Tim O’Brien, in his collection of short stories called “The things they carried”, develops the theme of soldiers ‘carrying’ many burdens throughout their lives. Through his persona, also named Tim O’Brien, O’Brien contradicts the stereotypical reason as to why the men joined the war. Jimmy Cross explores the unwanted burden placed on a Lieutenant of the platoon member’s responsibility. Further O’Brien explores the affect of the Vietnam War on the soldiers on their wellbeing through Norman Bowker, who suicides as he is unable to deal with the memories and the pressure faced due to the war. he emotional burden from the memories, physical weight ‘humped’ by them during the war and the mental pressures enforced upon them are the different types of ‘carrying’ which O’Brien explores through these characters. Emotion burden came about from the memories and fear of shame, guilt and the loneliness at war. This the soldiers carried through out their lives. The men faced shame before the war when they were drafted. While many held the urge to go to Canada instead only some did.
This is because of their fear of the shame from society of being called “Pussy” or “Turncoat” and went to war because they were “embarrassed not to”. O’Brien aims to contradict the idea of men attending the war to server for their country further through his persona Tim O’Brien. He too like many tries to runaway to Canada but social norms restrict his choices and he as well is a “coward” because he “went to war”. Through this O’Brien also reasons that throughout history men attended the war due to their fear of shame they would have to face, of enduring the “mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule”.
This irony of the men being shameful for attending the war rather then for not attending the war further helps highlight the weight of the emotional confusion and burden the men faced due to social expectations. The men carry this emotional burden of shame and cowardice to the war where it is further magnified as from the shameful memories involving the “instinct to run, freeze or hide”. Guilt adds to these memories as the burden further builds from the death of fellow members. Lieutenant Cross, who is a “kid at war”, is given the responsibility of the platoon at war and even after the war he carries the guilt for the death of Ted Lavender.
He “never [forgave] himself for Lavender’s death” and blames his distraction from Martha due to which he carries the guilt like a “stone in his stomach”. The metaphor of Cross burning Martha’s letters and pictures shows how he tries to burn the guilt with them failing to understand that this emotional pressure is something that would “never go away” for the soldiers as carried the “weight of the memories” which cannot be erased. Guilt further evoked other emotions such as anger and loneliness. As all human beings the men craved for comfort, love and to spend time with loved ones.
This however was taken by them through the war experience as when at war only some were supported by their families while others felt the loneliness at war. Being away from loved ones angered them and they carried this emotion of grievance throughout their lives. They resented the guilt, fear, loneliness and anger which society did not understand or feel. While soldiers were able to with these emotions and memories which burdened them after the war through writing stories, others struggled to maintain a stable consciousness.
Norman Bowker, who is unable to express his feelings and release some of his emotional weight, feels this loneliness and suicides to escape this burden which he cannot carry fro longer. Through Norman, O’Brien intends to show the reader of how the emotional burdens of the men could not be erased but somewhat eased, which some men were not able to do. Though O’Brien shows that men developed this burden through different experiences, it is clear that the burden grows as the war progress and keeps increasing through memories even after the war.
However, emotional burden is not the only weight the men carried during it war. As a requirement for the war, the soldiers carried many items on their backs over large distances. While most of these items were “largely determined by necessity” to aid them in their survival, other items involved personal items for comfort and support. The survival items involved things like guns, jackets, C rations and knives which altogether weighted around 65 pounds excluding the many other items men carried for comfort.
These involved letters, pictures of loved ones, panty hose for Henry Dobbins, and tranquilisers for Ted Lavender which they claimed had the properties of “good luck charms” and helped ease the tension and pressure at war. While the things they carried where also determined by a “man’s habits or the rate of metabolism”, this “humping” became their nightmare after the war as they remembered the pain from the weight. Jimmy Cross, is the Lieutenant of the platoon, carried a “compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a . 45-caliber pistol which weighted 2. 9 pounds when loaded”, plus a strobe light.
Further he carried the personal items which included Martha’s letters, pictures and a good luck pebble which all provided a distraction from the war responsibilities and pressures. However when Ted Lavender is killed, Cross burns Martha’s pictures and letter blaming her to be the distraction which cost him Lavender’s death. While the platoon members, such as Norman Bowker, carried letter and diaries from loved ones. Norman, whose father “had his own war”, craves for the love and support from the letter, which is a reason as to why he carries, while also carries the war requirements.
The diary helped Norman release his tension at war and help him sort through his feelings, though this is ironical as Norman suicides after the war as he is unable to speak of his experience at war. As O’Brien aims to show that men needed the comfort and support at war from letters and pictures, he also states that they had some fun at war. This is seen as the men carried “chess sets, basketballs” which helped pass the time, while also carrying “Vietnamese- English dictionaries” and “plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct”.
Further the men carried many diseases such as “malaria and dysentery” while also carrying hygienic items such as “toothbrushes, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap”. The men also carried the land itself in terms of dust which “covered their boots and fatigues and faces”. By mentioning these different items which the men carried, O’Brien aims to show that some of the things the men carried where unavoidable and have been through out the history of war.
He shows that men are portrayed wrongly as being brave and indestructible, where in reality they require some presence of comfort from little things which reminded them of better times before the war. These items had to be carried by the men throughout Vietnam and the weight was tremendous. Moreover, O’Brien also mentions the mental pressure placed on the men shoulders from the fear of death. For the platoon members, it was inevitable to escape the mental pressure at war. This pressure mainly arose form continuous pestering in the mind about whether they would survive or not.
Further questions involving who the enemies are and the reason behind this war, magnified their pressure and burden. As it is known the men “carried their own lives” which made the burden “enormous”. As the Vietnam war was very quite and mostly involved “humping” across long distances compared to the stereotypical images of war, the men were preoccupied at most times by worrying about their survival. This was harder for the Lieutenant of the platoon to cope with as along with his live, he was responsible for the “lives of his men”.
As of his young age and immaturity, these burdens build upon him a mental pressure of leading all his men safely through Vietnam. After Lavenders death “hardness” is his behaviour was brought about from the guilt which further lead him to take more responsibility of his men. The boredom at war also added to the mental pressure from the quietness which occurred before attacks. As the men relaxed from the continuous fear when a silence was struck, a sudden gunfire would jolt them strongly making them “squealing pig squeals”.
O’Brien explores this through his story of Lavender’s death as men crawl into the cave and shows how tension covers their minds. As they start worrying about “odd things” about the working of flashlights or the courage of their fellow soldiers to help them if they were in some sort of trouble. “Imagination was the killer” which invaded their minds at such times which created memories through which the men suffered long after the war was finished. In many ways the “waiting was worse” then many missions they carried out, like the one involving the tunnel.
This pressure is known to be strong enough to cause mental breakdown of the men. Norman Bowker is a character through whom this mental breakdown is taken into account by O’Brien. The memories the war and his inability to talk of his experience lead him into depression as he could not adjust to the sudden quietness and boredom from the change of atmosphere after the war. This added to his mental burden which he could not cope with and resulted in suiciding. O’Brien, however, also informs the reader that the men who carried this burden sometimes also had ways to cope with it.
This is seen through his own reflection story “Notes” as he shows how through the “act of writing” had helped him avoid “paralysis or worse”. Through his stories, O’Brien shows how the mental stress was common between all soldiers and contradicts the stereotypical image of men being brave and strong. Through his story “Spin” O’Brien shows the reason as to the mental pressure being the blindness of the men at war as they were unaware of the strategies being played at the Vietnam war which contributed to the tension.
This he explains by using a Chess game as a metaphor or comparison to the war as in the game there is “always a winner and a loser” where as in the war both sides of the battle suffer through the burden, mental outbursts and the loss of ones they had grown to love. The mental trauma from the “nakedly and aggressively boring” war is carried by all soldiers throughout their lives while only some understand a way through which to handle this pressure.