a flak jacket and a poncho, a necessity for cold nights, and first aid supplies for injuries. There were probably 30 or more pounds of this sort of equipment.
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They carried their weapons, guns, bayonets, knives, grenades and launchers, and ammunition, one of the few articles described as “heavy” and depending on which weapons you carried, the extra weight could have been anywhere from 20 to 60 pounds. (119) Each soldier carried articles for hygiene and sustenance that their own personal needs and desires called for. They carried stationary, pencils and pens, clothing, games and religious articles such as a Bible or a Buddha statute. Henry Dobbins, a large man, carried extra food.
Henry also carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Dave Jensen was into field hygiene and carried a toothbrush, dental floss and stolen soap bars. He also carried foot powder to prevent trench foot and night sight vitamins to help him see better at night. Lee Strunk carried a slingshot with ammo, which he claimed was “never a problem. ” (121) Ted Lavender carried his tranquilizers and dope to calm his fears. Norman Bowker carried a diary to journal his experiences. Kiowa, a Baptist, carried a hatchet and a Bible given to him by his father, who was a preacher. Rat arried comic books, M&Ms and brandy for calming his nerves. Lt Cross carried mementos from his often dreamed about fantasy love affair with a girl that he had known in Jersey before he left for war. A memory pebble, ten ounces of letters that really didn’t prove her love for him, he only imagined that they did, and some photographs that had little real meaning in them. They all carried photographs to remind them of the loved ones they had at home. Some of the men carried things that were supposed to be good luck charms or superstitious items such as Dave Jensen’s rabbit foot.
Norman Bowkers carried a thumb cut off a dead VC boy, who had only carried rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition. These minimal survival needs and lack of personal items of the dead VC served to give a moment’s thought to the American soldiers about the morality of carrying so many pounds of things, many unnecessary for their mission. Despite the physical weight of all the things that the men carried which between backpack and arms, which could have been up to 100 pounds or more, there is little mention in the story of the men suffering under the weight of the material goods that they were carrying.
The author tells us that they called carrying these items “humping it” which in its intransitive form meant to walk or march with the burden but says that it “implied burdens far beyond the intransitive. ”(118) When O’Brian uses the word intransitive it implies a separation or disconnect between the men and the actual burdens that they carried, giving almost a life-like separate quality to the objects themselves. It is stated that “humping was automatic, it was anatomy. ”(124) They carried the red soil of Vietnam that worked its way into their most intimate places.
Then we see that the load seemed heavier when it was very hot and got physically heavier when it rained. O’Brien tells us that they “carried like freight trains on their backs and shoulders” and that “there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry. ”(124) I think the freight train symbolizes the ability to carry the weight without it being a difficult burden. Interestingly enough, there is no description of the physical objects seeming a heavy physical burden to the men, until the end of the story, when Lt. Cross begins to treat the men more as soldiers on a mission than friends, to lead not love, did the story mention that the men might grumble and their load seem heavier. This was due to a psychological change of events. Throughout the story, intertwined with the physical material objects, we see psychological and health burdens that the men carried, which could have seemed heavier to carry than material objects. Lt. Cross carried distraction in the form of a fantasy love relationship with a girl left at home.
His distraction was focused on the memories, pebble, love letters and pictures of her. Lt. Cross also carried the blame for the death of Lavender, shot because of his own distraction and lack of focus on the field. Obrien says he carried it “like a stone in his stomach. ” (124) Kiowa carried “his Grandmother’s distrust of the White man”; this must have made his life difficult, since he was on a crew of mostly White men (117). For their weapons, they carried “a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (120). They all carried ghosts”, which I believe Mr. Obrien meant to symbolize the memories of people left behind at home or friends that had been killed in battle. (121) “They carried out orders,” which sometimes were not pleasant things to do, such as exploring abandoned tunnels. (121) “They carried the weight of memories; they took up what others could no longer bear. ” (123). They carried a variety of infections, viruses, and fungi and these diseases can all be very painful and debilitating.
They carried the sky and gravity, symbolizing that they were carrying the weight of the world. They carried their own lives, each one aware of the fact that they could be killed at any time. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die; grief, terror, love, longing, intangibles but had their own mass and specific gravity. ” (126) Kiowa carried the guilt that he had about not being able to feel sadness or anger at the death of Lavender. “They carried shameful memories, the common secret of cowardice and the instinct to run or freeze or hide.
In many respects this was the heaviest burden of all. ” (126). They carried their reputations that they feared they would lose if they showed cowardice in battle. “They died so as not to die of embarrassment. ”(127) Obrien states that “they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure. ”(127) Laughing at others that let their weaknesses show so that the fears they carried on the inside wouldn’t show on the outside. ” Lt. Cross carried sadness to think about all the things the men carried inside. 128) O’Brian goes to great lengths to describe how the mental aspects of being a soldier weighed heavy on each individual. I get the feeling from the description of the physical objects they carried, that as soldiers, they were expected and trained to carry heavy loads so they were not a heavy burden. When you analyze the comparison of the two loads, physical and mental, you get the feeling that the mental burdens truly created a heavier burden to bear for the soldiers.