Creating Truth Essay
Author Tim O’Brien’s classic work “The Things They Carried” is a haunting tale from the Vietnam War. Named for the author’s focus on several token items each soldier carried with him, the story uses a series of distinct anecdotes about a handful of soldiers as a way to personify the horrors of war and the ways in which the human mind deals makes sense of it, even if these ways are not always sensible or rational.
The narrator in the story uses character as a brilliant device for representing the various differences between individuals and illustrating how each type deals with hardship in a unique way. O’Brien looks at outward signs – in this case the trademark items each soldier carries – as a symbol of the emotional state of the characters as a whole. For example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is obsessed with a picture of his hometown sweetheart and spends his time guarding it, admiring it, and professing his love and lust for the girl. However, we come to learn that Lt. Cross is not even in a relationship with this girl, a tactic the author refers to as pretending.
It seems this “relationship” is simply a psychological trick Cross is playing on himself to remove himself from the reality of an insane war. That “Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should have done,” (p.XXX) may be a way of saying that Cross would liked to have lived his life differently. Because he is the leader, Lieutenant Cross also carries maps, a symbol that he is supposed to lead his troops. He is unable to deal with his own emotions and is unable to deal with the war and as a result cannot lead his men in a strong fashion. Other symbols are used similarly throughout the story, each revealing a bit about the person who carries it.
The character Kiowa is a Native American soldier. He carries with him a hatchet that had belonged to his grandfather, a copy of the New Testament, and a pair of moccasins. In showing that these are things he would lug with him through fields of war, the author tells volumes about the people and ideals that are important to the Kiowa character. It is evident that Kiowa values his heritage, the proud warrior background of his people, and perhaps most of all his spirituality. He acts as a type of spiritual guide for the other soldiers in their time of need.
Ted Lavender is another important character in this story. The author tells us that the items he carries with him are tranquilizer pills and marijuana. It is obvious that Ted Lavender is greatly emotionally affected by the war, but that he cannot deal with it in a healthy way.
Instead, he turns to drugs to take him self away from the war for short periods of time. When Lavender dies at the Than Khe area, the author seems to be suggesting that dealing with hardship by using drugs (or by attempting to not deal with things) will ultimately end in disaster. The author says “Now and then, there were times when panic set in, and people squealed or wanted to, but couldn’t.” (p.XXX) This quote can be taken literally, but it is also a metaphor for the pain and fear many of the soldiers felt inside, but were not able to express it or face it in any meaningful way.
The death of Ted Lavender has a great impact of Lt. Cross, who feels he was responsible because he was not paying attention to the mission. Once again, Lavender was obsession about Martha, the girl he barely knew. He was wondering whether or not she was a virgin, and in doing so his mind wandered from the mission. Later, Lt. Cross breaks down as if he must finally focus on the present and on the real world. He is sad and ashamed at the way he has been escaping the situation, and decides to burn Martha’s pictures and letters. This is an important step in facing reality and carrying out his duties, though it is questionable whether or not Lt. Cross will be able to keep his thoughts away from Martha.
Tim O’Brien states that these men“…crawled into tunnels, walked point, and advanced under fire, so as not to die of embarrassment.” (p.XXX) This is an extremely powerful statement that tells much about the inner conflicts that played a role in the men’s emotional disturbances. Many of these young men may not have personally supported the war, but were afraid to speak out against it back home. Likewise, now that they were in the war they were afraid to make waves among their fellow soldiers, especially when they depended on those soldiers for survival. The men were willing to sacrifice their lives to avoid being branded as cowards.
Irony is used very effectively in this piece. Often times it is the very things the soldiers cherish most – the things they feel will be their psychological or physical salvation – that crush them in the end. We certainly see that to be the case with Lt. Cross, whose object of affection leads to the death of a fellow soldier. Lavender’s drugs and the lack of awareness they caused may well have played a role in his own demise. Even Rat Kiley’s comics are ironic in that comic books are hardly useful or important under normal circumstances, yet these seemingly unimportant items are what Kiley chooses to drag along into life and death situations.
This story was an interesting read and had different effects on my intellectual and emotional senses. My intellectual side, and probably that of many readers, was shocked by the atrocities the author witnessed and confused by the soldiers’ quirks and reactions to stressful situations. One might not logically be able to understand why Lt. Cross would carry around the photo of a girl he barely knows or why a grown man would wear pantyhose around his neck in a war situation.
One might not even understand why O’Brien would want to spend time graphically rehashing painful events from his past. But the emotional side takes over with this story and makes the actions of the soldiers and the words of the author much more understandable. Everyone has experienced loss, guilt, hurt, sadness, joy, etc. The universal feelings the author is sharing and the themes of growing up and making sense of a traumatic event bring the reader into the story and allow them to identify with the author and his characters. Though we may not react the same way in the same situations, or agree with the morals behind certain actions, we cannot necessarily blame these particular individuals for manifesting their fear in the way they do.
As the author states, “They carried the emotional baggage of men and women who might die at any moment. They carried the weight of the world. They carried each other.” (p.XXX) This story shows that the things people choose to hold onto, both inside and outside, are the things that make them who they are and that determine whether or not they will succeed at getting through difficult times. Not only did these soldiers carry their own personal items for survival and hidden emotions, they also carried each other on through battle, both literally and figuratively.
“The Things They Carried” is an important story that uses powerful emotions and insights to express the real casualties of war. War results in more than just burned buildings and rubble. War also results in extremely complex emotional issues for those who experience it – ones that are not able to be fixed with bricks and mortar, but which can heal through time and through sharing stories such as these.
Subject: The Things They Carried,
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 20 March 2017
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