The dangers of war far extend passed the physical repercussions of its battles. This is true in all aspects. As cluster bombs can make a habitat unlivable for decades to come, this is nothing compared to the emotional pain a soldier derives from guilt, fear, or anxiety. These feelings trump any tangible side effects of combat. This idea is beautifully conveyed in Tim O’Brien’s short narrative, “The Things They Carried. ” The story is centered around First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s conflict of being a good officer to his troops as he leads them through Vietnam. Every member of his battalion must physically carry plethora of different items to aid with their safety in every mission. And although the tangible items they carry seem obtusely heavy, it is virtually weightless in comparison to the countless emotional barriers that pile up as the story develops.
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Tim O’Brien fixates on the dehumanization of the men, specifically three major issues the soldiers struggle with mentally and disputes that soldiers most effective method for a somewhat stable mind frame is through constantly escaping their realities. Fear caused by uncertainty, craving a normal life with love, and the ubiquitous facade of contentment are common traits of soldiers whose impact heavily exceeds any physical toll that is caused by the conflict.
Throughout, “The Things We Carried,” the author displays how the most prevalent hardships of every soldier are their doubt of returning home. This anticipation of egregious circumstances are so frequent to the men, that they inevitably go at great lengths to mentally escape the harsh realities around them. This idea is initially revealed through the protagonists’, Jimmy Cross, letters to his love at home Martha. As the letters go back and forth “she never mentioned the war, expect to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself” (426). As this quote doesn’t reveal much to the soldier’s hardships, it displays how no one wants to think about the repercussions of war. Even the people in a society who are involved in a war, would rather brush it off as nothing is happening. This is pertinent to note since nobody is acknowledging the war, the soldiers have no one to turn to for their problems except their fellow troubled man. This thought process of pushing negative aspects of life to the back of our heads inevitably leads to more uncertainty. Instead of dealing with the root of an issue the soldiers are forced to act as if everything is normal.
They do this through humor, and some resort to drugs, which exponentially grows their immeasurable trauma induced by fear; Furthermore, death is one of the leading causes of anxiety for the soldier. As the story continues the soldiers obsessively replay the death of a comrade Ted Lavender. They are not constantly thinking of his legacy or who he was, just the brevity of his death. Kiowa, an Indian-American soldier in Cross’s infantry is especially hurt by Lavenders death. As Kiowa tried not to think of his death, the author writes how “he was thinking about how fast it was, no drama, down and dead, and how it was hard to feel anything except surprised… Mostly he felt pleased to be alive”(437). Tim O’Brien does not include this commentary to display the soldiers as self-involved or greedy people.
Rather, he includes this narration to reveal the most adverse effect of war which is dehumanization. Kiowa cannot feel normal human emotions like empathy towards his fallen comrade but can only feel “pleased to be alive. ” Repeatedly, these soldiers are treated as bodies to carry out a specific mission. Where there is lack of focus on the individual and a fixation on the efforts of a group. With this thought process soldiers will stop seeing themselves as a person and rather as a cause. This causes a massive amount of worry based on the soldier’s uncertainty of safety. Thus, soldiers inevitably detach from their own self, which further creates a highly dysfunctional mental state that exceeds any physical outcome of war. Hence, we continually observe that literal fear of death succumbs all aspects of one’s life. And as this fear is to be expected, the detachment from oneself is one of the most appalling realities of war. Unlike the tangible repercussions of war, we are not able to simply move on from this through construction. These negative aspects of the damaged mindset of a soldier will never be fixed but continually prolonged until the individual is no longer able to breath.
Furthermore, fear caused by uncertainty is only one of the multitude of intangible problems faced by soldiers. When a war is declared, men are expected to put their lives on hold to fight for their nation. Tim O’Brien argues that a very large outcome of soldiers leaving their lives behind is their desire for an ordinary life, specifically a romantic life. This infatuation leads to men in battle not able to completely focus on their tasks at hand. Soldiers find themselves pondering at what their lives that could have been during the day, at night, and even in hazardous situations. This is mostly evident through Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s long-distance relationship with Martha. The author makes it clear that no matter where the protagonist goes, his infatuation towards Martha regularly engrosses his thought process.
Martha is on his mind so much, that he finds it increasingly challenging to focus on his battle. It is pertinent to note that Jimmy Cross is the highest commanding officer. He must lead a troop of people through unknown terrain, not knowing if his battalion will live or die. And though his position requires him to be the person who is most involved mentally, even he cannot help but escape the cruelties of battle through his obsession over Martha. This idea of escaping reality is further shown when one of the protagonist’s men, Ted Lavender, is shot. Once the infantry handles his lifeless body, Cross cannot help but only think of “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 he could not stop thinking about her” (430). In most situations regarding death, we see the people surrounding the deceased to feel empathy and despondence. But just as Kiowa, Lieutenant Cross is only able to sympathize towards his own situation. It is ironic to note that with the soldiers fragmented mental health, they would probably need years of therapy before they are able to maintain a healthy relationship. After witnessing countless acts of violence, one becomes very numb to most trauma around them. Over time, these soldiers will keep on finding it more difficult relate with others, but their longing to connect with others will never be suppressed. So Cross continuing to escape his reality through his love for Martha isn’t selfish, but is a biological coping method that will keep his mind from fully detaching from his body.
Additionally, the author continues to display to the reader how witnessing horrible acts are a critical factor in how the men lose their humanity. When people serve in the armed forces in America, they are expected to pack everything up; leaving everything behind including family, friends, and mostly all aspects of life at home no matter how important it may be to them. As they leave their old ways soldiers are forced to adapt to new life in the army. Learning new ideals of group mentality over individuality, being given a set of skills to learn that can be the determination of life or death. These aspects of war life can change a person where instead of fixating on things they enjoy, one must adapt into an extremely responsible person, where their fellow man’s well being must always be everyone’s top priority. This suppression of emotions by staying brave for your fellow man can really damage a person’s psyche until the point of insanity. This idea is accurately captured through the narrator’s description of the soldiers in Vietnam. O’Brien writes that the soldiers “took up what others could no longer bear. . . [and that] They carried the land itself. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it. . . they moved like mules” (435). The author includes this description to argue how impossible the plight of a soldier seems. The soldiers’ daily activities do not seem positive at all, rather the men serve as desensitized robots in line of duty. These were sympathetic humans that turned into literal killing machines. Also in battle succumbing to fear and anxiety would be their greatest pitfall. Therefore, these warriors must contain a facade of contentment to increase the chances of their survival. A person’s mind is very powerful, and the soldiers continue to distract themselves through humor to act as everything is normal. Cross and all of his men constantly engage in jokes that would be bad humor to a person in an average society. But in such treacherous situations, men will joke right after the death of their fellow brother in order to distract one’s mind from natural human emotions.
For example “They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it. They found jokes to tell. They were actors and the war came at them in 3-D. . . (Mentions ted lavenders death. ‘Cute’ said Henry Dobbins” (439). As one can see, the author deliberately writes how the soldiers were afraid of showing fear. Instead of having the characters mourn for the loss of Ted Lavender they are forced to hide any emotional response. It is tragic moments like these where the troopers need to brush off the violence with a joke. Acting as everything is fine and everyone is safe. This aspect of a soldier’s life is an added responsibility that causes too much strain mentally. Rather than being able to live their lives through the motions; soldiers must always be alert.
Continually keeping up their facade of contentment, until they are permanently damage. Hence, Tim O’Brien proves that humans can only take so much trauma until their mind and body naturally starts to cope. Specifically, people involved in armed conflicts continually escape the reality of war due to its plethora of stresses. As positive members of our society we must learn from history so we won’t repeat the actions of our forefathers. Societies today must focus on avoiding war at all cost because although we are able to construct over previous battle grounds, the mental plagues of the soldiers never cease to exist.
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