Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” published in 1986, would become the opening story to his acclaimed collection (1990) titled the same. O’Brien is widely considered the author that has shaped U.S. understanding of the experience of soldiers during the Vietnam War. In this story, O’Brien recounts Lt. Jimmy Cross’s psychological trauma at witnessing Ted Lavender’s being shot and killed by a sniper.
This story has much that is problematic with it. For example, did you notice how the Vietnamese become mostly a backdrop for the emotional drama the US soldiers experience? Alpha Company’s burning of the village along the Than Khe is almost incidental to the main plot. Critics of O’Brien see him as erasing the Vietnamese and their suffering to make the war almost exclusively about the Americans. Acknowledging this concern, I wanted to focus this blog post on how war is both disorienting and alienating for those fighting it.
“Imagination is a Killer”
Similar to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” O’Brien story jumps around in its timeline and space. The central event of the story is Ted Lavender’s death, which is revealed at the beginning. However, O’Brien does tell his story chronologically, but goes back and forth from Cross’s obsessing over Martha and cataloging the equipment his men carry. What should probably catch our attention is how little time O’Brien spends on Lavender’s death.
…when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhoooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing.
When the story begins to return to Lavendar’s death, it seems to just veer off to talking about all that the soldiers carry with them or Cross’s thoughts about Martha and her world that is completely foreign to him. Now consider the scene O’Brien presents when Kiowa keeps trying to talk about Lavender’s death with the rest of the men and their response to shut down the conversation. Much like the men, except Kiowa, want to avoid thinking about Lavender’s death, the story mirrors their reaction by diverting our attention elsewhere.
“…there’s a definite moral here.”
The predominant trope that O’Brien employs is the cataloging all of the equipment by weight and the personal effects each soldier carries with them. O’Brien uses these lists to reveal the emotional weight that burdens them as well:
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangible, but the intangible had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.
What O’Brien draws our attention to is the greatest weight they carry with them is the fear of revealing their fear: “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” In other words, they all share this sense of humiliation of not living up to the expectation of being a solider, of not pulling your weight. As O’Brien writes, “It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.” Being a soldier, for O’Brien, becomes more of a part that each man must play rather than an innate quality.
This theme of playing the part of a solider is how Cross reacts to Lavender’s death, which he takes responsibility for. Cross burns Martha’s letters and will throw away her lucky pebble and commits to acting more like a commanding officer:”[B]ut from this point on he would comport himself as a solider.” As Cross reflects on how he will change, he becomes very conscience of his mannerism: “He would look them in the eyes, keeping his chin level, and he would issue the SOPs in a calm, impersonal tone of voice, an officer’s voice…” Again, O’Brien presents being soldier as a form of play-acting. War, in this story, alienates soldiers from themselves.