Trauma in "The Things They Carried"

The chapter illustrates the need to discuss and communalize trauma, especially when the experience has been shared. Cross' isolation after Lavender's death exacerbates his grief. By contrast, Bowker and Kiowa have the opportunity to communicate with one another. Kiowa's repetition of the same information is characterized as the reliving of an event in order to relieve stress, as described by Shay and van der Kolk and van der Hart. As Kiowa walks through the traumatic episode and relays the details to Bowker, he begins to feel better. In additions, Bowker does not want to confront Lavender's death in order to ease the mental pain. After Kiowa obeys Bowker and becomes quiet, Bowker immediately requests for Kiowa to continue talking, masking his feelings with the statement, "One thing I hate, it's a silent Indian" (18). Bowker does not want to talk about Lavender's death, but not talking about it makes the situation increasingly worse.

"while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.
He tried not to cry. With his entrenching tool, which weighed 5 pounds, he began digging a hole in the earth.
He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war."

Identity and Gender in "The Things They Carried"

In “The Things They Carried,” the masculine roles are explored. It is explained that the greatest fear of the soldiers is the “fear of blushing” (20), and they are doing their duties because they do not want to face the shame of appearing weak. Ted Lavender, the soldier with the most feminine name, lacks the stoic presence of the others and is killed. On a figurative level, his death represents that femininity and weakness has no place in a warfare environment like Vietnam.

“Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe” (2).

Although female characters are not physically present by the soldier’s side, they become a motivational factor as well as a reason for remorse. The chapter, “The Things They Carried,” illustrates the role that women play in the lives of the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The men idealize the women and sense their presence through photographs, letters, and even in their imagination. Jimmy Cross epitomizes this notion by carrying around letters and photographs of Martha, giving a sense of hope that she one day might return his love so that he has something to look forward to after the war. Additionally, Cross constantly longs for feminine sexuality, as he repeatedly thinks of whether Martha is a virgin. O’Brien furthers the theme of gender roles by introducing the pebble and describing it as “separate-but-together” elements (8), relating it back to the situation between the soldiers and their female companions back at home. However, this ceaseless longing for femininity also leads the men to feel great culpability. For example, Jimmy Cross begins to take the blame, thinking that he was the reason for Lavender's death in the midst of being distracted by his lover back home. 

“feeling both love and hate… in part he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha” (16).

In the title chapter, O’Brien develops the theme of identity through the description of physical and emotional weights that each soldier carries. Each soldier must only carry what is necessary, and through each soldier’s definition of what is necessary in war, the reader is able to understand what is important to each of these men. One example of this character establishment lies in Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross initially carries letters and photographs of Martha in addition to maps, a pistol, a light, and a pebble Martha sent him. By carrying reminders of Martha in addition to necessities for the war, Cross maintains a precarious balance between the reality of war and the alluring dream of a domestic life with Martha. By fixating on his idea of Martha, he is not able to devote his full attention to his responsibility for the lives of his men. When Ted Lavender dies, Cross is ultimately unable to forgive himself, and he burns all of her letters and photographs. In this act, he is able to relieve himself of some physical weight and carry less, and he also frees himself of some of the burden of pining for Martha. Burning Martha’s letters characterizes Cross as a man who tries to prioritize his responsibilities over his fantasies and as someone who might change his identity to save others.

“Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the daydreams. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or mid-term exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity.” (23)

Gender roles in the chapter, "The Things They Carried," are depicted in the relationship between Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and the woman he loves, Martha. In this chapter, Cross is described to be carrying the pictures and letters that he has from Martha. Cross acknowledges the fact that Martha does not love him, as the letters she sends him are mostly just casual conversation. Cross longs for Martha to love him, even though he knows that he will never get the same kind of love in return. The idea of Cross carrying Martha’s letters around shows that he is also holding onto the hope in his heart that maybe one day Martha will realize she loves him. In addition, the chapter alludes to the fact that Cross is holding onto the letters because of his hope, lust, and desire for a normal life after the war. Similar to the relationship between Dobbins and his girlfriend, Martha acts as the rock in the relationship that stabilizes Cross' emotions and mentality.

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack” (O’Brien 1).

The soldiers’ behavior in “The Things They Carried” portrays the stereotypes often associated with masculinity, especially when they are confronted with danger. During bouts of shooting, the men temporarily lose their dignity and are reduced to “sobb[ing] and begg[ing] for the noise to stop…hoping not to die” (18). When they are out of imminent danger, the men immediately feel shame for their show of fear and try to diminish the experience by joking about it. Masculinity dictates that the soldiers should be brave in the face of death, so they laugh off their emotions to avoid humiliation.

“There were numerous such poses. Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it” (O’Brien 19)

“The Things They Carried” describes the key concept of identity and how it differs for each individual. The war restrains many of the soldiers from revealing their whole identity, but throughout this chapter pieces of their identity can be seen by the things they carry. The soldiers each carry the normal resources to survive, however, depending on the person, they each carry something that helps them cope with the war. For example, Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck to allow himself to feel comforted and secure. Lavender carriers tranquilizers because he cannot cope with the war without them, and the thought of it is merely too much for him to bear. If the soldiers were not able to carry these small aspects of their life, their identity would be muddled with everyone else's, making them feel as if they have nothing to differentiate themselves from the others.

“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags,... Almost everyone humped photographs in their wallet...The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot…” (12).

Loss of Innocence in "The Things They Carried"

In the chapter titled, “The Things They Carried”, Lt. Cross undergoes a loss of innocence due to his guilt for Ted Lavender’s death. He begins the chapter being in love with Martha, a girl from back home who is frequently compared to The Virgin Mary; a symbol of innocence. Preoccupied by thoughts of his love interest, Cross watches as one of his men is shot and killed by a bullet to the head. After the death of Ted Lavender, Cross vows to forget about Martha in order to be a better leader to his men. Cutting ties to a virginal and pure character, paired with his guilt and emotional numbing, demonstrates Lieutenant Cross’s loss of innocence in “The Things They Carried”.

“Briefly in the rain, Lieutenant Cross saw Martha’s gray eyes gazing back at him. He understood. It was very sad, he thought, the things men carried inside” (O’Brien 35).

Like many of the soldiers that entered the war, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was still an innocent teenager. He focuses on rather frivolous ideas, which eventually cost a life, and this triggers a loss of innocence. When he first becomes lieutenant, he carries letters from Martha. He is deeply in love with her, and she is often the only thing on his mind. He is mentally with her in a far off place when he is supposed to be with his soldiers. His pure and innocent love for her takes over him, until it muddles what his true focus should be. As a result, Ted Lavender dies. As a normal twenty-four year old, these thoughts and feelings he has are completely normal, yet in a warfare environment there is no time for daydreaming. In the war, any kind of carelessness or stupidity will result in death. When Cross begins to forget Martha and plan for the war more in depth, he transforms from an innocent teenager to a strong soldier.

“no more fantasies” (23).

The soldiers’ behavior in “The Things They Carried” portrays the stereotypes often associated with masculinity, especially when they are confronted with danger. During bouts of shooting, the men temporarily lose their dignity and are reduced to “sobb[ing] and begg[ing] for the noise to stop…hoping not to die” (18). When they are out of imminent danger, the men immediately feel shame for their show of fear and try to diminish the experience by joking about it. Masculinity dictates that the soldiers should be brave in the face of death, so they laugh off their emotions to avoid humiliation.

“There were numerous such poses. Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it” (O’Brien 19).

The Nature of War

The first chapter of The Things They Carried demonstrates the chaotic and invading presence of warfare in soldiers lives. This is portrayed through the weight that each soldier carries being far greater than that of civilians at home, and thus reflecting the burdens and responsibilities that the troopers must face. The self-destructive nature of warfare causes soldiers to become disconnected to their traditional beliefs and possessions. This chapter supports the idea of the permeating violent nature of warfare through Ted Lavender's death as a result of Cross' obsession with Martha. Lavender’s death is one of the first instances of war taking a toll on the soldiers. The fighting eats away at the soldiers and brings additional burdens to the soldiers. This chapter communicates with audiences how the war molds the men who fight it, represented by the different items the men carry and the emotional response to loss in the chapter.

“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” (O’Brien 20).
“Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the daydreams. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity” (23).

Faith, Belief, and Superstition in "The Things They Carried"

      The Things They Carried shows the superstitious beliefs among the soldiers through the things that each individual carries. Many soldiers carry tokens of hope such as Henry Dobbins’ stockings in remembrance of his girlfriend, or Jimmy Cross’ pebble that Martha gave him to demonstrate her feelings. Both of these items gave hope to the soldiers in that they will one day return back to their lives before the war. This, however, shows a paradoxical relationship. The items that bring hope and ambition to soldiers are in fact what weigh them down.

In the chapter “The Things They Carried”, O’Brien mentions the many superstitious items or objects that each of the soldiers carry. These items give the soldiers hope that they would remain safe and be able to return home after the war. This chapter in particular focuses on Cross’ superstitious item, the pebble. The pebble gives him a sense of hope and belief that he would one day be able to come home and walk along the beaches with Martha. However, the item itself did not possess any magical powers. After the death of Ted Lavender, Cross realizes the pebble was not aiding him, instead it was distracting him and led to the death of a man he was supposed to take care of. He says, “he would dispose of the good-luck pebble” (24). After realizing that this pebble was ultimately causing him great distraction, he decides to dispose of it. He realized that his “good-luck charm” was not giving him good luck, but instead it was just causing him further turmoil.

“It was this separate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick up the pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days. Where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him” (7-8).
"He would dispose of his good-luck pebble. Swallow it, maybe, or use Strunk's slingshot, or just drop it along the trail" (24).

Love in "The Things They Carried"

In “The Things They Carried,” Jimmy Cross experiences how a lover back home is a distraction in the battlefield of Vietnam. He loses a comrade because his thoughts were about an old love interest, Martha. He feels entirely responsible for the death of his subordinate, Ted Lavender, because his focus was on Martha and her pictures, rather than the safety of his men. While Jimmy is in this dreamy, distracted state, Ted Lavender suffers due to his inattentiveness. After this event occurs, Lavender begins digging a hole into the ground. He later uses this hole to burn Martha’s letters, along with her photographs. He dislikes the fact that these letters and photographs were the main cause of Ted Lavender’s death, and in its place he destroys the items from Martha. This experience represents how love is not a luxury that the group of men can afford. Love has no place in Vietnam.

“He fell shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was no dead, and this was something he would have to carry...for the rest of the war” (16).

Death in "The Things They Carried"

In the chapter “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien demonstrates the traumatizing effect of death. As Ted Lavender dies, Tim shows several signs of grief, and changes his lifestyle in an attempt to ameliorate the damage. Cross blames himself for Lavender’s death and thinks about how the situation could have been avoided, very similar to the third stage of grief. He then changes his entire ethic as a leader, obviously showing a great deal of emotion. This also explains the effect of death on military life. The military is known for its strict rules and leaders, which can be seen as unnecessary. However, Jimmy Cross shows people do not make the military strict, but rather the military makes people strict through the experience of death. Overall, this chapter does well to display the devastating effects of death, as Jimmy’s life is completely altered by one death in a war of many.

“Instead he went back to his maps. He was now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence...They would get their shit together, and keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in good working order” (24).

 The Effects of War and Atomization in "The Things They Carried"

Chapter 1 of the novel shows the atomization in characters and objects during warfare in Vietnam. The atomization of troops as a whole is present, with the Alpha Company being called “legs or grunts”. This enfacement and generalization of the troops is a prime example of atomization. Specifically, Ted Lavender is a great example of an atomized character. All we know about Ted Lavender when he was alive was that he was scared and he carried marijuana with him. When Ted Lavender dies he becomes even more nondescript, just another casualty of war. In some ways, Ted Lavender’s death wasn’t about Ted Lavender, but about Jimmy Cross and all of the other soldiers who have the burden of dealing with his death. To them, when Ted Lavender dies, his presence becomes much more real, another thing to carry with them in the war. Overall, O’Brien’s first chapter of his novel provides an excellent example of atomization.

Like Cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark. I swear to god - boom, down. Not a word... A pisser, you know? Still zipping himself up... The lieutenant's in some deep hurt. I mean that crying jag - the way he was carrying on - it wasn't fake or anything, it was real heavy duty hurt. The man cares" (O'brien 16-17)

The Chapter “The Things They Carried” illustrates the effects of war through Ted Lavender, the concept of humping, and Cross blaming himself for Ted’s death. Ted is the physical representation of fear, which is brought on by the conflicts and hardships of war. Ted shows what people turn into when a person allows the effects of war to get to them - “dead weight” (O’Brien 6). Humping refers to both the literal and figurative act of carrying a burden. For example, the men carry their necessities on the outside, but they carry emotional and mental burdens on the inside, such as Cross’s love for Martha or Ted’s fear. Cross also humps the guilt for Ted’s death, which he was not responsible for, but he cannot help feeling like he caused Ted’s death. Perhaps the most significant part of this chapter is a concept that O’Brien revisits in “How to Tell a True War Story”: with war, there is no moral.

“In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive” ( O’Brien 3).

 The Soldier and the Civilian in "The Things They Carried"

Throughout the chapter “The Things They Carried,” the narrator continuously makes subtle references to Martha, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ dream girlfriend, and to her “eyes [that] were gray and neutral” (4). Martha represents the Vietnam soldiers’ allure and desire for home—a place where they did not have to fight in a senseless war that they did not understand—and for escape from the darkness and violence of the war. Martha, who “[does] not love [Cross] and never would,” illustrates the soldiers’ longing to return to innocence, something that they have already lost and have no chance of regaining.

“In part, [Cross] was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real, and because she was a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, a poet and a virgin and uninvolved, and because he realized she did not love him and never would” (16).

 Morality in "The Things They Carried"

This chapter comments on the idea that morality and making decisions via our moral compass requires sacrifice. In this sense, Cross decides to burn his pictures and letters from Martha, which are his only comfort during the war. After Lavender is killed, he takes the blame upon himself as the leader of the group. He blames his fantasizing over Martha for Lavender’s death, and therefore burns her letters. He makes the moral decision to prioritize the safety of his men over his own comfort, however, this morality requires great sacrifice. As seen in the quote, he forgoes his love for Martha in order to care for his men, which is his moral responsibility.

“He was realistic about it. There was that new hardness in his stomach. He loved her but he hated her. No more fantasies, he told himself” (O’Brien 23).

Key Authorial Choices in this chapter

  • Defacement of Ted Lavender (12)
  • Beginning the chapter with list of the burdens the soldiers carried
  • Only mentioning the deaths of animals in the village wreck (15)
  • Martha's constant virginity
  • Out-of-sequence storytelling of Lavender’s death
  • Ted Lavender, the most scared soldier, has a much more feminine name than the other soldiers (2)
  • To carry something was to hump it (3)
  • When Ted Lavender is killed, Kiowa repeats his manner of death several times (6)
  • Cross just wanted to sleep inside Martha’s lungs and breathe her blood (11)
  • When the soldiers dream about freedom, the planes they would take are characterized as birds (21)
  • “To carry something was to hump it is when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps” (3).
  • “Her legs, he thought, were almost certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair” (4).
  • ”Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M’s” (5).
  • ”He pictured Martha’s smooth young face” (6)
  • ”Now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much  and could not stop thinking about her” (6).
  • ”Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha. It was a simple pebble, an ounce at most. Smooth to the touch, it was a milky white color with flecks of orange and violet, oval shaped” (7).
  • “Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore” (11).
  • “They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and into the paddies...Their principles were in their feet” (14).
  • “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” (22).
  • There are many short paragraphs in this section containing only a sentence or two.

1 thought on ““The Things They Carried””

  1. When Ted Lavender is killed, Kiowa repeats his manner of death several times (6).
    This authorial choice relates to the theme of trauma shown in “The Things They Carried.” Since the death of Ted Lavender was clearly a traumatic event for all of the soldiers that witnessed it, they each have different ways of reacting to and coping with the trauma. Kiowa is, in a way, reliving the experience by repeating the manner of Lavender’s death. This talking also helps him to recover from what had just happened.

    Defacement of Ted Lavender (12).
    The literal effacement of Ted Lavender in “The Things They Carried” illustrates the atomization of the soldiers. In the chapter, Lavender is shot in the head, and his entire face becomes deformed as a result. O’Brien chooses to literally efface Lavender to show how he as a character was atomized through the war in Vietnam. From this point onward, while the soldiers do care about Lavender, he is broken down into simply another thing that they must carry with them throughout the war and even after the war is over.

    Ted Lavender, the most scared soldier, has a much more feminine name than the other soldiers (2)
    O’Brien chooses to give Ted the last name of Lavender to relate it to the theme of masculinity. Lavender is viewed as one of the most fearful and paranoid of the soldiers, and as a result he is not as masculine as some of the other soldiers. The name Lavender is given to him to make him seem like a more feminine character as well. Lavender’s death helps show that fears and a lack of masculinity can get you killed in war.

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