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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 1 Summary

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The first story of The Things They Carried is eponymously titled “The Things They Carried.” Set in Vietnam, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his platoon carry many things while humping across the tropical brush. Besides the machine guns, rations, ammunition, and mines, Cross lugs letters from Martha, a junior studying poetry at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. While reading her letters that discuss poetry and Virginia Woolf, Cross wonders whether she is a virgin. He thinks of the last time he saw her, her gray eyes and the way that he kissed her before he left, and he thinks of the things that he wished he had done when he last saw her. Specifically, he fantasizes about taking her to her room, tying her up, and touching her hand with his knee. In her letters, Martha never mentions the war, except to tell Cross to be careful. She sends him a pebble for good luck, which Cross keeps in his mouth.

Cross’s platoon carries many things. Some of the things the men carry are standard, such as steel helmets, which weigh five pounds. Other things are carried only by one or two members of the platoon. For example, Mitchell Sanders carries a PRC-25 radio, which weighs twenty-five pounds with its battery. Henry Dobbins, a large man, carries the M-60, a machine gun that weighs 23 pounds. Not everything that the men carry is standard issue. For example, Dave Jensen carries extra socks and foot powder to combat trench foot, Norman Bowker carries a diary, and Rat Kiley carries comic books. Kiowa, meanwhile, carries an illustrated copy of the New Testament. Ted Lavender carried tranquilizers and dope before he was shot and killed outside of Than Khe. Before Lavender died, there were 17 men in the platoon.

Lavender was scared, and when he died, he fell like “dead weight.” Kiowa saw it happen, and he cannot stop explaining to everyone around him that Ted Lavender “dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down.” The men now wrap Lavender's corpse in a poncho and wait for a chopper to collect the body. In the meantime, they smoke Lavender’s dope and they wonder what the moral of Lavender’s death was. Henry Dobbins finally says “I don’t see no moral,” to which Sanders replies, “there it is, man.”

Cross sees things differently. He leads the men into Than Khe where they burn it down and kill all of the animals there. When he hears how Lavender died, he blames himself because “he had loved Martha more than his men.” It is a feeling that he will have to carry for the rest of the war. He realizes that Martha never mentions the war in her letters because she is not in love with him and never will be. He burns her letters, though he realizes that it is only a stupid, sentimental gesture. Cross decides that he will keep tighter discipline in the platoon and comport himself like an officer. He realizes that it is sad, “the things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.” He leads his men to the villages west of Than Khe.

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Chapter 2 Summary