“They’d found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.” (O’Brien 363)
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is a platoon leader in the Vietnam War; a man who carries the lives of his men. This responsibility, this weight is upon him along with the weight of everything else they carry. The physical weights; the weapons, food, clothing, bug-repellent, medication, water and everything else mean nearly nothing to them compared to the emotional weights of fear, responsibility, ...view middle of the document...
At one point a Vietcong child-soldier is dead in a ditch; one of Cross’s men speaks of a moral but never specifies what moral he is referring to, (almost as if he knows he should care more about the body or at least the idea of the body), but just can’t. He even goes so far as to kick the corpse’s head and cut off its thumb. This behavior is evident not only when they refer to the dead enemy; they also speak of Ted Lavender’s death in an impersonal, joking way. One is reminded that truth is often spoken of in jest. They invoke it to wrap their minds around the idea of death, “a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing without going.”(O’Brien 368)
The truth of death, and how easy it is to die, fills them with dread. But the horror of showing their fear is greater. Even greater still is “the fear of blushing.”(O’Brien 369) They keep marching, they kill, and they die, out of fear of being branded a coward. This mortal fear and the need to keep up their reputations place enormous emotional burdens on them. If they live in the moment, truly feeling the death around them; if they could not anesthetize the emotional effects of the endless marching, killing, the loneliness, and the choking heat and humidity, they would not be able to keep themselves from running, freezing, or shooting their toes off to get out.
Alone, these truths of war and the burdens they bring cause them to find ways to escape the weight of it all. Drugs, like Ted Lavender used, and complete emotional numbness, like Sanders, the man who kicked the dead Vietcong soldier, or like Kiowa who saw Lavender die and still “couldn’t find some great sadness, or even anger”(O’Brien 366). But something beyond the persistent death and fear defines the war for these men, the lack of purpose. They march, that is all they are good for. They kill and they burn. All they really seem to do is carry things and march. There is “no sense of strategy or mission.”(O’Brien 364) This leaves them, and specifically Lieutenant Cross, feeling powerless against the weight they bear. A man will carry much if he has a purpose, a solid reason that goes beyond the load. However, they were not given a reason; “for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.”(O’Brien 365)
The heaviness of death, the constant fear, the emotional weight of all they carry, is coupled with there being no apparent reason as to why they must continue under the burden. In light of these circumstances, Lieutenant Cross’s uncontrollable daydreaming of a far-away love is acceptable as a coping mechanism. His need for purpose, a relief from the excessive stresses, and the deep desire to experience compassion, human connection, and goodness in his world drives him to Martha’s phantom loving arms.
O’Brien describes that the letters Martha sent “were signed “Love, Martha,” but Lieutenant Cross understood that...