The Things They Carried: Image Of American Soldier In Vietnam

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Tim O’Brien writes about how war is an all-consuming event that takes almost everything from the people that are involved in it, mainly the soldiers. The men that fought in this war have both an internal and external conflict. They must give up their normal lives they had in order to fight for the lives of others. While this was portrayed as an honorable sacrifice, it left the men who were drafted at a difficult decision. They would either serve and play the heroic role, or draw judgement from society for not wanting to serve their country. In this short story, O’Brien writes about the toll that war has on an individual and how not only does war take a toll on a man physically with the things he has to carry, but it also takes a toll mentally with the mental baggage that is carried both while serving in the war and when they return home.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 2,700,000 men and women served in Vietnam (Office of Academic Affiliations). Tim O’Brien was one of these many Americans who fought in this war. Since he was directly involved in the war, his point of view is one that is creditable and can offer one of the best explanations of what the soldiers there dealt with. Since he is also a survivor of the war, he can not only give his stories and perspective from a soldier’s point of view, but also a veteran who has witnessed and endured all that war does to someone.

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Society wanted to portray soldiers as heroes because of what they had to sacrifice. People want to look past all the tragedy and death that comes with war and see the heroic elements that accompany the romanticizing of war. In reality, war is a horrid and tragic thing, with the soldiers having to endure almost inhuman things. They face harsh conditions, environments that are very foreign to them. They are treated like grunts, disposable bodies that are only used in the line of fire to progress the possession of territory. Society tends to hold soldiers up in a higher light, because they represent the ideal man, tough, strong, and someone that doesn’t give up. This concept of an ideal soldier is best seen in the character of Jimmy Cross and his growth in the story. He starts out as a confused boy, but then grows into a soldier, a man. In reality, he just becomes adapted to the harsh conditions he is forced into. “Like solders in all wars, they became by degrees pragmatic, efficient, hardened, and cynical (Ebert 212). The soldiers are not seen as people, they are seen as machines that need to perform perfectly at all times in order to achieve victory. Most soldiers had to learn these skills just in order to survive, “Combat initiated a metamorphosis within the new men, the result being most often a soldier who could do his job under fire, endure the daily conditions of life in the field, and divest himself of the philosophical and emotional baggage that might otherwise impair his ability to cope and survive”(Ebert 213). This is a prime example of the things that were expected of the men in order to make them into soldiers, they needed to give up everything and almost become inhuman in order to survive.

As we follow Jimmy Cross throughout this story have to adapt to his surroundings and situation. Jimmy seems to be more content with looking at and describing all the various things that the soldiers were carrying. He describes each of the items the different men have to carry in order to do their job and survive. Not only does he describe the physical things the men had to carry, but the mental burdens that they carried as well. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien 267). This war was very hazardous because of the fact that it was fought in unexpected terrain with unexpected methods. This more than anything took a toll on the mental health of the soldiers. This is described in a novel about the American soldier in Vietnam, “other areas were in heavy combat…and guys got hurt every day, and it was a whole different flavor of war” (Ebert 216).

The unit that Jimmy was involved in consisted of mainly foot soldiers, men who mainly carried equipment and did most of the fighting on the front lines. “The amount of equipment carried by the ‘grunt’ in Vietnam was staggering—literally. Each unit learned from experience what was necessary and what was not” (Ebert 156). The men learned to throw away the things in their mind in order to become a more efficient soldier. An example of this is Jimmy’s love for a girl back home Martha. He decides that his love for Martha is unnecessary baggage that is not helpful in the fighting.

Most consider war a group effort, a conglomeration of men who are all fighting for the same cause to advance progress of a force. This idea however is not very present in the Vietnam war. Many of the men held the belief that “The cardinal rule was condensed to three letters: CYA (cover your ass).” (Ebert 218). Many soldiers believed that the strategy of fighting they were taught was not the best way for them to survive. They believed that they were being put in the line of danger because they were thought of as expendable. This belief is shown in “The Things They Carried” as Jimmy Cross’s unit is disorganized and the men are distant from each other.

Being under constant attack and being shot at does quite the destruction to a person’s mind and mental health. The most apparent example of this occurrence is PTSD, or Post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. (National Institute of Mental Health). As you can imagine, these experiences were felt by the soldiers involved in the Vietnam war to and extreme level. A study the took a sample of 1200 veterans estimated that 30.9% had developed PTSD during their life time and that 15.2% were currently suffering from PTSD. (Dohrenwend). This circumstances that the American soldiers were put in not only put them in immediate physical danger, but it put them in a lifetime of mental danger. One of the most prevent symptoms of PTSD is the reoccurrence of flashbacks and the vivid memories of what occurred. In an interview with NPR, O’Brien describes what he has carried from his time in the war, saying “Well, I carry the memories or the ghosts of a place called Vietnam, the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers. More importantly, I guess, I carry the weight of responsibility and a sense of abiding guilt. (O’Brien).

One of the main reasons that PTSD has stuck and developed was the way they were embraced on their return home. Dwight Reiland, a Vietnam veteran, described his return as “A woman kept looking at us kind of funny… ‘You guys coming home from Vietnam, are you?’… ‘Well you weren’t in with any of those men that were killing those babies and children, were you?’ “(Ebert 342). This was the kind of reception that all returning American soldiers were receiving.

This story both dreadfully and realistically shows the life of an American soldier who fought in Vietnam. This is due largely in part to O’Brien’s participation in the Vietnam war. He does a very good job of putting the prescriptive of a soldier in language that a common audience can understand and empathize with. He shows the mental and physical toll that this war took on a man. He does not glorify war, instead he tells realistic stories of men and their struggles. Through Jimmy Cross the responsibility and struggle of a soldier is shown, the things that needed to be left behind and the things that needed to be carried in order for himself and his unit to survive. The picture that O’Brien paints in this story is that of soldiers and their physical burdens they have to carry. This is a perfect analogy for the mental burden that the soldiers have to carry. The soldiers must pick and choose what they carry in their mind to best perform that job, just as they must do that for the physical equipment that they carry. He sheds light and makes a wide audience be able to understand the mental and physical struggles that soldiers during the Vietnam war had to carry, and how detrimental the effects of this was on the men that  


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