The Weight of War in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
By Angela Wright
The weight of the soldiers is described immensely throughout Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Though this novel is fiction, the author chooses to tell his characters story through the feelings of the soldiers involved rather than depict the actual events of the war. The weights these men carry are heavy and light, tangible and intangible, personal and public. All of these strains have negative and positive reactions to the men in O'Brien's platoon and in the end lead to tragedy or a sense of closure.
In the first lines of the book, we learn of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his unusually heavy item that he carried throughout Vietnam. ``They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack...The letters weighed 10 ounces They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it to mean'' (O'Brien 1-2). Although the physical weight of these letters is less than a pound, the emotional pressure that comes with these letters appears to have the greatest affect on Cross. The heaviness of this letter is a direct correlation of Ted Lavenders death and the personal guilt that Jimmy put on himself. ``He pictured Martha's smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her'' (7). The 10 ounces that this letter weighed now felt like more than 10 pounds for the Lieutenant. In order to release the guilt that Martha's letters put on Jimmy, he decides to burn them. These letters for him turned from love to hate and light to heavy. By burning Martha's letters, he was able to release the heavy distraction that had kept him from saving Ted Lavender.
In ``On the Rainy River'', the character, Tim O'Brien, starts out by saying, ``This is a story I've never told before-- Not to anyone Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife. To go into it, I've always thought, would cause embarrassment for all of us, a sudden need to be elsewhere, which is the natural response to a confession'' (39). With the pressures of his father and grandfather being in past wars, O'Brien must come to a decision whether to go to war and fight for something which he does not believe in or flee the States, leaving behind his family and his life. ``Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it-the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier'' (56). The weight of going to war for the character, Tim O'Brien, is so heavy that his conscience is clouded with feelings of shame.
With war comes pain and with pain comes ones way of masking this pain. For the men in Tim O'Brien's platoon, humor is the way that many of the soldiers handled the emotions of war. ``Azar sighed,``Wasted in the waste.'' He said,``A shit field, You got to admit, it's pure world-class irony'' (165). Coming in the shadows of Kiowa's death, Azar is quick to make a humorous comment about how he died. This humor is not only for the enjoyment of the rest of the platoon, but also for dealing with his own grief. By dealing with this grief comically, it takes the weight of death, blood, and gore that the war portrays. ``For a long time I lay there alone, listening to the battle, thinking I've been shot, I've been shot: all those Gene Autry movies I'd seen as a kid In fact, I almost smiled, except then I started to think I might die'' (189). For O'Brien and the other soldiers the weight of death was the heaviest thing they carried .
The constant surrounding of dead bodies, loose limbs, and mortar fire has the men never knowing what their fate will be. ``I seemed to rise up out of my own body and float through the dark down to Jorgenson's position. I was invisible I had no shape, no substance I weighed less than nothing I just drifted It was imagination, of course, but for a long while I hovered there over Bobby Jorgenson's bunker'' (208). The image of Tim's body floating through the air towards the bunker made him feel light , as if there was not a care in the world. At this time, all of O'Brien's fears and pressures that he had felt that day in the paddies were transferred to Jorgenson. ``I wanted to hurt him'' (93), he said. His feelings towards being shot and the lack of synergy within the platoon were so strong that he wanted others to feel as he did.
In the last chapter of the book, the pieces of the puzzle are put together and the reader is able to conceptualize Tim O'Brien's thoughts and feelings. He alludes to the theme of the book by telling these stories repeatedly so that the characters in the story will never die. ``That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk'' (231-232). By telling his past, the readers are aiding in the reincarnation of Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, Linda, and the young dead Vietnamese man. The weight of war was resting on Tim O'Brien and the soldiers. By writing his thoughts down, he is able to keep the memories alive in a paper vault. This form of release is what keeps him from feeling heavy and transports his thoughts into a world of illusion. The author uses his experiences in the war as a metaphor for the pressures in life. Instead of letting pain and grief disrupt ones life, O'Brien states that ``in a story, which is kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world'' (225). In the end this was the release that he and the others needed.