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Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of essays, all centered on anecdotes of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The seemingly straightforward recollections slowly reveal dense layers of personal and metaphorical meanings upon closer inspection, with the exploration of the characters’ emotions and the underlying motif of love creating the opportunity to trace how war changes a person in the realm of his emotions. The Vietnam warfare acts as a catalyst for all of the unsettling changes in the soldiers’ minds, raising the question whether the battlefield is actively responsible for this result or merely accelerating the inevitable manifestation of these personal issues, inherent in every person.
In the collection of essays The Things They Carried, the specific selection of the four stories “The Things They Carried,” “The Lives of the Dead,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “Stockings” creates a focus on the ambiguity of the modernist essays, thus conveying the destructive effect of war on people’s minds through the juxtaposition of contrasting interpretations of the popular literary motifs of love and passion. Through the dichotomy of the positive and negative characteristics of the motifs, the anthology asserts the fragmentation of the soldiers’ minds and the feelings of confusion, isolation and unreliability, brought on by war.
Love is portrayed as a major motivation for many of the soldiers in the Vietnam War, with its sweet, innocent intentions often paving the way for a much darker, even sinister reality, in which unrequited emotions or acceptance of routine affection leave men dependent on love unsettled and invalidated, searching for meaning. The first mention of love is in “The Things They Carried,” when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ strong infatuation with Martha is revealed. His attitude seems innocent enough as he “want[s] Martha to love him as he loved her” (1). The reciprocity of this pure emotion, illustrated by the repetition of “love,” is quickly shot down as the officer is portrayed as obsessed with Martha’s rejection of him rather than simply in love. One of the most striking moments that interweaves the violent nature of war with his memories of the girl is presented in his desire to “carr[y] her up the stairs to her room and t[ie] her to the bed and [touch] that left knee all night long” (4). The run-on structure of the sentence conveys the unhealthy excitement of a man who plays this moment over and over again in his mind. In the context of war, such an act does not seem too extreme of harmful, but from a human standpoint it is still unthinkable. The character’s desensitization at the hands of the violence of Vietnam bleeds into his universal judgment of right and wrong, resulting in his reminiscence of Martha’s affections taking on a disquieting tone.
The same motif of reliving past love forms the backbone of “The Lives of the Dead,” in which Tim O’Brien’s recollection of his first love, Linda, is transformed from a sad story about loss to a dark memory that haunts him in the battlefield. In the very beginning of the story, he highlights the strength and purity of the juvenile relationship. “It’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things” (216). He speaks incredibly fondly of these emotions, creating the feeling of a perfect, noble relationship, but in the context of the war, once again this reminiscence seems out of place and unnatural. O’Brien’s memory of Linda is triggered upon seeing a dead man, illustrated as having “his right arm gone … at his face … flies and gnats” (214). The more and more he delves into the tale of Linda’s death, the more morbid the connection between the war and love becomes. Psychologically, war twists the soldiers’ grasp of the world, often resulting in strange associations like O’Brien “picturing Linda’s face” (215) all day upon seeing the first casualties of Vietnam. In his mind, the connection between these occurrences seems logical, but in the realm of healthy thinking, there is something bizarre between the deaths of a childhood love from cancer and an old villager from simply being shot. Once again, the symbol of love becomes tainted by the way the soldiers, shaken by the violent nature of war, reminisce about their emotions at the most inappropriate moments, often with devastating results. The inherent connection between love and death that is etched in both of the characters in these stories portrays their turmoil through the inability to cope with the tragic war in any way that does not create a disturbing dichotomy with the innocence of love.
The reluctance to let go of these emotions and arrange one’s priorities during wartime is the driving plot point in “The Things They Carried,” but can also be observed in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “Stockings,” where the recurring theme is the inability of the soldiers to keep the two parts of their lives separate without consequence. Fixed on the idea of bringing his girlfriend over at the battle camp, Mark Fossie changes the balance of his relationship with Mary Anne dramatically but still insists on having things remain the way they were. His disillusionment lies in that he brings out his naïve girlfriend, opens her eyes to the harsh reality of the world, but still expects her to live in the bubble of their child-like relationship. Love is portrayed as an unfortunate circumstance that gives rise to a much bigger problem than expected, the corruption of a young girl by the untapped power of violence. As with the other stories, the instincts and expectations of love are twisted, with Fossie not thinking clearly about protecting his girlfriend in the very beginning of the story, but later trying to stop her from forming her own identity. “When we first got here – all of us – we were real young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty damn quick. And so did Mary Anne,” (93) Rat Kiley concludes. This thought presents the fundamental conflict between the romantic comfort of the past and the harsh reality of the war, with the two proving to be immiscible without some sort of consequences, be it death or change of identity. This notion is reiterated throughout the story through the profuse contrasting imagery of Mary Anne’s past and present actions. From a symbol of American wholesomeness and unfamiliarity with the war, exemplified by the mainstream imagery of “seventeen years old, fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior High [with] long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like strawberry ice cream” (89) and “white culottes and this sexy pink sweater” (86), she turns into a personification of danger and bloodthirst, of the desire to kill. Vietnam unlocks completely new instincts and yearnings inside her, leaving her with the realization that her personal life cannot coexist with her lust for blood. Mary Anne’s revokes her child-like romance with Fossie and confidently embraces her new persona, the transformation highlighted by the imagery of her “necklace of human tongues … elongated and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather … one tongue overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill syllable” (106). The grotesque, inhumane nature of this accessory, together with the emphasis on “blackened leather,” illustrates the shift from simply helping in the war to actively enjoying the mercenary pursuit and murder. In contrast to her swift dismissal of past love, Mark Fossie’s reaction is that of disbelief and grief. His plan for their life together “in the ordinary flow of their lives … might well have come true,” (90) but in Vietnam, his own actions are to blame for the disturbing events that follow. The battlefield demands of soldiers to prioritize the greater good over their own personal agendas, and Fossie’s inability to do so unlocks the violent monster, inherent in Mary Anne. In their relationship, they are symbolically two sides of the same coin; with the attempts of experiencing love during wartime leaving a person with the harsh reality of having to commit to only one of the two.
Mark Fossie’s frustration and torment in losing grip of past love is also observed in “Stockings” through the story of Henry Dobbins, “drawn towards sentimentality” (111). His method of coping with the present is through a memento of his girlfriend, a pair of nylon stockings. As his good luck charm, the stockings prove to be invaluable to him as they simultaneously act as a reminder of the past, a comfort for the present, and an aspiration for the future. After his separation with the girlfriend, Dobbins is forlorn and troubled, but quickly sticks to his regime of “arranging the nylons around his neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left shoulder” (112). This routine action, while not as dark as the other explorations of love, portrays his reluctance of letting go of the past and accepting such a change in his life. With all of the stockings’ symbolism beckoning to a reunion with his girlfriend, it seems strange of him to continue using them despite the improbability of ever being with her again. He actively chooses to continue living in his own reality as it provides the best comfort possible at wartime. These two essays present the confusion and isolation that war brings upon people, often causing them to look for meaning in elements of the past. The inevitable change of this past in turn causes the characters even more turmoil as the only constant thing in their life, love, has been overturned and they are left even more out of center than before. Love is poor coping mechanism, never truly able to mix with the harsh reality of war, leaving each person involved changed, either looking back at the past for comfort or completely revoking it.
The four stories all convey the slippery slope of love in the harsh conditions of the Vietnam War through the contrast between the initial comfort and happiness that love brings and the many ways in which it unravels, leaving the individuals to cope in unpredictable ways. Through the prism of the gruesome battles, love becomes broken down and twisted in strange directions, leaving the soldiers even more confused and unpredictable. They become emotionally lost and isolated as their reminiscence, serving as an anchor, is rendered hopeless due to the rapid deterioration of relationships or as the harsh, carnal nature of war becomes interwoven in their mind with the sweet innocence of love, leaving them incapable of recalling one without the other, with the result being dismay, uneasiness or complete change of identity.
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