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In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien discusses the physical and emotional burdens that come along with war. The “things” that the soldiers carry are both literal and figurative. They carry sentimental items to remind them of home, food, weapons, survival gear, and even physical wounds. However, they also carry grief, longing, and terror. O’Brien focuses on the most prevalent of these emotions, guilt.
O’Brien, who is both the narrator and protagonist of the text, discusses his experiences in the Vietnam War. O’Brien uses his storytelling as comfort for dealing with his painful past and to mourn, “Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story” (246). He allows his fellow soldiers to be remembered by turning his memories into stories. In addition, by telling the stories, Tim overcomes some of his guilt. Tim is a pacifist, who when was first drafted, tries to talk himself out of going based on that fact that he opposed the war in college. He could think of no way to get out of the war as they would not let him go to graduate school and he could not fake an illness. He went to the Canadian border, thought about how “we make our choices or fail to make them” (60) and decided that running across the border was wrong, rationalizing that he had an obligation to his family and country. O’Brien felt guilty about fleeing. He did not want his family to look upon him with shame, and he did not want to be seen as a coward. It felt wrong to him that others had to leave for war and that he could just run away. Tim left for war a scared, young man, and would later return as a guilt-ridden man who is forced to tell stories about Vietnam to cope with the painful memories of war.
O’Brien’s main source of guilt comes from killing a young soldier. One night, he saw a soldier in the distance and could make out that he was wearing an ammunition belt. He felt in his stomach what was happening, thinking there could be an attack, and he pulled the pin of his grenade automatically, without thinking. The young soldier died. Tim felt guilty because “he did not hate the young man; he did not see him as the enemy; he did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty” (132). He thought to himself that it was not even a matter of life or death. Tim experiences extreme guilt, thinking that if he had not pulled the pin, the man could have just passed by. It is a difficult question because for one, it is O’Brien’s job as a soldier to fight and to protect. One would argue that it was his duty to throw a grenade at the opposition. Kiowa, a fellow soldier, even reminded Tim that the soldier would have probably died anyway. However, to Tim, it was the wrong move, and he deeply regrets it:
Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to dwell on it, but now and then, when I’m reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I’ll look up and see the young man coming out of the morning fog. (134)
Years after the war, he still cannot get over the guilt and appears to be a little haunted by the experience. Even if he attempts to forgive himself, he will never forget, and will still see the “the young man coming out of the morning fog” (134). He even tries to imagine what the young soldier’s life would have been if he had not killed him.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross also experiences guilt due to his experiences in Vietnam. He is responsible for all of his men on the Alpha Company, but as his soldiers start to die one by one, he begins to feel responsible. First, Ted Lavender died when he was shot in the head leaving the bathroom. Cross is unsure of how to lead his men and feels that is obsession and preoccupation with his love, Martha, caused his death. Instead of focusing on the war, Cross focuses on a girl who he is unsure if she even loves him back. He carries her letters and always thinks of her, wondering if she is a virgin. After Lavender is shot and his body is carried away, Cross sat in a foxhole crying. He knows that it is his lack of attention that caused Ted’s death. The lieutenant “felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (16). He does carry the guilt with him, but unfortunately it is not the only guilt that Lieutenant Cross would leave the Vietnam War with.
Lieutenant Cross makes another fatal mistake later in the war. A group of Vietnamese women warm the soldiers not to settle in a field along the river, but Jimmy Cross orders the men to stay there anyway and tells the girls to leave. Once the soldiers set up camp, rounds of mortar fell on the camp, and the field seemed to boil and explode. Then, Kiowa sunk into the muck. He had “lost his weapon, but it did not matter. All he wanted was a bath” (149). Cross thinks of Kiowa and the crime that is his death. He concludes that although the order to camp came from a higher power, he made a mistake letting his men camp on the dangerous riverbank. Jimmy Cross was trained to think of the soldiers as “identical copies of a single soldier, interchangeable units of command” (163). However, he preferred to view his men as human beings. Cross refused to see Kiowa as just another soldier who would die eventually, but as a person whom he feels directly responsible for his death. Jimmy’s guilt was so great, he felt as though he had committed a crime. Just as the soldiers carry burdens, Jimmy Cross carries compasses, maps but also the responsibility for the men in his charge. Jimmy Cross confides in O’Brien that he has never forgiven himself for Ted Lavender’s or Kiowa’s death.
Tn The Things They Carried, O’Brien discusses the physical and emotional burdens that come along with war including the most prevalent, guilt. After the war, the psychological burdens the men carry during the war continue to define them. Two people, soldier O’Brien and Lieutenant Jimmy Cross walk away from the Vietnam War guilt-ridden. Tim struggles with the circumstances of killing a young soldier. It was his job to defend and fight, but he believes that the soldier would have just walked away and that he could have spared a life. He did not have anything against the soldier, and feels that he took an innocent life. On the other hand, Lieutenant Cross feels guilty for not leading his soldiers well. He feels responsible for the deaths of two of his men, Ted Lavender and Kiowa. Ted died at his expense because he was too busy focusing on his love Martha, rather than his men. Kiowa died because he made a bad judgment call. All in all, these men had to deal with their guilt post-war. However, through The Things They Carried, O’Brien shows that is possible for people to deal with their grief and overcome their guilt.
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