The Things They Carried: The Motivations Of War 

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

“The Things They Carried” by Time O’ Brien is a short story set in the Vietnam War. The story focuses on a platoon of seventeen soldiers. The title, which is repeated throughout the story, has two meanings. The first is the soldier’s duties and equipment of war, which includes rank, position, firearms, and personal items. The second meaning is the emotional weight that the soldiers carried during the war. The constant worry of death, the soldier’s wants and desires, and personal issues were just a few items of the emotional baggage they carried. During the Vietnam War, like all wars, the soldiers were faced with hard times. They always saw a form of death, whether it’s an enemy or friendly soldier. Through “The Things They Carried”, Tim O’ Brien explores the motivation of soldiers in the Vietnam War to understand their combat roles, stay in good shape, and accept the death of fellow soldiers.

O ‘Brien uses repetition to bring the reader to the main subject, “What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.” (O’ Brien 96). The army does well at following the chain of command, and they believe that every soldier has to earn their rank. Every soldier has a role that’s based on their rank. In the story, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was in charge of the platoon. In the beginning, even though the story talks about eight of the men, there are seventeen men in the platoon. The story talks about the different positions of the men carried, and the equipment they were assigned as standard procedure. Jimmy Cross was the leader of the platoon. He carried a compass, maps, codebooks, binoculars, and a pistol. Mitchell Sanders was a Radiotelephone Operator (RTO), and had to carry a twenty-five-pound radio. Rat Kiley, being the platoon’s medic, carried a satchel containing morphine and other standard necessities. Henry Dobbins was the machine gunner, he carried an M-60 along with ten to fifteen pounds of ammunition, some of which were draped across his body. The rest of the platoon were grunts and carried the standard M-16. If the soldiers found weapons, such as captured AK-47s and black market Uzis, they would pick them up and carry them. Most if not all of the men in the platoon carried some sort of sentimental item, good luck item, or souvenirs from their tour. For example, Jimmy Cross carried pictures and letters from Martha, a girl he had a huge crush on. Another character, Kiowa, carried a bible and his father’s feathered hatchet. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Norman Bowker carried a thumb from a corpse that was given to him by Mitchell Sanders. Towards the end of the story, Lieutenant Cross realizes that he is not doing his job well enough. He constantly thinks about Martha and often daydreams about being back home and romancing with her. After Ted Lavender is shot, Cross decides that he is going to man up and be the leader he was supposed to be. He blames himself for Lavender’s death. ”He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of war.” (O’Brien 101). Immediately afterward, the story talks about Cross’s new expectations. ”Commencing immediately, he’d tell them, they would no longer abandon equipment along the route of march. They would police up their acts, they would get their shit together, and keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in good working order.” (O’Brien 105). After Lavender’s death, Jimmy Cross is filled with motivation to fulfill his role in the war, as the leader of the platoon.

During wartime, soldiers need to stay in good health, both mentally and physically. In “The Things They Carried”, the men carried standard C rations and two to three canteens of water. To help with mental health, the soldiers also carried various favorites such as chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, and Kool-Aid packs. These items were used to give the soldiers pleasure and keep morale up as a result. “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.” (O’Brien 95). Good hygiene was essential during the war. Jensen carried a toothbrush, floss, and trial-size shampoos. He also used three pairs of socks along with foot powder to protect himself from trench foot. The symptoms of trench foot are when the feet become numb, swollen, and turn red. Blisters and sores appear later and the feet start turning blue. It is common for the sores to get infected with fungi. In Vietnam, there was a huge problem with malaria and dengue, which made it tough on the soldiers. The soldiers were well aware of these diseases and carried mosquito repellent to keep themselves safe from malaria and dengue. The soldiers were forced to wear helmets and steel-centered flak jackets to help protect them from gunshots or explosions. The longing to be with loved ones kept the soldiers motivated to stay healthy and watch out for danger. When coming to the town of Than Khe the platoon finds a Vietnamese tunnel. Their missions were to destroy any tunnels found, but first, they had to be searched. Every soldier drew a number and whoever had the number seventeen had to search the tunnel first. Many things could go wrong at any time: the tunnel could collapse, there could be a mine, or enemies waiting with guns. Whoever had to go in had to go head first, and if anything happened, it could potentially be fatal to the soldier. Lee Strunk pulled number seventeen, and after taking off his gear so he could fit, had to inspect the tunnel. Fortunately, Strunk made it out alive, but Lavender was shot after coming back from using nature as the men’s room. The men were too focused on Strunk coming out of the tunnel free from harm that they didn’t think about covering their surroundings. Due to this absence of routine, Lavender was shot and killed. They all carried fear, and it kept them in good shape because it kept them alert. Lavender was so full of fear that he carried tranquilizers, otherwise, he wouldn’t be a useful soldier.

Accepting the death of a fellow soldier is an important process during the war. After Lavender was shot, the men burn the city of Than Khe. The loss of their comrade makes them angry and they destroy the city. A plane is called in to take the corpse of Lavender away. All the while, the men talk about the want and desire to go home, or at least get out of Vietnam. After Lavender’s death, the men respond in a variety of ways: relief, hysterical grief, and destruction of the nearby village. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross wept over the death of Lavender because he was responsible for his life; for the lives of all the remaining men. He told himself that Lavender’s death was his fault for being too wrapped in his daydreaming of Martha. He knew that she didn’t love him as he loved her, but he continued to fantasize about her, putting the lives of his men at risk. Kiowa constantly talked about Lavender’s death to accept that he was not there anymore, “Boom and then down” was all Kiowa would say. The men continued to be afraid of death, but they refused to show it, and promptly go back to joking around. Anytime Cross started to daydream about Martha, he was quick to pull himself together. He didn’t want to put anyone else at risk of death. There is a conflicting notion that Cross loves Martha but also hates her. He realizes that she will never love him in the same way he dreams about, and decides to move on.

In “The Things They Carried” the narrator made sure that the reader knew the weight of everything the soldiers had to carry. Whether it was the things they needed for combat or personal and sentimental items. All of the men carried fear and sorrow. They all had loved ones back home and desperately wanted to make it out of Vietnam alive. Many things motivated the soldiers to keep doing their duties. For Jimmy Cross, his love for Martha made him want to continue through his platoon’s journey through Vietnam. He would daydream about her and it would make him feel better. Cross’s decision to move on from his fantasies made him a better man and leader. He didn’t want any more of his men to die because of his careless daydreaming. The other men had the motivation of fear to keep them working and in good health. The only thing they all dreamed about was the plane that would take them out of Vietnam. 


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