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What strikes me most about "The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien, is the sense that the soldiers in Vietnam carried much more that what could fit in their packs or bags.
The narrator spends a great deal of time identifying the items each of the men carried with them. The list is long—and it is here, I believe, that the narrator develops a sense of the many kinds of burdens these men carried. First, there are the trappings of war.
When a mission took them to the mountains, they carried mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps, and extra bugjuice.
However, equipment and supplies are not the only "trappings of war" the men carried:
Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed thirty pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear, Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself.
The men also carried their personal belongings, things that maintained a connection for them with places and people away from the war. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried a small rock.
It was a simple pebble. An ounce at most. Smooth to the touch, it was a milky-white color with flecks of orange and violet, oval-shaped, like a miniature egg. In the accompanying letter, Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide...
Jensen had a rabbit's foot, and Kiowa had his New Testament.
However, I believe that the other things they carried were the most difficult, and this was the human experience of war and killing, of fearing death and watching others die.
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.
One might believe that the guns and ammunition the men carried, along with their training, was what made them soldiers. Perhaps this is true. They carried things to prepare them for almost any contingency.
Then they carried personal items to stave off the encroaching darkness that threatened their souls while they tramped and sloshed through the marshes and jungles of the unfamiliar, inhospitable land in which they found themselves. They carried their own fears and those of others. They would carry the bodies of the wounded, and in this chapter, they carry the body and their memories of Ted Lavender who is killed by a sniper. Ted was afraid; he took pills and smoked pot to keep his fears at bay. When he dies, his fear does not...at least not for his companions.
The narrator develops a sense of the human condition—what men will do to survive not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. The men try their best to cope with Lavender's death. Jimmy Cross cries. Kiowa makes jokes. The narrator seems to develop a sense of the intimacy that forced upon them all by their circumstances, as well as the knowledge that of all the things they carry, death sits patiently on each man's shoulder.
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