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Years after the end of the war, Jimmy Cross goes to visit Tim O’Brien at his home in Massachusetts. They drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, looking at photographs and reminiscing. When they come across a picture of Ted Lavender, Cross confesses that he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death. O’Brien comforts him by saying that he feels the same way about other things, and the two men switch from coffee to gin. They steer the conversation away from the more harsh memories and laugh about less upsetting recollections, such as the way Henry Dobbins used to carry his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck as a good-luck charm. Finally, by the end of the night, O’Brien thinks it’s safe to ask about Martha.
Cross tells O’Brien that when he finally reconnected with Martha at a college reunion in 1979, they spent most of their time together, catching up. She had become a Lutheran missionary and had done service in Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Mexico. She had never married and told Cross she didn’t know why. Later, Cross took her hand, but Martha didn’t squeeze back; when he told her he loved her, she didn’t answer. Finally Cross told her that the night of their only date, after they watched Bonnie and Clyde, all he’d wanted to do was to take her home and tie her to her bed so he could touch her knee all night long. Martha replied coldly that she didn’t understand how men could do such things. At breakfast the next morning, she apologized and gave him another snapshot, telling him not to burn this one.
Cross tells O’Brien that he still loves Martha. But for the rest of his visit with O’Brien, he doesn’t speak of her. Finally, as O’Brien walks Cross to his car, he tells his former lieutenant that he would like to write a story about some of what they have spoken about. After some consideration, Cross consents, saying that maybe Martha will read it and come begging for him. He urges O’Brien to paint him as a brave and good leader. He then asks O’Brien for a favor—that he not “mention anything about—.” O’Brien responds that he won’t.
“Love” functions as a postscript or epilogue for the story of Jimmy Cross and Martha, begun in the previous story, “The Things They Carried.” O’Brien’s explanation of how things turned out for Cross and Martha, twenty years after the war, is his first reference to the fallout of Vietnam. When the war ended, soldiers returned home to realize the dreams they had put on hold during the war. However, what was waiting for them in the end wasn’t always what they hoped it would be. Cross put his faith in Martha because he couldn’t put his faith in war itself and because the notion of her as a sexual being and as someone who might want to start a life with him upon his return was safe and comforting.
The meaning of the title “Love” is complicated because Cross is both skeptical of the word and hopeful that it carries meaning in Martha’s letters. Cross’s skepticism becomes clear early on; when he reads Martha’s letters in an effort to distract himself from the atrocities and unknowns he faces in the jungle, he suspects that the “Love” with which she signs her letters is merely a figure of speech. When the details are filled in years after the fact, the truth of the word “Love” is revealed—Martha never loved Cross. In effect, this realization makes only more profound the impact of Lavender’s death on the already guilt-ridden Cross. Whether Martha is uninterested because she is incapable of love, because Cross’s obsession with her eventually turned her off, or because the time in which she came of age was filled with such abject disillusionment, Cross is injured—he needs gin to prompt him into speaking, and he doesn’t want to linger too long on the topic.
Through Cross’s character, O’Brien shows how repression of painful memories can be essential for survival. Cross carries a haunting secret with him from his experience leading the Alpha Company, but O’Brien leaves the nature of the secret ambiguous. Informed by the previous story, we assume that the secret is Cross’s lingering guilt over Lavender’s death, but O’Brien not only refuses to name it, he actually obscures Cross’s naming of the secret at the end of “Love.”