Monday, November 12, 2007

The Things They Carried

Veterans’ Day, 2007

The burden carried by the characters of Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried extends beyond the physical items of necessity listed in the first chapter. It is clear these men carry psychic baggage as well. O’Brien expresses many of these psychic, emotional, and spiritual issues through recurring motifs that run through the chapters. One of these motifs is the idea of death, dying, killing or being killed.

There are five deaths in the novel that O’Brien returns to time and again: Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, Kiowa, Linda, and the slim Vietcong soldier. The latter, O’Brien himself killed with a grenade. Lavender, Lemon and Kiowa die as a result of combat. Lavender is shot in the head; Lemon steps on a landmine; and Kiowa dies in the field of human excrement after taking shrapnel from an artillery shell. Linda is the only non-Vietnam casualty; she is O’Brien’s fourth grade schoolmate who dies of brain cancer.

Lavender’s death is more the lieutenant’s burden to carry. Jimmy Cross blames himself for Lavender’s death because he was preoccupied with thinking of his girl back home. He feels that because of his negligence, his man died. In this motif, O’Brien is a witness to the destruction this guilt causes for Cross. Years later, when Cross visits O’Brien, he still has not freed himself from the guilt over Lavender’s death. “At one point,” O’Brien writes, “I remember, we paused over a snapshot of Ted Lavender, and after a while, Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he’d never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death.”

It is clear from the chapter entitled “Love,” that O’Brien cannot help Cross with his guilt. There is some indication that Cross cannot get passed his guilt because he has no outlet to work through his burden, as O’Brien is able to do with his writing. “ ‘You writer types,’ [Cross] said, ‘you’ve got long memories.’”

The thing that seems to stick with Cross is that Martha, the girl he was preoccupied with when Lavender is killed, never was his girlfriend and did not love him. When he encounters her years later, she does not reciprocate his love, nor does she even feign interest. She merely wishes him well, replacing the picture of her he burned in his foxhole in Vietnam after Lavender’s death. So his mental preoccupation was a waste of time, and it cost a man his life.

The chapter closes on a poignant note. Cross tells O’Brien, “Don’t mention anything about…” He trails off, never speaking the unspeakable guilt he feels, and O’Brien promises he won’t. It is clear that Cross has lost his psychic battle with guilt over Ted Lavender’s death. O’Brien, as witness to this lost battle, realizes that some things must be carried forever, that one can never be free from the obligations of the dead.

Curt Lemon is blown up, his body parts left hanging in a tree. He is playing a game with another soldier, a game of toss with a smoke grenade, when he accidentally steps on a landmine. O’Brien speaks of him stepping into the light, and then the blast sucks him up into the trees. Just like that he is gone. What bothers O’Brien is that Curt Lemon is just a kid. He did not understand war, had indeed only been there a short while. This idea of innocents exposed to the horrors of war recurs throughout the novel. But he speaks of Curt Lemon’s death as a senseless act, something that exists as more image than reality in his brain after all of these years. In this way, some deaths defy explanation or rhyme or reason. They exist as these moments of blinding light, and we are left with unrecognizable pieces of flesh hanging in trees.

In the story of Kiowa’s death, we find a combination of the senselessness of war with the guilt that must be carried by others. Once again, it is Jimmy Cross who feels responsible for Kiowa’s death. Tactically, they make a mistake; they set up in a field that under heavy rain and artillery bombardment, quickly turns into an excrement-crusted quicksand. When he is injured by a falling mortar, Kiowa is unable to free himself from the muck and drowns. The soldiers search for his body the next morning. Kiowa is the one who sleeps with the New Testament for a pillow, yet his Christianity meant nothing in war. He is still dead.

When they find his body, they must work to free it from the waste. They find that he probably died from his mortar wounds. But there is the possibility the field of human waste finished him off, that he drowned in the bog. Norman Bowker sums of the lesson: “ ‘Nobody’s fault,’ he said. ‘Everybody’s.’”

O’Brien’s guilt over the man he kills comes from questions his daughter asks him about the war. He feels the sting years later when he returns to the country with her to re-examine his past. When she asks the question, “Did you kill anyone in the war?” O’Brien wants to tell her no, but that would not be the truth. He remembers one man he killed, a slim soldier. He killed him with a grenade. Even though he knows that in war, it is killed or be killed, the enormity of taking another life is still with him. It is made clear in other chapters that he considers himself a coward for going to war instead of fleeing to Canada. In his confusing and convoluted thinking, killing this man is part of his cowardice, even though he has no choice.

“I did not hate the young man,” he writes. “I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty.” After he throws the grenade, he feels like he wants to warn the man. “It was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed by. And it will always be that way.”

Actions are forever. We carry them forward from those fateful nights when we are forced to make choices. In O’Brien’s case, a simple question from a child sends him back.

The final death is actually the first one O’Brien witnesses in his life. Linda, a girl in his fourth grade class, dies of a brain tumor. This is the girl he took out on his first date. He writes that he loved her with a pure and intense love. It is she whom he sees in his dreams. She speaks to him and tells him to stop crying.

“But this too is true; stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive.” He goes on to mention the others. “They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”

Linda is the only dead person who dialogues with him. Her words are beautifully metaphoric. She speaks of being dead like being a library book that no one is reading. It is just there, on the shelf, waiting. In the end, Linda tells him, being dead is not so bad. “I mean, when you’re dead, you just have to be yourself,” she says.

In his dreams, O’Brien is ice skating on a frozen pond at night with Linda. He realizes that all of these stories are a way of coping with what happened to him in Vietnam. One gets the sense that O’Brien is hanging on by a thread, and that this writing in The Things They Carried, saves his life.

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