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
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.”
O’Brien’s narrative strategies reflect the repression that his characters practice. O’Brien himself is unwilling to communicate fully with his readers, which makes it unclear whether or not he is reliable. It is unclear, for instance, whether O’Brien’s conversation with Cross actually happened or whether it is a fiction that renders “The Things They Carried” more realistic. Though the distinction is not made in this story, or in any of the others, the resemblance between O’Brien the author and O’Brien the main character is one of several attempts O’Brien makes to raise the stakes of his storytelling and to inspire our investment in his stories. The distinction between truth and fiction does not mean much to O’Brien; feelings behind the story give the narrative its purpose. Therefore, whether or not O’Brien betrayed Cross is irrelevant when compared to the impact of Cross’s feelings of guilt.
The ambiguous ending of “Love” is symptomatic of the difficulty war veterans have in vocalizing traumatic experiences. We cannot be sure if the thing Cross asks O’Brien not to mention has been put in the story or not. Perhaps O’Brien has betrayed his friend and the thing Cross requested he not mention is his guilt over Ted Lavender’s death or his relationship with and eventual rejection by Martha. Or perhaps O’Brien is faithful to Cross’s wishes and the thing he is asked not to mention is kept from us the entire time. No matter what Cross’s secret is, O’Brien’s ambiguities force us to consider the act of writing as a way of conveying the conflicting motivations involved in making difficult decisions.