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It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.
Though often perceived as terrifying and tragic, war also has the unforeseen potential to transform the delicate face of human nature. The characters Mary Anne, Tim, and Lt. Cross of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried all demonstrate how the Vietnam War allowed them to better handle the pressures of society, ultimately gaining a deeper sense of control over their lives. When suddenly drafted, O’Brien is doubtful he can be the fearless, heroic soldier that his community expects him to be, but he soon learns to cope at war through the grace of storytelling. Similarly, Lt. Jimmy Cross is also abruptly thrown into the war, and suffers major qualms about his ability to successfully lead a platoon of army men. Then there is the quiet and docile Mary Anne, consistently relying upon her lover for identity when all it would finally take is the exploration of a foreign land to ultimately rediscover her true inner self.
Unsure if he can indeed rise up to community expectations, O’Brien is unreadily catapulted into the deathly terrifying world of war, and he survives only through his use of imagination and storytelling. Upon receiving the draft notice, the young and scholarly O’Brien is unwilling to abandon his bright future in academics; at the same time, he fears the shame that would ensue from his small-town community if he fled from the duty of service. Struggling under the weight of his reputation, he eventually reaches Vietnam and has trouble dealing with the warfare and corpses. Instead of abusing tranquilizers and smoking marijuana like fellow soldier Ted Lavender, his coping mechanism of choice is storytelling; this derives from his first real experience with death, the demise of his beloved childhood friend Linda. O’Brien delves deep into his imagination once again to effectively handle the intense trauma that war inevitably causes. For example, upon encountering his first dead body at war, O’Brien responds with, “that poor old man, he reminds me of… this girl I used to know” (228), referring to Linda. By recounting old war stories to bring his guilt into perspective, O’Brien can alleviate the trauma he carries from war, even when living back home in the States as a 43-year-old writer. In a much larger sense, the Vietnam War allows O’Brien to reevaluate his own life purpose and eventually become the writer that he is today. This ongoing practice of assuaging one’s guilt is often held by longtime war veterans, particularly Lt. Jimmy Cross.
Distracted by his unrequited love for a girl named Martha, Lt. Jimmy Cross often questions his arguable leadership qualities, but he finally realizes that he must sacrifice his own comforts for the betterment of his men. Having been enlisted without the proper training required to successfully lead a platoon, Lt. Cross suffers from carrying tremendous burdens of guilt when two of his men, Kiowa and Ted Lavender, die under his faulty command: “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead” (16). Cross is well-aware of his duties to his title as Lieutenant, and so he decides to step it up as a leader. Because his senseless love for Martha had cost him the lives of two men, he commits himself to becoming the model leading man of society; “now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence… he would show strength… Lt. Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead” (26). Cross’s disastrous slip-ups at war teach him to actively take responsibility, which he validates by burning his beloved picture of Martha. Although he still loves her, Cross knows that this love can never be fulfilled; he feels the pressures of society pushing him toward self-improvement and therefore takes it upon himself to better serve his men. The Vietnam War experience develops in Cross an awareness of the necessity of discipline, and he is willing to devote his energy to improving his leadership skills.
Unlike O’Brien and Lt. Cross, who both give in and live up to societal standards, Mary Anne defies traditional domestic expectations and embraces all that is Vietnam, eventually becoming liberated in the process. Initially brought over to serve as a comfort toy for her boyfriend, Mark Fossie, Mary Anne is the typical naïve, fresh-faced cheerleader type; she has long blonde hair and tan, lean legs that easily win her appreciation from all of the men. As O’Brien himself quotes, “she was good for morale… it was the sort of show a girl will sometimes put on for her boyfriend’s entertainment” (95). The early Mary Anne succumbs to her gender role, epitomizing the stereotypical woman; since her identity is based mainly on appearance, she is solely dependent on Fossie and the rest of the Greenies for her base survival in Vietnam. However, the knowledge that is hidden in the vast foreign land would provide the perfect opportunity for her liberation. Immediately the open-minded Mary Anne immerses herself into the land, picking up the customs and culture of the Vietnamese people. Her vanishing acts are met with apprehension from her lover, who reacts in panic by further tightening his stronghold over her: “If Mary Anne happened to move a few steps away from him, he’d tighten up” (104). But Mary Anne soon finds the power to resist by realizing she need not rely upon her lover, or any other man, for her basic existence. In her own words, “When I’m out there at night, I feel close to my own body… it doesn’t matter because I know exactly who I am” (111). As she becomes stronger and more free-wheeling, Fossie grows weaker and, consequently, more insecure. He sees his aptitude matched by Mary Anne’s own blossoming persona as a tough soldier, and he realizes that he is not her world anymore. With her intelligence surpassing his, Mary Anne is able to ease away from his restrictive control and thus escape the defined female roles of conventional society. The Vietnam experience serves as the catalyst that is so crucial for the stunning transformation of her character. It opens up a new world, allowing her to form her own unique identity and finally gain her independence.
Although the idea of war may conjure up nothing but negative images, the Vietnam War became an irrevocably life-changing event for these three characters, delivering the perfect opportunity for personal enrichment of their lives. For author Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War gives him the chance to reflect upon childhood memories of Linda and develop the seedlings of his storytelling, which he comes to use as an emotional aid during difficult times of battle. The unique war experiences of Lt. Jimmy Cross open up his eyes to the duties of a selfless leader, and thus he started to utilize the standards of society as crucial building blocks toward self-improvement. As for Mary Anne, the experience becomes her own personal path to freedom and liberation from the unyielding societal pressures to remain naïve and docile, particularly toward the men in her society. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried truly teaches us that even in the times of extreme wartime stress, human beings have long proved that they can indeed flourish through it all.
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