In Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," what was, "in many respects...the heaviest burden of all"?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," the author goes into great detail about the enormous amount of weight the men carried, both supplies to wage war and things to keep them alive, but also personal items: a memento, a Bible, etc. Between the lists of these things, O'Brien shares the experiences and lessons the men faced: losing a comrade or realizing the "girl back home" wasn't his girl at all, and so forth. Perhaps this is where the heaviest burdens come into play, for these "intangibles" could not be packed away and unseen; they were things that "could never be put down."

O'Brien refers not to trifling burdens such as playful daydreams or jokes, but things much more serious in nature. And their weight was not as easily shouldered as a book or a bag: for emotional baggage wears a man out in a different way.

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. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide...

Much of what these young men carried were burdens no one should have to shoulder: the knowledge that death could come at any moment, as with Ted Lavender. And even more than the knowledge that his death could have been any one of theirs instead, comes the weight of the memory of his death, which also could not be put down or left behind. The word "cowardice" is used, but is it not simply fear of dying? "Cowardice" has a nasty connotation, and while the reader might be able to see it with more understanding and sympathy, these young men saw it as nothing less than "shameful." 

These kinds of burdens were almost unbearable, and still the weight...

... required perfect balance and perfect posture. 

O'Brien describes this phenomenon, this fear of showing fear:

They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. 

The burden to live up to expectations far beyond anything they were ever prepared to deal with while growing up fell upon these men in the swamps and jungles of a foreign land. Whereas World War II had clearly called men to defend their homeland (after the bombing of the U.S. at Pearl Harbor), this war did not provide that luxury. In a place where the rules of engagement did not exist, where the enemy many times did not reveal himself face to face with his adversary, or native women and children hid bombs on their bodies, there was no certainty and no battle ground clearly defined—and fear was a constant companion. Their reputations became more important than life itself. These soldiers would die before they would do anything to bring the whisper of dishonor to their names. Embarrassment, in many ways, was as frightening an enemy as the Viet Cong. And whether the U.S. soldiers walked or slept, this burden never left them.

The mental, emotional and psychological burdens were much heavier than any piece of equipment or batch of supplies these men ever carried.

kayla1996 | Student

"They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture"

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The Things They Carried

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