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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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How do the soldiers in The Things They Carried show tremendous sadness that forces them to stifle misplaced guilt?

The soldiers in The Things They Carried feel tremendous sadness at many points in the novel but most poignantly after the loss of their friend Ted Lavender. They use gallows humor to try to dispel the heavy weight of sadness.

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The soldiers in The Things They Carried feel a great deal of sadness, and there are many coping mechanisms that they use to get them through the days and nights. After their friend Ted Lavender dies, the soldiers try not to crack by using gallows humor and smoking the dead man's dope. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross feels overwhelming—and arguably misplaced—guilt about Lavender's death, because he feels he was daydreaming too much about his beloved, Martha, and not focusing enough on his troops. He feels so much guilt about Lavender's death that he burns the pictures of Martha and redoubles his efforts to be a strict commander.

Furthermore, to deal with their pain, Cross's soldiers tell jokes and use a "hard vocabulary": "Greased they'd say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn't cruelty, just stage presence." They employ euphemisms and alliteration to describe sudden death, and they often tell the same stories over and over again, somehow hoping they will turn out differently the next time.

Kiowa actually worries that he cannot feel as deeply as Lieutenant Jimmy Cross does. He wants to share Cross's pain, but when he closes his eyes, "all he could think was Boom-down, and all he could feel was the pleasure of having his boots off and the fog curling in around him and the Bible smells and the plush comfort of night." Many soldiers luxuriate in the mere fact of not having died, and then they feel guilt about their momentary luxuriating.

Most soldiers put on different "poses" to get them through the fear and sadness and survivor's guilt. Some carry themselves with "a wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal." They carry "all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried."

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