The story is told by an omniscient narrator focusing mainly on the character First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Lieutenant Cross is in charge of a company of men who go on daily marches through Vietnam in search for the enemy, their sympathizers and supplies. He often daydreams of a college girl he is fond of back in New Jersey. Mitchell Sanders is the radio and telephone operator and known for being the ladies’ man. Kiowa is a Native American Baptist who carries an Illustrated New Testament with him.
He also carries his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet given to him by his father and his grandmother’s distrust for the white man. Dan Jensen practices field hygiene by having with him a toothbrush, dental floss and bars of soap stolen from a hotel while on R&R. Henry Dobbins is a large man who carried extra rations and was excused from searching tunnels due to the size of his frame. He carries the M60, is especially fond of canned peaches, and wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck as god luck.
Rat Kiley is the medic, carrying a canvas satchel containing morphine, plasma, malaria pills and various medical supplies and comic books. Norman Bowker is a gentle guy, he keeps a diary with him and carries a thumb from a VC corpse that Mitchell Sanders had cut off and presented to him. Lee Strunk has a slingshot, carried as a last resort. The scene is set in Vietnam, focusing on platoon leader First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. He is tasked with the burden of conducting daily marches in search of the enemy, their supplies and any one aiding them.
It is up to him to accomplish the mission while keeping himself and his men alive. Through the fatigue, fear, death and destruction witnessed day after day and the overall ambiguity in their missions, they trudge on. They search village after village, without no sense of strategy or mission. Each man has to deal with the fear and pressure as best as they can. Lieutenant Cross has separated himself from the reality of it by daydreaming about Martha, a college student in New Jersey, he is very fond of. He spends time looking at the two photos of her and reading her letters.
He reminisces about the dates he had with her and the reluctance from her to his advancements. Even though she signs her letters with love, he knows deep down, she has no interest in him. He continues to escape the horror by thinking of her, whether she is a virgin, if she is dating, and how he should have done things differently with her. While he does this, the men are coping with the war in their own ways. They suppress fear by doing drugs, cracking jokes about the death they have witnessed and mutilating corpses.
The various items and the weight carried by each man are mentioned, because of the struggle to hump that load in the marches required. But each individual carries their terror, grief, love, and longing, with poise and dignity. On April 16, just after Lee Strunk resurfaced from checking a tunnel outside the village of Than Khe, Ted Lavender was shot in the head and killed. After this happened, Lieutenant Cross breaks down and sobs in his foxhole that night and blames himself for it happening. The following morning he burns Martha’s letters and photos.
He tells himself no more fantasizing and he will comport himself as a soldier, imposing strict field discipline. He figures there would be grumbling among the men and reminds himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. O’Brien uses the items and their weight that is carried by the men to let the reader begin to imagine how difficult it is humping this on a march. Each item aids in the comfort and survival of the individual, with certain men carrying different equipment according to their classification.
Some items were carried for good luck, some for pleasure, and others for defense. The underlying items these men carried are suppressed fear, anxiety, homesickness, and the fact that they carried each other. The writer introduces items into the story so the reader can form a picture of who that person is, their personally, their strengths and their weaknesses. Each individual’s life is at stake in The Things They Carried. Whether it is disease, infection, shrapnel, or a snakebite, surviving was the first priority.
The character’s language was used sometimes to ease the pain of a friend’s death. The men would use terms like greased, lit up, offed, or zapped as a coping mechanism to describe a fellow soldier’s death. I felt the story was well written and seems like fact rather than fiction. After detailing all the items carried, the uncertainty of missions and the war itself, I found this statement to be the best “there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry”.