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The Things They Carried

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“The Things They Carried”

What does becoming a soldier mean? Does it mean that duty comes before love or does it mean the opposite? Could it be that soldiers do not have control of their feelings? From the mind of Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried” describes young soldiers that were automatically bumped up into manhood. The author treats the inner conflict that each soldier had to bear during the Vietnam War while fighting for their country. Witnessing horrific scenes of war and the emotional and physical burdens that each of them carried, O’Brien unfolds how these men had no choice but to fulfill their patriotic duty. As the leader of the platoon, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross goes through an inner conflict between love and duty, carrying his orders in his mind and Martha in his heart. But how far can war or following orders, impair the human side of compassion and love? Although, soldiers become men at war, O’Brien focuses in a story where war makes men emotionally handicap, leaving mental scars that may never heal.
The story is told by a third person’s point of view, however, O’Brien includes a touch of his personal experiences during the war where he spent a year in Vietnam (Hicks). As Josiah Bunting said, “The things he carried into war are very different from what he carried away from it” (Bunting) expressing O’Brien’s experience at war and how his experience as a soldier would convince readers to believe that the different traumatic moments really happened. Although his personal experiences are counted as relevant, some critics consider his storytelling to be “nothing new about trying to tell war stories- that the “truths” they contain “are contradictory”, elusive and this indeterminate”. Kaplan goes on saying that “representation includes staging what might have happened in Vietnam while simultaneously questioning the accuracy and credibility of the narrative act itself” (Kaplan). Nonetheless, through “The Things They Carried” much of his personal military knowledge is related to the story which created a deeper impact to imagination with an “air of reconciliation between the present and the past” (Streitfeld). Military abbreviations including KIA (Killed in action) and RTO (Radio and telephone operator) (O’Brien) were used to identify how soldiers talked and how they communicated during war connecting the reader with military “slangs” by setting the right appropriateness.
At the beginning of the story, the author starts by explaining how soldiers prepared themselves for battle by carrying what they considered necessary. With a detailed and descriptive approach, O’Brian explains how different soldiers carried different weapons based on their job and physical size. He goes on by using imagery and describes many of the articles including the steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds or the jungle boots that were 2.1 pounds. His form of storytelling using imagery, invites the reader’s imagination to feel the burden of what the soldiers had to physically carry by comparing the weight described with everyday items. O’Brien’s use of effective imagery, helps translate the emotional items carried that affects the soldiers during war. Many critics agreed that the readers are “immediately struck its variety of settings and characters to be found in these settings” (O’Gorman). However, Steven Kaplan pointed out that the “Storytelling in this book is something in which “the whole world is rearranged” (Kaplan), because in the story, the narrator would go between events that were happening in real time and the daydreams that Lt. Cross had. O’Brien often uses flashbacks to describe Lt. Cross’ daydreams when he jumps from describing what the soldiers carried to how Lt. Cross went to the movies with Martha. This may not be the most effective way to captivate the reader’s attention because it creates confusion and lets imagination fill the gaps between stories. These switches between present and daydreams makes the story hard to read since there is no chronological order to the occurrences.
When describing the characters including First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, characterization is used for a direct explanation on how each character looks like in the story. Lt. Cross is a young officer with little experience with a great memory and imagination towards what he considered love. He carried Martha’s letters, a girl from New Jersey, as a form of escape from the present reality of war. These letters would carry him to day dream thinking about her and imagine her in different ways. The letters were pointed as a symbol in the story which represented Lt. Cross’ shield from war by protecting his innocence towards love and life. He would carry the letters with great care just as he would care for his life. Martha’s letters were conflicting with his duty of leading and making sure that his men were safe, however, it made him forget the fear and the loneliness of war. He was holding on to the only thing that felt like home to him and to any ties he had left from back home. In the part of the story when the platoon receives orders of “search out and destroy” tunnels, O’Brien wants to make it clear as of how much Lt. Cross was in loved with Martha when he says “After five minutes, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross moved to the tunnel, leaned down, and examined darkness. Trouble, he though- a cave-in maybe. And then suddenly without willing it, he was thinking about Martha”. The author sets the mood to understand Cross’ emotional side of love that later would take over creating a conflict of interests putting at risk his leadership and the safety of his men. Cross was twenty four and could not help but to be in love (Book). To emphasize Cross’ degree of day dreaming, the author uses a hyperbole pointing how he was “buried” with her. “Lieutenant Cross, gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore” “He was just a kid at war, in love” (O’Brien).
During the climax of the story, different events unfolded and lead to one of his soldiers’ death, Ted Lavender. The author uses Lavender’s death to shape Lt. Cross’ inner conflict and is faced with a decision of leaving Martha go or keep fantasizing of her. O’Brien uses a tone of despair and sadness by the decision that needs to be made and describes Cross’ frustration with himself using imagery when he dug a foxhole using his entrenching tool as an axe feeling both love and hate and when everything was left and done, he wept. (O’Brien) It is because of the consequence of a death that Lt. Cross loses all hope in love and convinces himself that there is no room for love in his heart while he is in the line of fire with his men. “He was a soldier, after all”, a cynical tone was used because soldiers do not have room for love, just for duty. The author uses conflict to express how every soldier battles with their memories of home and how war can change any man under traumatic circumstances making them grow apart from the things they love the most. O’Brien describes Cross having an epiphany realizing that he needs to be a leader and a men. The letters were burned as a representation of the symbolism that Lt. Cross was ready to assume his role and that the shield was no longer needed. Because of Ted Lavender’s death, the innocence and love that once held Cross back, were gone. Using allegories, O’Brien mentions that the letters burnt could not “burn the blame” to illustrate how emotionally wounded Lt. Cross was. He goes on to show how Cross was turning from a normal twenty four year old with goals in life and love to a cold hearted officer of the army when he wrote “He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead” (O’Brien). With his innocence gone, there were no more need for the symbolic letters or Martha.
O’Brien’s hopeless and sad tone in the story shows how men are changed by the catastrophes of war. A theme where collateral damages of war are perpetuated into the soldier’s life as emotional burdens while they go on to live their lives after the war. Men at war will never be normal again. Soldiers of the Vietnam era were so badly wounded emotionally that most of them could still have Lt. Cross’ inner battle. A Vietnam War veteran once said ‘my scars can’t be seen or touched, but they are deeper than any round that could have been fired’’ (Theriault) because “war stories aren’t about war- they are about the human heart at war” (O’Gorman).

Work Cited
Bunting, Josiah. "Vietnam, Carried On." Book World—Washington Post (23 Apr. 1990): B 13. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 74. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.
Calloway, Catherine. "How to Tell a True War Story: Metafiction in the Things They Carried." Critique 36.4 (Summer 1995): 249-257. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 74. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.
Hicks, Patrick. "A Conversation with Tim O'Brien." Indiana Review 27.2 (Winter 2005): 85-95. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 123. Detroit: Gale, 2009. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.
O'Brien, Tim. Approaching Literature: Reading Thinking Writing. By Peter J. Schakel and Jack Ridl. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. 493-506. Print
O’Gorman, Farell. “The Things They Carries as Composite Novel.” WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 10, no. 2 (fall-winter 1998): 289-309.
Streitfeld, David. “Never Done.” Book World – Washington Post (19 May 1991): 15.
Theriault, Kim Servart. "Re-Membering Vietnam: War, Trauma, And “Scarring Over” After “The Wall”." Journal Of American Culture 26.4 (2003): 421. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

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