Comment on the conflict of Jimmy Cross in "The Things They Carried."  

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Jimmy Cross, the leader of a squadron of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, faces a conflict between his desire for Martha, a woman at home, and the immediacy of his leadership duties in the war. Eventually, Cross feels that the distraction caused by his obsession with Martha leads to...

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Jimmy Cross, the leader of a squadron of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, faces a conflict between his desire for Martha, a woman at home, and the immediacy of his leadership duties in the war. Eventually, Cross feels that the distraction caused by his obsession with Martha leads to the death of one of his men, Ted Lavender, which makes him rethink his priorities and dedicate himself to his men.

Jimmy Cross is the protagonist of Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," the first story in a collection of the same name. Cross carries letters from a woman named Martha, with whom he seems to have had a casual friendship before the war. In his memories of her, it seems that she is not interested in a romantic relationship with him but does maintain a correspondence with Jimmy during the war. He occupies himself at war by thinking of her and reading her letters. Martha provides an (arguably necessary) escape from the harsh reality of war. Each solider in Cross's unit has a similar way of relieving stress and tension from their everyday reality. However, when Ted Lavender is killed on the way back from relieving himself one day, Cross takes responsibility for the death, feeling that he had been too distracted and let conditions in his camp become too lax. Cross commits to being a stronger leader, more strict and less laid-back, and he burns the letters from Martha as a symbolic gesture of that commitment.

The ending of "The Things They Carried" subtly suggests that Cross may be wrong when he resolves his conflict in this way. He must give up his humanity. The narrator explains,

He would show strength, distancing himself.

Among the men there would be grumbling, of course, and maybe worse, because their days would seem longer and their loads heavier, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. He would dispense with love; it was not now a factor ... Or he might not.

The final paragraphs of the story indicate that if Jimmy were to become stricter, the men would have more to carry. He would "distanc[e] himself" by focusing on "leading." There would be no need for human connection or emotion. This seems like a criticism on O'Brien's part of the way war dehumanizes soldiers. But then again, Cross may not change. He may find that being stricter does not work and may be able to hold on to some of what makes him human.

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It seems obvious that by far the biggest conflict that Jimmy Cross experiences is not the obvious physical external conflict that surrounds him through the war, but actually the internal conflict that goes on inside of him and his tendency to engage in daydreams concerning Martha, even though he knows that she is not really interested in him. He blames these daydreams for the death of Lavender, as it was when he was engaged in one of these daydreams that Lavender was shot. Note how this conflict is resolved at the end of this story when Jimmy Cross burns Martha's photos and letters:

He was realistic about it. There was that new hardness in his stomach. He loved her but he hated her.

No more fantasies, he told himself.

He from this point onwards determines to only think of Martha as a figure that "belonged elsewhere" in a very different world of "pretty poems or midterm exams." He inhabits a world where men died because of "carelessness and gross stupidity," as the death of Lavender has shown, where daydreams were a dangerous luxury that could have serious consequences. Thus he will "shut them down." The sadness and conflict however, is that the horrors and grim realities of war are that much easier to bear if one does have daydreams to turn to, and we fear for the new "hardened" Jimmy Cross who deliberately eschews such release.

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