Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, of the Alpha Company, carries various reminders of his love for Martha, a girl from his college in New Jersey who has given no indication of returning his love. Cross carries her letters in his backpack and her good-luck pebble in his mouth. After a long day’s march, he unwraps her letters and imagines the prospect of her returning his love someday. Martha is an English major who writes letters that quote lines of poetry and never mention the war. Though the letters are signed “Love, Martha” Cross understands that this gesture should not give him false hope. He wonders, uncontrollably, about whether or not Martha is a virgin. He carries her photographs, including one of her playing volleyball, but closer to his heart still are his memories. They went on a single date, to see the movie Bonnie and Clyde. When Cross touched Martha’s knee during the final scene, Martha looked at him and made him pull his hand back. Now, in Vietnam, Cross wishes that he had carried her up the stairs, tied her to the bed, and touched her knee all night long. He is haunted by the cutting knowledge that his aff-ection will most likely never be returned.
The narrator, Tim O’Brien, describes the things all the men of the company carry. They are things in the most physical sense—mosquito repellent and marijuana, pocket knives and chewing gum. The things they carry depend on several factors, including the men’s priorities and their constitutions. Because the machine gunner Henry Dobbins is exceptionally large, for example, he carries extra rations; because he is superstitious, he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Nervous Ted Lavender carries marijuana and tranquilizers to calm himself down, and the religious Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament, a gift from his father.
Some things the men carry are universal, like a compress in case of fatal injuries and a two-pound poncho that can be used as a raincoat, groundsheet, or tent. Most of the men are common, low-rank-ing soldiers and carry a standard M-16 assault rifle and several magazines of ammunition. Several men carry grenade launchers. All men carry the figurative weight of memory and the literal weight of one another. They carry Vietnam itself, in the heavy weather and the dusty soil. The things they carry are also determined by their rank or specialty. As leader, for example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries the maps, the compasses, and the responsibility for his men’s lives. The medic, Rat Kiley, carries morphine, malaria tablets, and supplies for serious wounds.
One day, when the company outside the Than Khe area is on a mission to destroy tunnel complexes, Cross imagines the tunnels collapsing on him and Martha. He becomes distracted by wondering whether or not she is a virgin. On the way back from going to the bathroom, Lavender is shot, falling especially hard under the burden of his loaded backpack. Still, Cross can think of nothing but Martha. He thinks about her love of poetry and her smooth skin.
While the soldiers wait for the helicopter to carry Lavender’s body away, they smoke his marijuana. They make jokes about Lavender’s tranquilizer abuse and rationalize that he probably was too numb to feel pain when he was shot. Cross leads his men to the village of Than Khe—where the soldiers burn everything and shoot dogs and chickens—and then on a march through the late afternoon heat. When they stop for the evening, Cross digs a foxhole in the ground and sits at the bottom of it, crying. Meanwhile, Kiowa and Norman Bowker sit in the darkness discussing the short span between life and death in an attempt to make sense of the situation. In the ensuing silence, Kiowa marvels at how Lavender fell so quickly and how he was zipping up his pants one second and dead the next. He finds something unchristian about the lack of drama surrounding this type of death and wonders why he cannot openly lament it like Cross does.
The morning after Lavender’s death, in the steady rain, Cross crouches in his foxhole and burns Martha’s letters and two photographs. He plans the day’s march and concludes that he will never again have fantasies. He plans to call the men together and assume the blame for Lavender’s death. He reminds himself that, despite the men’s inevitable grumbling, his job is not to be loved but to lead.