The Soldier’s Burden: Masculinity in The Things They Carried
Most, if not all of them, were drafted unwillingly. They were asked to leave their families and their homes, their girls or their kids, and they were told to die and kill for reasons unclear. These soldiers marched through swamps and villages with mutilated children and, even after the first time they killed someone or their best friends died, they were told not to cry about it. This is what Tim O’Brien tells us in The Things They Carried, a narrative of how the beast of a war that surrounded his men demanded an indomitable front. If they exposed the weakness in themselves, they exposed it to each other, and such exposure was a reminder that none of them were as strong as they were supposed to be. So they turn to other methods of coping, some of which blur the very line between right and wrong. The crude language and behavior of the soldiers demonstrate that the forced masculinity imposed on them as men and as warriors only serves to add to their trauma.
The crude language of the soldiers appalls Tim O’Brien at first: the seemingly apathetic treatment of a dead child in a ditch, the things they’d say when a fellow soldier is shot in the head. They wouldn’t say dead, or killed: they would be as far from poetic as possible, saying greased or zapped while zipping. He understands eventually, and soon begins to adopt the mentality of the “hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness (19).” The juxtaposition of the words “terrible softness” suggests that the harsh things the soldiers say and do, while alarming and appalling to those not in their position, are nothing compared to the vulnerability of emotion that the soldiers would have faced otherwise. This unhealthy way of dealing with tragedy is brought to a harsh challenge in the chapter “The Man I Killed”, when Tim O’Brien is left staring at the gory corpse of the young soldier he had just killed. He introduces this dead character by bluntly giving the reader an unforgiving portrait of the physical, unavoidable details of the corpse. He finds, suddenly, that he cannot shake off this death—that he cannot bring himself to make any sort of joke nor any sort of offhand euphemism that would lessen the reality of what he had just done. “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone,” Tim O’Brien narrates, “his one eye was shut, his other was a star-shaped hole” (118). Through these parallel phrases, the reader becomes fixated on the gruesome physicality of the dead human being, just as Tim O’Brien was. Not only do we understand his thought process, we deduce that this fixation reminds him sharply of the humanity of this enemy, which he and his soldiers had previously been so easily shaking off and objectifying. He is therefore unaware of how to deal with his emotions, or his thoughts, and is left only to obsession, his halting thoughts going in circles. Predictably, the only advice he is given is to “stop staring” (122).
The soldiers quickly realize that if they cannot control themselves and their emotions or fate, they must instead control others. This is what they come to as a coping mechanism when they are confronted with intense emotion. When Curt Lemon dies, Rat Kiley brutally murders an innocent baby buffalo. He takes his automatic rifle and shoots up the animal, as a way of dealing with his heavy grief. All of them “stood there watching, feeling all of kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby buffalo” (75). This is the kind of reaction that people, especially men, have been shown to turn to when they are unable to express their “softer” emotions in a healthy way. They turn to control and violence instead, just as the whole platoon burned a village down after Ted Lavender was shot. This is a result not of men’s natural inclinations, but of the forced and damaging rules of masculinity that they all feel as though they are bound to follow.
This code of conduct is not imaginary, and something that is expressed multiple times throughout the book. More disturbing, perhaps, than the gruesome but expected details of gore and death is when Tim O’Brien says plainly that “[the platoon] carried a soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing.” More than the tragedy of a grenade, more than horror of a P.O.W camp, more than death itself, a soldier apparently fears humiliation above all else. Even if it allows you to go home, even if saves an innocent life, even if it’s the difference between crying in the barracks and hanging yourself in your parents’ basement, the embarrassment of showing your misery and your sadness is by far the worst thing you can experience in a war. This is not, as it could seem, a testament to human strength and willpower, but to the ridiculous and unreasonable damage that this inhuman “masculinity” does to a soldier’s psyche. Having fears and phobias and apprehensions as just as human as bravery and willpower, but the soldiers abandon this consideration on the battlefield.
When a dentist comes to treat the teeth of the soldiers, Curt Lemon goes into a near panic attack because of his stunted ability to deal with his anxiety and fears about the dentist, finally fainting before the dentist can even touch him. The embarrassment of this show of fear and anxiety, expected from anyone, goes farther than simply making for a funny war story later on. In fact, this humiliation “[turns] a screw in his head” (84), and causes Curt Lemon to experience a psychosomatic, agonizing toothache. His teeth were fine, but his mind could only translate the embarrassment of his show of weakness into a persistent, “killer” toothache, into an actual pain, one that appeared to give him another chance to show his strength and capability. He snuck down to the dentist’s test that night and insisted that the dentist do something about it. Though the dentist found nothing wrong, he proceeded to yank out the tooth at Curt Lemon’s command. It was a perfectly good tooth, but Curt Lemon gave it up so he could metaphorically win back his masculinity. The effects of this unhealthy way of thinking are lasting, and stay with these soldiers long after the war has ended.
The patriarchal code of men leaves these soldiers emotionally handicapped, and the trauma that inevitably follows them home is never dealt with correctly. Norman Bowker, who hung himself a few years after he returned home, is example of this. In “Speaking of Courage”, he imagines a conversation with his father, and with other people in his sleepy little town, in which he tells the story about how he “almost won the Silver Star” (135), a medal for uncommon bravery. He had apparently been responsible for the death of soldier Kiowa, who drowned in a muck field (full of human waste) during a night attack, and in this way he had lost the Silver Star. The repetition of the Silver Star’s mention reveals a fixation on broken expectations, and an inability to deal with the heavy weight of guilt, grief and depression he faces after the war. He cannot think to himself, cannot get past the circles his mind goes in, just as he drives around and around and around the lake in his town as he thinks. His toxic thought process is a result of his stunted emotional capacity, feeding his trauma and depression. The expectations placed on him by the war and by the platoon’s “masculine” code were beyond most human capability; he had been “braver than he ever thought possible, but…had not been so brave as he wanted to be” (147). He cannot accept the details of his past, but unlike Rat Kiley or Curt Lemon, he feels he has no chance to redeem himself. The war is over, and his friends are gone, and he lives with his father.
During the war, none of O’Brien’s soldiers were ever allowed to be less than impenetrable, and when they were reminded that they were, by death or tragedy or personal failings, they lashed out, because lashing out was the only emotional expression that was allowed. Perhaps it was the only emotional expression that the war encouraged, but one cannot be so removed from humanity forever. Rat Kiley was reminded of mortality, of grief, and could only translate his pain via violence to another innocent life trapped in a war. Tim O’Brien stared at the body of the man he had killed and realized that he could joke until he too died, but nothing they can say and nothing they could ever say would make the man in front of him, with the star-shaped eye, less dead. His repetitive and obsessive thoughts are echoed in Norman Bowker, trapped at home and not at war, without a Silver Star, without his friend Kiowa, and without a final chance to prove himself. None of these men could ever be called weak, and none of them could be called perfect. But the imposing masculine rules that have always governed patriarchal society left no room for the “terrible softness” of emotion, though innate in all humans. It left no room for the gray area between weak and strong, between hero and villain. It certainly left no room for the correct or healthy way of emotional expression, and permanently corrupted the psyche of each man, left a psychological wound that they inflicted on each other, and left that wound without good reason.
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