"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien


“The Things They Carried”, written by Tim O’Brien, refers to the burdens, both seen and unseen, that soldiers in the Vietnam War carried everyday. These burdens were many and varied emotional, physical, mental and personal. Some were short term and some are still carried today, even after thirty years.

To understand this story better the reader must first fully understand the meaning of the word burden: Bearing a load; something oppressive or worrisome, something that is carried. The men in this story carried all types of burdens, weapons, photos and the kind that cannot be seen.

The story is told using the event surrounding the death of platoon member Ted Lavender. Ted Lavender is shot because of the lax manner in which Lt John Cross leads his men. He does not ensure that they are doing all they should to remain as safe as possible. He allows them to discard important gear and equipment (par. 39), he allows them to have and use drugs openly. Lt John Cross considers himself responsible for Ted Lavender’s death and blames his love for Martha, his friend and pen pal, as the reason he let Ted Lavender die. He likes to imagine that she loves him but knows she does not (par. 1). He carries a love for her despite her lack of return love. He carried it forefront in his mind to the point of total distraction (par. 21). When Ted Lavender was killed Lt John Cross was thinking about Martha instead of thinking about the security of his men (par. 21).

The security of his men was, in part, determined by the tools of war they carried, the M-16s, ammunition, knives, helmets and M-79 grenade launchers. Tools used as the means to seek the death and destruction of others. These burdens are the material items needed to close with, engage and destroy the enemy before they do the same to you. These items are the physical burdens each carried (par. 12), the heavy cumbersome often awkward gear. Gear designed for three basic reasons: to find the enemy; for instance the compass and map (par. 91), to survive; the C-rations and flak vest (par.2,), and to kill the enemy; the M-16 and grenade(par. 10). These are not the only physical burdens these men carried (par. 10, 17) but are the most common and obvious. They also carried radios, bibles, comic books, weapons cleaning kits, drugs, hygiene gear, letters and photos, the list is almost endless. Each of these physical items had a specific purpose. When you are in the field, forced to carry everything you own yourself, each item you choose adds weight and makes your life harder. So these men only took what they believed was unavoidably needed for them to survive.

The desire for survival was another type of burden carried by all. The weapons each carried in hopes of survival were many and varied, sometimes seeming absurd to an outsider. Lee Strunk’s slingshot, “a weapon of last resort”, Mitchell Sanders brass knuckle and Kiowa’s feathered hatchet. All these items, and many more, were carried by the soldiers to give them the hope of survival. The bandages each carried with them, “often in their head bands for easy availability,” were signs of their hope. The first aid equipment carried by Rat Kiley was another. Thoughts of flying home on the “freedom bird” its shining silver wings carrying them away from all the burdens they faced in Vietnam. Those thoughts of freedom were possibly the hardest burden, wondering everyday if they would be allowed to survive to get on that plane home.

The burdens that were hidden were often the hardest to endure. The guilt of survival, often came out as callousness and cruelness. The emotionless way Kiowa talks about Lavenders death is a sign of the guilt and hurt that is hidden deep down. They carried fear, fear of death, fear of failing, fear of being a coward. They carried memories, memories of death and gruesome things. Kiowa could not escape the sight and memory of seeing Lavender shot. The death and gruesome things these men endured were shared by all.

The reader can easily miss the larger things these soldiers carried and still do carry. For these things are almost hidden in this story and some are just implied. Short lines like, “They all carried ghosts”(par. 16), “They shared the weight of memory” (par. 39), “They carried their own lives” (par. 39), “the unweighed fear” (par. 10) can be easily missed or overlook by the reader. These however, tell of deeper things, things not spoken of except in unguarded moments. The implication of hidden burdens is also found when the author explains the irrational thoughts running through his head when searching a tunnel. These thoughts are not easily laid down and are not easily seen, even by those that are carrying them. “Imagination is a killer” (par. 17) tells us that sometimes what is imagined is worse than the reality we face.

Some of their burdens were ways to imagine an escape, a way to pretend, if only for a moment, that you were not here or things were not that bad. Lt Cross escaped to the fantasy of Martha. Ted Lavender used drugs to escape and, Dave Jensen escaped with cleanliness, as if being clean made his being there bearable. Rat Kiley read comic books, and they all escaped through words. All of them used harsh humor and callous behavior to escape the emotional burden they each carried. They escaped by pretending, pretending they weren’t scared or making light of the terrible things they and others had to do for survival.

These men carried the burden of not knowing why they were there and what purpose they served. “We were left on our own to figure it out by ourselves...(Overton, “Huntsville”).sThey trudged day and night through heat and dust and rain and fog, the entire time searching. They did not know for who or what they searched. They only knew two things for certain, tomorrow they would search again and they would be carrying the same burdens as today, possibly more.

These men carried more than anyone who was not with them could ever imagine. They carried the land and the people, they carried the hate of two nations as well as the hope of two nations. (Palmer, “Victory”) They were men called to arms by their country, wrong or right, to defend her against a perceived threat. Two-thirds of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers (Rouch, “Statistics”). They were the men that were sent into harms way in the hope of making the world a better place, making all men more free. These men carried with them the burden of separation from all they knew and loved and all that loved them. There is little that can be said other than these men had a burden thrust upon them that was not wanted and was not asked for, yet they bore this in large part without complaint.

This is a short story told by the author, a veteran himself, as a release of the burdens he carried (Friedlander, “Metafiction”) and to attempt to help others release their’s also. He told this story not for me and not for you but for the men that were there and still carry these unseen heavy burdens of survival.

Friedlander, Michele. Metafiction and O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”.
http://core.ecu.edu/engl/whisnantl/4300/michele.htm. (2000) March 2010

Overton, Patrick. excerpt; Huntsville Memorial Dedication (Memorial Day, 1994). Regarding War, http://www.pbs.org/pov/stories/vietnam/story.html. March 2010

Palmer, Christian. Victory at Last, Devil’s Tale. http://cronkitezine.asu.edu/ spring2004/vietnam.html. March 2010.

Rouch, Gary, Statistics about the Vietnam War, Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network, http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html, 02 June 2008. March 2010.

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