The theme of Morality in The Things They Carried, is portrayed in the chapters “Ambush”, “On the Rainy River”, and in “The Things They Carried”, as the soldiers are put into situations where their decisions to do what is morally right is easily compromised by fear and the pressure to conform to societal expectations. Morality in “On the Rainy River”, displays itself when Tim is trying to decide whether he wants to stay in his hometown and be drafted, which was what his family, friends and country expected of him, or to escape to Canada in order to stand up for what he knew to be morally right. Tim did not agree with what the United States was fighting for, and felt that he would be compromising his own beliefs if he were drafted to fight. The idea of leaving behind everything that he knew scared him and kept him from being able to go through with his escape. In the end, becoming a social outcast scared him more than defying his own morals.
In “Ambush”, Tim describes the time where he killed a Vietnamese soldier who had unknowingly walked by the encampment that Tim and his patrol were staying for the night. Tim killed the man out of fear, even though he posed no threat to Tim’s or the lives of those in his patrol as he was ignorant of the fact that they were nearby. According to Tim, “as for me it was not a matter of live or die. I was in no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed me by. And it will always be that way” (O’Brien 127). Tim made the quick decision to kill the man without considering the full implications of his actions. The constant threat of enemy attack had forced Tim to be vigilant at all times, especially given the fact that he was on watch duty while the rest of his patrol was asleep and vulnerable to enemy advances. Even though it was in his patrol’s best interest, killing the man traumatised Tim as he knew what he had done was wrong and could not cope with the gravity of ending another man’s life.
In “The Things They Carried”, Jimmy Cross is constantly imagining himself in different scenarios with Martha to distract himself from the horrors of the war. His infatuation with her ended up causing him to be negligent in his duties as the commanding officer, which caused Ted Lavender’s death. Cross blames himself for giving into his desires and not paying enough attention to his main responsibility of protecting his men. This is shown when, “On the morning after Ted Lavender died…Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters. There was a steady rain falling, which made it difficult” (O’Brien 22). Cross used Martha to distract himself from the horrors of the war which in turn caused Lavender’s death. In burning the letters, Cross was trying to symbolically end his obsession with Martha in order to better focus on his soldiers and responsibilities and do what was morally right.