The Things They Carried is a fictional chef-d’oeuvre by Tim O’Brien, which catalogs among other things, the different things that soldiers carried to the Vietnam War. These soldiers carried emotional and physical burdens alike. Obrien notes, “They carried the emotional baggage of men who might die.
Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories…cowardice…they carried the soldier’s fear (20). The psychological effects of the Vietnam War tore the soldiers psychologically especially Lieutenant Cross.
The psychological burden of guilt surfaces immediately after the story starts. Jimmy Cross, a lieutenant enlisted to take care of the other soldiers is the victim of the guilt burden. Jimmy witnessed as a bullet broke open Lavender’s skull. Given the fact that he was the one in charge of the other soldiers’ well-being, he felt he could have done something to prevent Lavender’s death.
Unfortunately, he could do nothing at that point; Lavender was dead and gone for good. Jimmy became emotionally troubled because instead of concentrating on the security and well-being of fellow soldiers he could only think of Martha. Consequently, Lavender died due to his lack of concentration or so he thought.
Jimmy could not live up to this duty and when Lavender died before his eyes, he realized how careless he had been in executing his duties. All these feelings culminated into guilt feelings, an emotional burden that he had to bear so long as the war continued. What a terrible emotional baggage for one to carry!
Cross sincerely loved Martha and no matter how hard he tried to subdue these feelings, they resurfaced with time. This psychological burden weighed so heavily on him that at times he lost focus on the war. O’Brien observes, “He loved her so much…though painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon” (8).
Though painful, Jimmy decided to forget Martha completely, bear the psychological turmoil attached to it, and focus on the war. Forgetting a lover is not an easy task, it takes more than a willing heart, it takes absolute resolve, and this comes with its psychological upheavals.
Emotionally, Cross was a torn person, full of sorrows and heavy laden with emotional burdens. O’Brien deliberately explores Jimmy’s case to show the psychological burdens that the soldiers brought along together with the things they carried. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was not alone in this predicament, as aforementioned, every soldier had his fair share of emotional baggage, as shown by the few soldiers O’Brien chose to use in The Things They Carried.
Family ties are usually very strong and separating someone from his/her family amounts to emotional torture; something that the soldiers had to live with. For instance, Kiowa, “…carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father…” (O’Brien 3). Nothing could remind Kiowa of his dad like that treasured bible; every time he saw the bible, he would remember his beloved father.
Henry Dobbins on his part carried a pair of pantyhose and he would poke his noses into the paper containing the panties from time to time. Not that Henry Dobbins loved his girlfriend’s panties; no, he missed her and this burdened him psychologically.
In conclusion, the intangible things that the soldiers carried into the Vietnam War had real weight, to some extent, heavier than the physical burdens. Jimmy Cross carried the guilt of letting Lavender die while engrossed in thoughts of his ever-elusive lover, Martha.
Kiowa carried the emotional burden of his father and grandfather and the possibility of not seeing them once again weighed heavily on him. Collectively, these soldiers experienced different forms of psychological torture, especially Cross who had to forget his lover and bear the guilt of seeing Lavender die from his carelessness.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.