The short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien explores the emotional and psychological struggles which soldiers go through in the battlefield. This is evident from first person voice narration O’Brien, who relates the daily experiences of the soldiers in his Alpha Company in the jungles of Vietnam. Even though the speaker does not say it directly, his confessions about his fears and sense of guilt, suggests that soldiers are sometimes forced to kill against their will, which causes them to experience psychological and emotional torture.
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As the leader of Company Alpha, the narrator is worried about letting his men down. He is responsible for their lives, and every death of a fellow soldier hits his conscience hard, making him to stay awake all night wondering if there is something he could have done. In one morning, he loses Ted Lavender, who was caught off guard when he stopped for a short call; the narrator says that he saw him go down, his hands still on his zipper and his eyes wide open in unbelief. A lot of questions go through the narrator’s mind, which emphasizes his sense of guilt. He wonders what if he had stop to wait for Lavender, what if he had warned him the moment he had heard a rustling of leaves from deep in the forest? These thoughts show how the narrator carries the burden of responsibility for his men.
The narrator also looks around and muses over the things that his men are carrying as they roam the Vietnam jungles. He sees their luggage and thinks of the emotional and psychological burdens each of them is carrying in their hearts and consciences. There is Henry Dobbins, whose burden is the fear of hunger owing to his huge size; on his back he carries extra food rations to satisfy his biological and physiological needs. Being superstitious, he also carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck for good luck. Kiowa, a religious man, carries a Bible given to him by his father. Yet, the narrator sees more than superstition in all these; he sees the fear of death which makes one so desperate as to cling to any source of hope. Before he has died, for example, Lavender carried along doses of tranquilizers and marijuana, for the purpose of calming down his nervousness in the midst of war. For these members of the Alpha Company, they have to live with their fears of death, the grief of their families back home, and the longing desire to rejoin them. Plucked from their normal life at home, they were suddenly thrown into the nightmare of war. The narrator understands their fears, because most of these men are in their teens and early twenties. As he states, they are “children, students, and boyfriends who have no perspective on how to rationalize killing or come to terms with their friends’ untimely deaths” (O’Brien 23). These are the men of the Alpha Company, and the narrator has turned their fears into his own.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.