“The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, brings to light the psychological impact of what soldiers experience during times of war. We learn that the effects of traumatic events weigh heavier on the minds of men than all of the provisions and equipment they shouldered. Wartime truly tests the human body and mind, to the point where a few men return home completely destroyed. Many soldiers have been driven to the point of mentally altering reality in order to survive day to day.
Furthermore, an indefinite number of men became numb to the deaths of their comrades, and yet they each individually harboured a desire to die and bring a conclusion to their misery. Over all, this story allows us to observe changes within the mentalities of army officers. First, the trauma of living in a war zone can add a significant amount of intangible weight into someone’s life. In “The Things They Carried,” we discover that Cross’s men “carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die (443).
Given that the majority of humans have experienced some form of trauma, we can understand how a number of men were driven to suicide and others into insanity. Nevertheless, clearly a greater part of the troopers were hardened enough to bear these burdens. This is known to us because we have seen many soldiers return home. Additionally, the text mentions that regardless of the material items upon their backs, “heavier still was the knowledge of the deaths they had seen, the treacheries they committed, and the hope of living to return home” as a testament to the weight they truly shouldered (437).
Each man consistently “carried all (he) could bear, and then some (436). ” Despite this baggage, the men found ways to force “themselves (to) laugh (443). ” They would create jokes and repeat them day after day until they grew bored of them. Reading this, some may believe that the war drove them to insanity. Contrary to the previous statement, the infantrymen did this to distract themselves from the fact that they could not change where they were or what conditions they faced (443).
Similarly, many of the soldiers overseas during the Vietnam War slowly descended into a mental state where they imagined that life was how they desired it to be. They used their own fantasies to escape daily horrors and eventually some became numb to their surroundings in order to cope with their emotional trauma. For example, protagonist Jimmy Cross knew the letters he received from his beloved Martha “were not love letters,” but “he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack (433)” to allow him to pretend they are lovers.
He spends nearly every second thinking of Martha and of all the romantic outings they would go on (434). Although it may seem foolish to some, Cross’s delusions of Martha are what kept him going through the war. “The simple pebble” she gave to Cross becomes his good luck charm, even though he did not quite understand her reason as to why she sent it to him. Slowly, he became obsessed to the point of ordering his men to spread out in formation during marches so that he could have time to imagine being with her (437).
He continually put his men in danger by becoming lost in his fantasies. Even one of his men, Lee Strunk, died inside of a Vietcong tunnel while Cross day dreamed of being wrapped up under the earth with Martha (439). Sadly, it is not until the completion of the story where Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is brought back to reality by the tragic death of his soldier and friend, Ted Lavender, and ready to face the tasks he has been charged with. Moreover, the soldiers became increasingly unempathetic, beginning to live only for themselves and not caring so much for others.
In the case of Ted Lavender, once he was pronounced dead the men stripped him of his things while waiting for the chopper to pick up his body, and sat “smoking the dead man’s dope (436). ” Furthermore, when they drew numbers to determine who scouted out the tunnels, they “always felt the luck of the draw” when they escaped the duty (438). This is because they feared death, but were always embarrassed to admit it. For the soldiers, dishonor was worse than anything else they faced.
“They crawled into tunnels and… dvanced under fire,” and refused to give up and simply “fall to the ground” all to save their own pride (443). Their drive to live on during battle did not come from courage, but their fear to be known as cowards (443). In the end, Lieutenant Cross realizes that regardless of how his men feel, how much time he spends creating the delusion of Martha’s love, and how dreadful the situation is; they must keep moving (444). He incinerates Martha’s letters, and then feels a new hardness in his stomach (444).
Personally, I interpret this “hardness” to be his new resolve to straighten out his men and win the war. Suddenly, Cross is “now determined to perform his duties firmly, and without negligence (444). ” He states that he will not tolerate his men slacking off and scraping by each day (445). Finally, he realizes that his “obligation (is) not to be loved but to lead (445). ” In conclusion, the author manages to clearly convey that emotional and mental pain is harder to bear than even the heaviest physical weight.
The situations soldiers witness and partake in during battle are almost too grotesque and inhumane to comprehend. Of course, most do not slaughter their enemies because they want to, but because it is what has to be done to protect their loved ones back home. They refuse to surrender; if not for their country, then for their own fear of being branded as weak (443). As the ultimate test of body, mind, and soul; war has driven a number of men to insanity, numbness, delusions, and realizations.