Does O'Brien need characters like Mary Ann, Kathleen, Martha, and Linda in "The Things They Carried"?
The function of women in this excellent collection of Vietnam wartime stories seems to serve a number of purposes. It is important to realise that O'Brien does not present soldiers in a vacuum. He depicts them in the context of the lives they left behind, with the girls they left behind, and with all of their hopes, yearnings, regrets and dreams of love. Thus it is that for Cross, his love of Martha, even though he recognises it is not returned, becomes one of "the things he carried" as he "humps" it through Vietnam. O'Brien emphasises the way in which soldiers carry not just physical equipment but the burden of their relationships left at home as well, in all of their confusing glory. Thus one of the functions of women is to depict how the dream and hope of girls often sustained but also burdened the young soldiers fighting in Vietnam.
Secondly, Mary Anne, in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," is a female character that shows the way in which the idealised beauty and youth of the women that the soldiers fantasise over can itself become corrupted by the horrors of war. The terrifying image we are left of Mary Anne, after a raid, wearing a necklace made out of human tongues, seems to point towards what war can do to innocence and youth. This is something that women themselves are not immune to.