The Burden of Life: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

Things They Carried“The Things They Carried” is a short work of fiction. The Things They Carried is also the name of what could be called a short-story collection or perhaps a meta-fictional novel. It’s a pastiche of fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, memoir, author’s notations, and literary commentary.

Although the opening story stands alone as a work of fiction, it also functions as an introduction to the larger book. It establishes the major characters that recur throughout the “novel” and introduces many of the topics the book explores, themes as concrete as the Vietnam War and as abstract as how someone tells the truth about a historical event. O’Brien felt that straight facts could not convey an experience as ambiguous and disturbing as the Vietnam war. Yet O’Brien does not wholly rely on fiction either. He interweaves fact and fiction in the story (and throughout the book) to give the reader a more comprehensive sense of what it was really like to fight in Vietnam, to live in the face of death, and to carry on a purposeless existence.

Most of the story, beginning with the second section, consists of an apparently straight-forward list of things the soldiers carried, a simple catalog, yet O’Brien’s selection, description and placement of the items gives each significance to the characters and their experiences. The reader is at first surprised by this technique, perhaps a little put off, then gets caught up in the realistic details. The story has a cumulative effect, as telling detail is built up item by item, section by section, and slowly transformed into a sweating, bleeding work of art. O’Brien shifts back to more traditional narrative in the second half, but even when telling a more straight-forward story, he does not cease to enumerate the things the soldiers carried, whether concrete or abstract.

The opening section, which reads like realistic fiction, describes the most significant items First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried: letters from a girl named Martha. This apparently establishes unrequited love as the central conflict in the story. Her letters “were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant” (2). The theme of unrequited love, reexamined in alternating sections of the story, sets up expectations that are never met, but subverted as the central conflict is transformed into something else. The central tension comes between his imaginary love affair and the real responsibilities he has as lieutenant. Similarly, O’Brien establishes then undermines associations invoked by the name “Cross” and his initials J. C., as in Jesus Christ, creating religious, even allegorical implications. Is the lieutenant going to die for his men or save them somehow from their sins? Neither, but he does eventually “take up the cross” by accepting the burden of responsibility.

The second section begins cataloging things that were “largely determined by necessity” (2). At first these are the readers would expect a soldier to need: pocket knives, mosquito repellent, C rations, and canteens of water. Strangely, weapons and ammunition are not described until the fifth section. Aren’t they what a soldier needs most?

Instead, the section focuses on articles a reader would not consider life-and-death necessities, things which each individual, because of their own peculiarities, requires to survive mentally and spiritually. Again, O’Brien is demonstrating a mastery of exploiting and subverting expectations. For example, Henry Dobbins, “who was a big man,” carried extra rations and “canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake” (2). Pound cake covered in peaches is not what we would expect from a battle-hardened soldier, but its specificity makes it believable. Rat Kiley carried comic books, which are later mentioned again in a list of “things a medic must carry”: “morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books” (3). Why are comic books necessary? Without being told, we understand that Rat Kiley needs them to distract himself from the war. He may also use them to divert the wounded men he treats. For him, Rat Kiley, comics are “things a medic must carry.”

Ted Lavender, “who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Ke in mid-April” (2), is not described as a coward, but plainly as someone “who was scared.” He needed tranquilizers in order to keep going. We are baldly informed here, as his character is introduced, that he was “shot in the head,” which of course justifies his fear and use of tranquilizers and prevents the reader from judging him. Yet at this point, his death has almost no impact on the reader. Lavender is mentioned again later in the same section: he “carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity” (3). Whether the reader approves of drug use or not, we are easily persuaded that tranquilizers and dope might help him cope with the imminent and engulfing presence of death.

Kiowa, who is “a devout baptist,” carried an illustrated New Testament, given to him by his father, but he also carried “his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet” (3). From “distrust of the white man” and “old hunting hatchet,” a reader gathers that Kiowa is a Native American. Christianity seems at first to be the most significant aspect of his character, since his religion is mentioned before his racial background, yet the only use we see Kiowa make of the New Testament is as a pillow. Religion offers Kiowa the same physical, psychological comfort as Dobbin’s pound cake, Kiley’s comic books, and Lavender’s dope, all listed under the heading “necessities,” articles necessary not for fighting a war, but for escaping, at least temporarily, from it.

The third section begins with two slang terms for soldiers: “legs or grunts.” Traditionally, a soldier was defined by his weapon: a swordsman, an archer, a machine gunner. A soldier, at least in the Vietnam War, was defined in terms of carrying: “To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps” (3-4). “To hump” something means to carry it, especially on the back, since a bag or backpack would give the bearer a hump. Soldiers like Cross humped not only concrete things, like equipment and personal “necessities,” but also abstract things, like Cross’s “love for Martha.” “To hump” has a sexual meaning as well, as in “The dog humped my leg,” a sex act without penetration. Sentences like “Cross humped his love for Martha” give the reader a sense of the soldiers’ sexual frustration. Although we read in the third section that “Almost everyone humped photographs” (4), the narrator only describes Cross’s pictures of Martha and some associated memories: touching her knee in a dark theater, a spurned advance. A reader begins to notice that every time Cross is mentioned his rank is repeated, almost insisted on, “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross.” This reminds the reader that Lieutenant Cross is not just any soldier daydreaming over photos from home; he is the commanding officer.

The fourth section describes what each man carried as a “function of rank, partly of field specialty” (5). Cross carried many things he needed in order to lead his men effectively: a compass, maps, and code books. Also, “he carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men” (5). Here at the end of a list of articles necessary for leading (including a strobe light, presumably for signaling), we casually learn that he carried “responsibility for the lives of his men.” So far in the story, we have read two sections describing the lieutenant’s obsession with Martha, yet his responsibility for the men is mentioned in an offhand way, as if it is merely another piece of equipment he carries as “a function of rank.” This brief mention and relatively late placement in the story shows how much more focused Cross is on Martha’s love than on his responsibilities to his men.

Ted Lavender, a common grunt, “went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear” (6). The narrator spends a good deal of time quantifying the weight of the things the soldiers carried. But how much does fear weigh? As much as the extra ammunition and protective gear and dope and tranquilizers Lavender carried? Later in the story, abstract fear is described as the heaviest thing a soldier carries: “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down” (21).

When Lavender died, we are told, he was “dead weight.” “Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something–just boom, then down” (6). Kiowa, unable to cope with the suddenness of the event, begins to repetitively describe Lavender’s fall, “Boom. Down. Nothing else” (6). This is the second mention of Lavender’s death and still the reader is not emotionally affected, except to feel the weight of his fear in both concrete and abstract terms and to sympathize with Kiowa’s bafflement and surprise. Then, incongruously, we read, “It was a bright morning in mid-April. Lieutenant Cross felt the pain. He blamed himself” (6). The reference to the “bright morning in mid-April” brings spring and Easter to mind. But whose pain did Cross feel? Lavender died instantly and so he felt no pain. The fact that Cross “blamed himself” tells us the pain he felt was guilt. Here Cross begins to assume some of the allegorical implications of his name.

The soldiers then strip Lavender of “all the heavy things.” Death becomes a release from burdens. The dead soldier, who is no longer a grunt defined by what he humps, is carried to a dry paddy to wait for a helicopter, which will carry him away. Lavender is freed, but his death becomes a burden for the other soldiers, because they must take on his equipment and move his body, because Kiowa must deal with the shock of his death, because Cross feels he must accept responsibility. Cross “pictured Martha’s smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her” (6-7). His obsession with Martha, Cross feels, distracted him from his duties, thereby causing Lavender’s death, although it is not clear what he could have done to prevent the surprise killing. This does not matter to the lieutenant; he had been caught up in a hopeless daydream instead of focusing on his real responsibilities as leader and a soldier died. That is all.

The sixth section describes “a simple pebble, an ounce at most. Smooth to the touch, it was milky-white color with flecks of orange and violet, oval-shaped, like a miniature egg” (8). The pebble, shaped and colored like an Easter egg, is “an ounce at most,” not physically heavy. Cross imagines Martha picking it up on the Jersey shore and carrying it “in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless” (8). Everything associated with Martha seems weightless, as weightless as a fantasy. Cross, concerned with his men, but only peripherally, recognizes his love for Martha as a kind of unrealistic daydream that never will be consummated. Like the rest of them, he wants to escape his burdens: “On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing” (9). This attempt to escape the weight of responsibility causes Cross to ignore precautions which might have saved Lavender’s life.

In the seventh section, O’Brien shifts back to a more traditional narrative style as he describes the mission “to search out and destroy the elaborate tunnel complexes in the Than Ke area” (428). Lee Strunk is chosen by lot, but when he does not emerge from the tunnel, Lieutenant Cross suspects trouble. Despite the danger, he gets carried away thinking in morbid daydreams about Martha. He imagines the tunnel collapsing on them both and getting “buried alive under all that weight. Dense, crushing love” (429). Unlike other images of Martha as weightless, her love, at least as it was as imagined in Than Ke, is as heavy and crushing as a collapsed tunnel. A little later, the narrator says, “Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore” (10). The fantasy of being buried alive in Vietnam shifts to a much more pleasant daydream of being buried under the white, heavenly sand of the Jersey shore. Here Martha is associated twice with burial, once in Vietnam as a heavy, crushing thing, and once on the Jersey shore as a light and relaxing game on the beach.

In the New Testament, Martha, the sister of Lazarus, reproaches Christ for taking so long to cure her brother’s illness, since Lazarus has died and has been entombed four days. She is present when the stone is rolled back from his tomb and her brother, still wrapped in grave clothes, stumbles from the sepulcher. In O’Brien’s story, Strunk emerges from the tunnel “grinning, filthy but alive” (12). The men joke about him rising from the dead and “Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing” (12). Although Lavender’s death has been mentioned many times before, the shooting takes the reader as much by surprise as it does the characters. We have been focusing on the danger Strunk was facing in the tunnels and following Cross’s daydreams of burial with Martha.

Here at last Lavender’s death impacts the reader. Perhaps, it’s the surprise and ordinariness of the circumstances, coming back from peeing, maybe we have learned more and more about Lavender in the slow accumulation of detail. Or is it the brutal, detailed, highly-visual description: “he lay with his mouth open. The teeth were broken. There was a swollen bruise under his left eye. The cheekbone was gone” (429). How easily we humans shatter.

The eighth section lists what the men carried as determined by superstition, such as Lieutenant Cross’s good-luck pebble, a rabbit’s foot, and a thumb cut from a Vietcong boy, as trophies cut from enemies traditionally have strength-giving powers. However, these charms do not protect the men. The soldier with the thumb is found “at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his nose and mouth” (13). A soldier says, “You want my opinion . . . there’s a definite moral here” (13), but when questioned, he answers, “It’s like with that old TV show–Paladin. Have gun, will travel” (430). The other soldier replies, “I don’t see no moral” (13). The moral is that nothing but chance can save them. The moral is that there is no moral.

In the Vietnam War, O’Brien is telling us, soldiers carried many things and marched and died ingloriously: “It was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost . . . They had no sense of strategy or mission. . . . They carried their own lives. The pressures were enormous” (15). Wandering from village to village without clear objectives or “a sense of strategy or mission,” the only essential task for the soldier was just to continue. They carried their own lives, a burden that could only be alleviated by death. Given endless supplies from the “great American war chest,” many that seemed frivolous like “colored eggs for Easter,” what mattered for the soldiers was that they kept going, that they continued carrying things and carrying things, “for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (15).

Kiowa had to carry the shock of Lavender’s sudden death and his own lack of emotional response: “He was thinking . . . how it was hard to feel anything except surprise. It seemed unchristian. He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn’t there and he couldn’t make it happen” (18). More significant than his surprise or his lack of emotion, however, was his happiness to be alive: “Even his fatigue, it felt fine, the stiff muscles and the prickly awareness of his own body, a floating feeling. He enjoyed not being dead” (18). Kiowa sees his weariness, caused by all that carrying, as evidence of life. Recovering from other attacks, the soldiers “would force themselves to stand. As if in slow motion, frame by frame, the world would take on the old logic–the absolute silence, then the wind, then sunlight, then voices. It was the burden of being alive” (19).

Why must they continue carrying all those things, concrete and abstract? Because they are alive and that is what the living do, they carry and they carry on. All their burdens then are actually combined in one, the burden of being alive. For what was the alternative? “They kept humping, they did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground . . . until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world” (21). The alternative, death, meant that he would stop carrying his burdens, and others would pick the soldier up and carry him. The soldiers fantasized about a helicopter or a plane that would carry them away, in terms that sound like a Christian view of death: “They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear . . . soaring, thinking It’s over, I’m gone!–they were naked, they were light and free–it was all lightness, bright and fast and buoyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain” (22).

Similarly, Lieutenant Cross’s daydreams of Martha are a rejection of his burdens and responsibilities, of the difficulties and ambiguities of a violent, purposeless war, and ultimately a rejection of life. When Cross believes his distraction causes Lavender’s death, Cross feels he must change. He makes a decision to burn the photos of the weightless Martha and take up the burden of his men. He resolves at last to begin acting like a commander. First of all, he refuses to allow the soldiers to drop anything they carry: “Commencing immediately, he’d tell them, they would no longer abandon equipment along the route of the march” (25).

Whether we agree with his choices or not (for instance, he orders the men to massacre the village where Lavender died, even chicken and dogs), Lieutenant Cross has given up his love and death fantasies and accepted his burden, the burden of life, which in his case means the responsibility he carries for his men. As we learn in the rest of the novel, his new sense of responsibility does not prevent others from dying. However, he has accepted at last his share of the weight. Lieutenant Cross takes on the burden of life, the burden of a purposeless existence. And he requires his men to do them same. And if his men complain, he would “just shrug and say, Carry on” (26). For that is the burden of life: to carry on.

Works Cited

O’Brien Tim. “The Things They Carried.” The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1990.

Recommendation: The TV show Supernatural made an episode inspired by Tim O’Brien’s story. Check out the description of it on the Supernatural Fox Sisters Website.

(Paper written in fall 2009 for Michael Krasny’s class “Contemporary American Short Fiction” at San Francisco State.)

11 thoughts on “The Burden of Life: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried””

  1. Hello “Ronosaurus,”
    I am currently teaching “The Things They Carried” in my 11th grade English classes. Do you mind if we use your article in our discussions?
    Sincerely,
    Debra Buchan
    Charter HS for Architecture+Design
    Philadelphia, PA

  2. Great essay! I teach “The Things They Carried” on a regular basis. Would you mind if I linked this page to their ‘supplemental readings’ in Blackboard?

    Sheryl Newton
    University of the Fraser Valley
    Faculty of Access and Continuing Education

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