Theme of Death and Its Effects by Anjana Ramesh and Halley Saucier

In the novel, O’Brien constantly illustrates the theme of death through the stories of different soldiers. These stories emphasize the drastic changes that occur within a soldier that can alter their personalities, morality, and their memory permanently. For instance, in the first chapter, “The Things They Carried”, Lieutenant Cross burns a village, burns Martha’s photographs, and changes his behavior to cope with the guilt of Ted Lavender’s death. He exclaims that “it was very sad… the things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do” (O’Brien 14). Inside of him, Cross carried the guilt of the death of Lavender, and the only way to cope with that was to become strict and disciplined from then on. Burning the photographs was initially the act of burning his past, where he and Martha were together and where Lavender was still alive. When Martha moved on and Lavender died, Cross had to cover up his remorse and guilt by acting the complete opposite of how he felt, bottling the weight of shame inside of him. Thus, in this chapter, O’Brien aims to show what a death of a comrade can do to a soldier: it can change their behaviour and character. Moreover, in the next chapter, “Love”, one can see that Cross is permanently damaged from Ted Lavender’s death and will not fully get over his guilt, as he says “don’t mention anything about [Ted]” (29). Even after many years, O’Brien shows that the death in war traumatizes soldiers and will last forever because it is so emotionally and morally disrupting to them in war. Furthermore, later in “How To Tell A True War Story”, O’Brien further explains how death affects a soldier momentously and substantially. Not only that, but he also offers how storytelling can help cope with the death of someone. When one explains the story of their experience, they have someone to listen, understand, and maybe relate to that experience. Ultimately, they are reassured that everything will be okay, rather than feeling alone and depressed. By storytelling, O’Brien shows how one can cope with traumatic events such as death; there just has to be an audience who can communalize and listen to the story. Furthermore, through storytelling, O’Brien further explains what death can do to someone by saying how “war is just another name for death… [but] freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost (77, 78). The mere closeness that soldiers come to death make them realize how valuable life is; it essentially changes their perspectives on life forever. When O’Brien describes that war is death, he sets out to incite that going to war will make one experience death all around. And because of seeing this mortality, then, soldiers come to see that the only thing that really matters in war is purely a choice of life and death. This makes them perceive the world differently when they realize that they are alive; they become thankful and understand the world in a new light. This new sense of perspective can also be seen in “Ambush”, after he kills a man. In “Ambush”, Tim explains the story about the man he killed in great detail and all the thoughts that is going through him in that moment. He then says at the end how “sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t” (128). In this case, O’Brien again illustrates the traumatizing effect that death can have on a young soldier; Tim recounts the exact memory with vividness and detail, emphasizing how the traumatic memory still haunts him today. The death impacted Tim’s life greatly, and the guilt and remorse he feels by sometimes forgiving himself and other times not, further characterizes the effect that the death of this man had on him. However, coming back to storytelling, Tim ultimately telling his story in “Ambush” is reassuring to him, in that this storytelling helps him to put perspective into what he did and help cope with his guilt. In conclusion, O’Brien portrays the theme of death through the traumatizing and haunting effects it can have on a soldier, as it not only changes their character, but their outlook on life as well; he also shows the ways that soldiers can cope with death: storytelling and recounting those traumatic memories to people who will listen.

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