The Weight of War
The Weight of War “The Things They Carried,” by Tim Obrien In the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, the experience of the Vietnam War is described through the eyes of American soldiers. The things the soldiers carry are both literal and figurative. While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also carry heavy emotional loads, composed of grief, fear, love and longing. Each man’s physical burden underscores his emotional burden. The purpose of this story is to bring to light the real tragedy of war. Soldiers are forced to carry the emotional burdens of war, against their will.
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Tim O’Brien describes the Vietnam War as the most significant event in his life, and it is the subject, directly or indirectly, of most of his work. During the course of his college career, O’Brien came to oppose the war, not as a radical activist but as a campaign supporter and volunteer of Eugene McCarthy, a candidate in the 1968 presidential election who was openly against the Vietnam War. In 1968, the war in Vietnam reached its bloodiest point in terms of American casualties, and the government relied on conscription to recruit more soldiers.
Unable to stand against the pressures of God and Country, O’Brien goes to Vietnam and carries a new sense of shame with him. Once there he finds a war where soldiers carry all manner of weaponry, none of which is as heavy emotional baggage. They carry fear, hate, guilt, love, dreams, and blame. “I was a coward. I went to war,” O’Brien said. (“Biography of Tim O’Brien” 1) He was drafted right out of college and served in the infantry of the America Division – from January 1969 to March 1970. “Biography of Tim O’Brien” 1) O’Brien makes readers feel the experience of the American soldiers, who fought in the Vietnam War. He presents as much as is physically and emotionally possible to help the reader feel the experience. Though the details that O’Brien includes: weight of weapons, the weight of a radio, and the weight of a grenade in ounces seems unnecessary, they are used to stimulate the readers’ imaginations so that they can begin to feel the physical weight of the burdens of war. The reader can also feel the psychological and emotional burdens that come from war, through the eyes of the soldiers.
All the soldiers in the story carry basic military goods and personal items: provisions, ammunition, and special personal items. The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. “Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, flak jackets, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. ” (Bausch 604) Army slang for carrying goods is “humping” them.
Aside from the basic goods, explains O’Brien, all of the men hump slightly different things depending on their rank and field specialty and with that their emotional baggage also. All these “things” were a very heavy burden for a man to carry. Lt. Jimmy Cross, the leader of Alpha Company, carries compasses, maps, code books, binoculars, and a pistol in his physical load. These items are the equipment of a leader. With the title of leader, Cross carries the responsibility for the lives of all of his men. Cross considers this a heavy burden.
He also carries two photographs of a he girl is love with, Martha. Cross spends most of his time fantasizing of Martha which distracts him from his surroundings. During one of his daydreams, Ted Lavender is shot and killed. Lt. Cross feels that his lack of focus has caused this senseless death. Even though Cross burns Martha’s physical mementos, he still carries the memory of her. And to that memory, the burden of grief and guilt is added. Ted Lavender, who was young and scared, carried repellant, extra ammunition, tranquilizers, and several ounces of premium dope in his physical pack.
Fear is a heavy emotional burden for Lavender, so he tries to lighten the load by popping pills and smoking marijuana to settle his nerves. He dies while he is zipping up his pants after urinating; he is shot in the head and dies in an embarrassingly undignified way. Kiowa, the only one to see him shot, describes Lavender hitting the ground heavily and suddenly like a sandbag. The scene is devoid of a heroic death sequence, which is elaborated upon by Kiowa’s reaction to the way in which Lavender falls dead, “Not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell.
Boom. Down. ” (Bausch 606) The reason his physical load was so heavy was because he was terrified and carried so much extra stuff. This shows how Lavender’s emotional burden made his physical burden heavier. Kiowa carried an illustrated New Testament his father gave him, and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet. Kiowa is described as being a devout Baptist in the story. He carries his faith in God and his religion to help ease the burdens of war. The hatchet represents his Native American Indian heritage.
When Kiowa sees Lavender fall to the ground like cement, he expects to see a more dramatic ending to life. Kiowa struggled with the knowledge that he was alive while his buddy was dead. He is down to earth, conscious of his situation and prepared for any eventuality. When Kiowa needs to turn to something or someone for help, he will opt for his religion and aboriginal roots. Kiowa’s physical burdens help lighten the load of his emotional burdens. “As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbins carried the M-60, which weighed twenty-three pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded. (Bausch 605) In addition, Dobbins carried between ten and fifteen pounds of ammunition draped in belts across his chest and shoulders. Dobbins also carried his girlfriends pantyhose around his neck, with that the sense of longing was added to his already heavy burden. Bob “Rat” Kiley, the platoon’s medic, carries his medical kit, brandy, comic books, and M&M’s candy. With those physical burdens, he also carries the stress of his role in the platoon. The stress of watching men die around you with little resources to help them is felt by Kiley.
Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, foot powder and vitamins. Jensen went on with his daily routine even during war. This shows how he coped with his fears by continuing as if he were at home not fighting in a war. The Vietnam War was fought for unclear reasons. The United States sent troops to Southern Vietnam in the early 1960’s to help stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. The America soldiers marched from village to village, not knowing why they were there.
The objective that the United States supported — in short, preventing Vietnam from becoming a communist foothold — was never realized. To this day it is still a controversial war in that there seems to be little justification for the United States’ involvement. In O’Brien’s story, we see different ways soldiers would bear their burdens of war. The things they physically and emotionally carried depended on their personality, roots, rank, the things they loved, and fears. These things all had an influence on these soldiers’ way of dealing with their problem whether it was good or bad.
Unfortunately, there are consequences to your decisions and actions. O’Brien brings the reader into his story, to share the true side of war. Soldiers return home with physical and emotional burdens from war. Those emotional burdens are the true weight of war. Works Cited: Bausch, Richard. “The Things They Carried. ” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. W. W. Norton ; Company. New York: Castle House, 2006. 603-615. Print. Biography of Tim O’Brien. Preface CalPolyEdu. 2002. Web 3 August 2010