The Things They Carried begins with death (Lavender's), and the theme hangs over the book like Hamlet's father's Ghost. Indeed, O'Brien keeps revisiting Lavender's death, so much so that the reader understands he is still haunted by it. Cross and Tim are the most affected by the deaths that occur, especially Lavender and Kiowa's respectively.
"The Lives of the Dead" is O'Brien's first encounter with death. As such, Linda becomes a Lavender-like symbol, a ghost who haunts the narrator. He feels guilty in the way he treated her, and his guilt reawakens during war.
Some critics even believe Linda is O'Brien's ideal audience:
O'Brien's character appropriates the feminine, becoming an androgynous fusion of pre-adolescent Timmy and Linda.
The Things They Carried is an exercise in memory and storytelling, in bringing haunting memories and ghosts back to life. Remember, story-truth is truer than happening-truth, so the truths in this story are more agonizingly wrought than a bearing out of facts. Believe it: Linda is real, and her death has real impact. O'Brien believes in the paradoxical title of this chapter: the dead live on in his fiction. And Linda is O'Brien's first muse.
In this chapter, O'Brien pretty masterfully and stealthily alternates in quick short stories between the ugliest realities of warfare and what it does to humans physically and emotionally, and the most normal scenes of day to day life back in the States, or "back in the World". This is on purpose, I believe, as the juxtaposition of these kinds of stories shows the reader, again and again, how insane war is, and how difficult it is to explain to those of us who live normally our whole lives. It explains, to some degree, the experience of veterans coming home and struggling to adjust with the things they've seen and done. It dispels the myths about glory in war and replaces them with horror stories, rightfully so.
Did they happen? Were the stories real? Sure. Maybe for O'Brien, maybe not. But they were real for hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides, hundreds of times over, who saw this brand of brutality and cruelty the entire time they were at war, and then were haunted by it in some way for the rest of their lives.
This is one of my favorite books on the Vietnam War.