Men killed and died, because they were embarrassed not to.

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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 affection 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-ranking 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.


O’Brien uses the list of physical objects that the members of the Alpha Company carry in Vietnam as a window to the emotional burdens that these soldiers bear. One such burden is the necessity for the young soldiers to confront the tension between fantasy and reality. The realization of this tension disrupts Cross’s stint as the resident dreamer of the Alpha Company. Cross thinks that because he was so obsessed with his fantasy of Martha and the life they might lead after the war, he was negligent. He sees Ted Lavender’s death as the result of his negligence. If “The Things They Carried” is the illustration of the conflict between love and war, then the death of Ted Lavender and the subsequent disillusionment of Lieutenant Cross signify a triumph for war in this conflict.

Read more about physical and emotional burdens as a theme.

Cross’s reaction to Ted Lavender’s death shows how the horrors of the war can make men irreparably cynical and gloomy. Before Lavender’s death, the most vivid images Cross carries in his mind are those of Martha. He is obsessed with trivial matters such as whether or not she is a virgin and why she so tantalizingly signs her letters “Love.” But when he decides his thoughts of her have led him astray and that they—and she—caused the distraction and incompetence that led to Lavender’s death, he expresses his anger at her in the only way possible. He burns Martha’s pictures and letters in an attempt to distance himself from the sentimentality he sees as a destructive force during wartime. His conclusion, at the end of this story, that it is better to be loved than to lead, reveals how the experience of Lavender’s death has affected his mentality.

Read more about why Jimmy Cross burns Martha’s letters.

The emotional burdens that the soldiers bear are intensified by their young age and inexperience. Most of the men who fought in Vietnam were in their late teens and early twenties—they were children, students, and boyfriends who had no perspective on how to rationalize killing or come to terms with their friends’ untimely deaths. From the beginning, O’Brien the author uses explicit details to illustrate what the experience was like for the scared men. Among the things the men carry are guilt and cowardice that they are neither able to admit to nor negotiate. Although they are sad for the loss of their friend Lavender, their predominant feeling is of relief, since they are still alive.

Read more about the idea of carrying in O’Brien’s work.

O’Brien’s decision to intersperse profound thoughts with mundane events establishes the matter-of-fact tone of the collection. The collection’s narrative alternates between reflections on war and the story of Ted Lavender’s death. By arranging the work this way, O’Brien uses facts to create setting. He explicitly demonstrates his characters’ natures not by describing them but by showing the items they carried with them in such dire circumstances. Rather than explain Kiowa’s heritage in concrete terms, for example, O’Brien simply mentions that Kiowa carries his grandfather’s hatchet and an illustrated New Testament. O’Brien here offers us glimpses of characters whose traits become integral to the ideas that O’Brien explores throughout The Things They Carried.

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