Former U.S. Army noncommissioned officer Tim O'Brien's fictionalized account (?) of his tour in Vietnam during that politically divisive conflict, The Things They Carried, presents the reader with a number of variations of reality from which to choose. The novel's title itself carries a double meaning. "The things they carried" refers to both the physical items such as books and letters that the soldiers in O'Brien's platoon carried with them as well as the emotional baggage that accompanied service in that particular war. Throughout the book, then, are descriptions of his fellow soldiers that illuminate not just the tangibles that helped them survive (those who did survive), but the scars that were imprinted on their psyches as a result of fighting in a war in which moral and legal boundaries became hopelessly blurred.
The insertion of a question mark in the opening sentence above was deliberate. It symbolizes, if you will, the manner in which O'Brien expanded upon the war's morally ambiguous nature by blurring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The author repeatedly emphasizes throughout The Things They Carried that the stories he tells may or may not be true. It is up to the reader to decide whether to believe the author. It's a sort of caveat emptor approach to literature.
The character of Ted Lavender is a particularly poignant one. In his opening chapter, O'Brien introduces the reader to his cast of characters by describing, logically enough, what each member of the platoon physically carried:
"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water."
These are the bare essentials for troops going out on patrol—a process from which one or more is unlikely to return. These are the obvious, universal accoutrements of combat. They alone, however, do not tell the story. Rather, O'Brien suggests, it was the additional items each carried that helped to define their character. In the case of Ted Lavender, a young, frightened boy, he carried "tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April," and "six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity." And, then, the author includes the following regarding both the amount of ammunition each soldier typically carried and, most importantly, the emotional baggage that accompanied it:
"The typical load was 25 rounds. But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear."
On one particular mission, O'Brien states, "Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the starlight scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case." In a passage that one certainly hopes was entirely fabricated for literary effect, O'Brien writes about when Ted found a puppy that was subsequently killed by another of the soldiers:
"Or Ted Lavender adopting an orphan puppy—feeding it from a plastic spoon and carrying it in his rucksack until the day Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device."
Certainly, the puppy qualifies as something that Ted Lavender carried. Additionally, the puppy serves as a metaphor for this innocent, doomed and perpetually stoned soldier, the first among this cast of characters to die—a death attributed to Lieutenant Cross' failure to stay focused on the task at hand, i.e., finding and killing the enemy while keeping his own unit from being slaughtered.
Ted Lavender's death is a recurring motif in The Things They Carried. The youngest and most frightened of the soldiers, popping pills to numb him to his reality, the things Ted carried, both materially and emotionally, defined his character.
Ted Lavender carries the following:
"Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers" (11)
"Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope" (11)
"[Ted], who was scared, carried 34 rounds [...] and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear" (12)
"Ted Lavender carried the starlight scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case" (16)
"Or Ted Lavender adopting an orphan puppy - feeding it from a plastic spoon and carrying it in his rucksack" (32)
One important thing to keep in mind is that each of these quotations has to do specifically with things Ted Lavender carried with him. There were items carried by every member, or "grunt," in the unit.