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The Effect on War in "the Things They Carried"

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October 25, 2010

The Effect of War in "The Things They Carried"

Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" (798-811) begins his story with First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's love for a girl named Martha and the letters he carries from her. It then moves on to list all the tangible and intangible things that he and his soldiers carry in the midst of a foreign land during a war. Moments in the story share key bits of information regarding the different individuals that are a part of his troop and the various reactions to the events that occur. It is through this window that a glimpse is revealed of the effect the war has. The war creates a unique environment responsible for the dehumanization of the young soldiers.

The short story goes on to describe the objects being carried due to superstition. Some soldiers carried objects such as a rabbit's foot or a good luck pebble but then the author includes something much darker. It is here that we learn that "Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders" (805). This thumb had been cut off a very young VC found burned and dead in the ditch. Mitchell Sanders cut off the thumb and then kicked the body as though it was a sack of potatoes. There is no thought of disgust or understanding of what he has done. Even Norman has no qualms about accepting this gift even though he is not considered a violent person. If someone in our society were discovered with such an object on his person, the public would be horrified. The view would be that the person is either psychotic or an extremely disturbed individual. However, this is presented in quite a matter of fact way in the passage. The men have become so immune to the dead and no longer view the remains as once being live humans. The dead have become objects and the living are apathetic seemingly due to deeply buried and forgotten emotions.

This is evident in another portion of the story when Kiowa dwells on his reaction to the death of one of his comrades, Ted Lavender, who was shot right in front of him. Kiowa is described as a devout Baptist and carries with him the New Testament that was presented to him by his father (799). His only

reaction is surprise but he does not feel any sadness or anger. "It seemed un-Christian" (807) that he is

unable to feel these other emotions. He recognizes that this is not what would be expected when

someone from your own troop dies. These are the men that you spend all your time with day in and day out. You rely on each other to keep each other safe. There is a trust that builds from being a part of a team fighting together. Yet he cannot make himself feel this because of the need to keep his emotions deep down. He can only make out what he is physically sensing - "the pleasure of having his boots off and the fog curling in around him and the damp soil and the Bible smells...."(808). But there is a sense that Kiowa realizes he has lost touch with his human side because he is driven to continue talking about what he witnessed. "Kiowa kept explaining how you had to be there, how fast it was, how the poor guy just dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down, he said. Like cement." (802)

O'Brien not only goes into details about what they carried but his use of analogies strengthens the dehumanizing aspects of war when describing the soldiers, "They moved like mules...it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose...They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking..." (806). The soldiers are burdened with so much equipment to carry that it becomes inhuman the amount of weight that they are expected to bear. It goes on to describe how "they carried like freight trains, they carried it on their backs and shoulders..."(806). The soldiers were expected to not feel and not think, just follow orders. The part of what makes you human is pushed down and ignored. No questions are asked when they are "ordered by higher command to search them [tunnels], which was considered bad news, but by and

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