“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien puts the reader in the mind of a few characters who fought together in the Vietnam War. Throughout the story it becomes apparent that these “men” are nothing but children, children who have no business being in the jungles of Vietnam. A war with an unclear purpose in a very foreign land is one that children are least suited for. They do a very unsatisfactory job fighting the war, and the war just leaves them incredibly scarred for the rest of their lives if they make it out alive. The story starts off by putting the reader into Jimmy Cross’ mind.
Cross is the leader of the group that the book follows around Vietnam, he is only 24 or 25 years old and at towards the end of the book says he is not suited for the job at all. Cross occupies his mind all day with his beloved Martha, a woman from back home who has absolutely no romantic interest in Cross at all. He reads her letters, stares at her picture, keeps a pebble she sent in his mouth, and fantasizes about tying her to his bed and touching her knee all night. As though his confession of being an unfit leader was not enough he also gives away his inner most thoughts to the reader revealing just how incompetent he is.
One day while fantasizing about Martha one of the men, Lavender, is shot in the head, Cross blames himself for the Lavender’s death and never lets it go. He burned Martha’s pictures and letters, and even threw away the pebble she sent him to help him focus on the safety of his men. Even 20 years later when Cross visits O’Brien, a fellow soldier and main storyteller of our novel, Cross is still full of guilt over Lavender’s death and obsessed with the uninterested Martha. “At one point, I remember, we paused over a snapshot of Ted Lavender, and after a while Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he’d never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death.
It was something that would never go away, he said quietly, and I nodded and told him I felt the same about certain things” (O’Brien, 25). Not only was this man unprepared and incompetent he leaves the whole situation scarred for life, never returning to the person he was before the war. Caruth said “Trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth, 4).
This is true in Cross’ case, his pain didn’t begin and end with Lavender’s death. Even 20 years later he is feeling the guilt and is still being haunted by the incident, he has been scarred for life by it. After having the story be told through Cross’ eyes O’Brien, the author, decides that O’Brien, the character, is going to tell the rest of the story for the most part. O’Brien tells us of many stories that show just how immature and unprepared these men are for the war.
He tells us the story about Azar killing Lavender’s puppy just for the hell of it, the story of Lemon dying by stepping on a landmine while playing catch with a grenade, the story about Dobbins and why he carries his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck, and the story of how he tries to scare the medic whose incompetence nearly led to O’Brien’s death. These men were really nothing but a bunch of children. “The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event at some exotic reform school.
The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay. Like when Azar blew away Ted Lavender’s puppy. ‘What’s everybody so upset about? ‘ Azar said. ‘I mean, Christ, I’m just a boy’” (O’Brien, 35). O’Brien tells us that even the average age of everyone there is incredibly low and that everyone is quite childlike, Azar kills Lavender’s puppy and his only excuse is that he is nothing but a boy.
Since children are fighting the war they obviously are not going to do a good job, the results of the war may reflect that, but another thing that happens because children are fighting the war is that they are left permanently scarred. “The post-traumatic mood “reflects a disturbance in the ground of collective experience: a shock to people’s values, trust, and sense of purpose; an obsessive awareness that nations, leaders, even we ourselves can die”” (Farrell, 3). Since they are on average 19 years old and grew up in the safety United States it is very likely that few have experienced war, or any near death situations. They have spent their whole lives living very comfortably, not having many hardships at all as they lived in the cushiest of all the countries in the world. This makes the traumatic experiences of war all the greater. When they land in Vietnam and see a man blown away in their first week there they are going to be permanently scarred, the trauma is much harder on the soldiers in this war than any other the country has ever experienced. Throughout O’Brien’s stories he talks about how he is now in his forties and telling these stories to keep his sanity.
O’Brien is perhaps the best to retell these stories because the effects of the trauma would have been lesser as his first exposure to death came at age nine. Right from his childhood he is having to block out reality, and even continues to make up stories in his dream where he convinces himself that his little girlfriend from over 30 years ago is still alive and well. “I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening.
Kiowa yells at me. Curt Lemon steps from the shade into bright sunlight, his face brown and shining, and then he soars into a tree. The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over” (O’Brien, 33). The things these soldiers experienced never actually goes away, those things are constantly coming back up in their minds. “In Freud’s text, the term trauma is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind.
The wound… is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor” (Caruth, 4). O’Brien talks about how he still sees the man he killed, though it is unclear whether or not he did in fact actually kill the man, even while just sitting and calmly reading the newspaper the boy’s image will pop into his head. These men were not ready to see what they saw; their minds were marked for life.
The men in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” were not actually men, they were nothing but boys. Boys who had faced very little adversity growing up in the richest country in the world. Nothing could ever prepare the men for what was awaiting them in the jungles of Vietnam. Those who made it out were never the same; many people have relatives who went over to fight in the war that came back entirely different people. As though fighting a war with an unclear purpose was bad enough, the government had to send a bunch of children over to fight it.