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Women in Combat: The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried is a novel about a platoon of infantrymen through the jungles of Vietnam from 1968-1970. The book describes trudging through thick mud from constant downpours, getting ambushed by sniper fire, pulling body parts out of a tree, laughing while they tell their stories to each other, and falling quiet when faced with making sense of it all. The first chapter describes what the soldiers must carry with them both literally and figuratively. In another chapter O’Brien tells of a young medic who brings his high-school sweetheart to his aid station in the mountains of Vietnam, sharing her transformation from an innocent girl in a pink sweater to a cold night killer who carries a necklace of human tongues. Yet another story called “ “ tells of a Lieutenant and a young love he once had who he shared ice cream with. Then sadly she passed away from a brain tumor then sharing how he sometimes thinks of her as if she was still alive to help him sleep. The Things They Carried is not just a simple tale of war, but a book that is brutal, sometimes funny, and about the human heart and how it changes under pressure and what it endures. Yet, what each of these chapters shares is a character’s relationship with a female during the Vietnam War. Not all women in the war were nurses. They also served to help with soldier’s depression and stress by cheering them up. Women played an important part in the war, mainly by being apart of the army nurses. It wasn’t an easy role they dealt with guilt, stress, and anxiety of not being able to save everyone and see so many wounded soldiers. They sometimes served double what some soldiers did on ships. Women in the war should be more appreciated as they played important roles being medics and taking care of the soldiers.

Women’s lives in the war were not as glamorized as men saw them. History.com states, “11,000 women were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Ninety percent of those women were military nurses but others were physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, and some in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marines and the Army Medical Specialist Corps. As the American military presence in South Vietnam increased in the early 1960s, so did the Army Nurse Corps.”(1) From March 1962 to March 1973, when the last Army nurses departed Vietnam, some 5,000 would serve in the conflict. Only five female Army nurses died over the course of the war but, civilian women were also killed because they found themselves in the middle of the conflict. In the US Navy, women served on the USS Repose and USS Sanctuary. While in the US Air Force female nurses worked on planes flying over Vietnam and during airlift operations to get injured soldiers out of the frontline. Others were civilians who worked with international organizations that were operating in Vietnam such as the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services. US Air Force officer Captain Mary Klinker was the only female US Air Force officer killed during the war. She took part in a mass airlift to help rescue two thousand Cambodian and South Vietnamese children from the conflict but, her plane crashed just after taking off. 138 people including Mary were sadly killed. Women’s role in this war was glanced over and not truly appreciated in the sense of how hard these women worked and had to see every day.

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A Women’s role in The Things They Carried was not just for one reason. In chapter one First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries love letters from Martha, an English major back in the States. He ponders her virginity and fantasizes about romantic camping trips. The daydreams of love with a pure young woman who loves poetry, help him escape briefly from the rigors of the war raging around him. When Henry’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he still wears her pantyhose like a good-luck charm. The charm protects him. It does not protect his body. Instead, the pantyhose simply protect the part of him that is able to love. Women were a way of escape during the war almost like a drug to keep them going. Using things like pantyhose and pebbles to keep as a sort of trinket of comfort and imagination. Leslie Solis states in her research “ O’Brien lists physical objects that the soldiers carry as an emotional gateway to the burdens that the Soldiers bear. The prime example here is the necessity for the soldiers to confront the tension between reality and fantasy. Cross thinks that because he was so obsessed with his fantasy of Martha and the life they might lead after the war, he was negligent.” (6) This quote explains how women affected the soldier’s perspective of war. And how some women influence changed men.

In ”Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley talks about Mark Fossies girlfriend who collapses into the war wearing a sweater and culottes. Blonde and seventeen years old, having a bubbly and positive personality. Her name was Mary Anne Bell. She touched up though. She went on ambush. Mark tries to stop her, but she becomes a war-toughened soldier. She cradled her gun now instead of possibly cradling Mark’s babies. She becomes bitter, and she acquires a necklace of human tongues. She was the representation of the innocence soldiers had at the beginning, that was lost in Vietnam. The ending of her innocence represents what happened to the soldiers in Vietnam. Sparknotes states “Mary Anne falls in love with Vietnam, embracing the jungle, which is mysterious to the soldiers. She negotiates the uncertainty of war differently than Fossie and the others. Her feeling that she has nothing to lose saves further oppression back in Ohio and allows her to avoid a life of inevitabilities, and she joins the Green Berets to break out of a prison of gender norms.” (1) This quote further explains how Mary lost her innocence and Vietnam consuming her past personality. Mary’s loss of innocence is an important symbol of the soldier’s loss of innocence as well because it justifies how both women and men were mutated by the horrors of Vietnam.

In the last chapter, after a village is burned down near the South China Sea, Jensen makes fun of a dead body and encourages O’Brien to join him in the fun. He denies and remembers his first date with Linda. They went to the movies in the fourth grade and by the end of the night, he knew he was in love. Later, O’Brien shares Linda had a brain tumor and soon died afterward. As time passed he began to daydream of her. Creating stories about Linda that comforted him by imagining her alive and together with him. O’Brien says that in Vietnam the soldiers devised ways to make the dead seem less dead they kept them alive with stories. Linda was O’Brien’s reason to write stories to immortalize the dead. Lindas meaning is the healing process of pain, confusion, and sadness that comes with the unexpected death of those you care about. Her meaning in this book is to show O’Brien’s reason to write these stories. Linda was one of the women that helped him deal with the Vietnam War. After Linda died, O’Brien uses his subconscious and imagination to bring her back to life as he doesn’t want to forget her. He supports this point when he says “And as a writer now, I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body-her life.” (O’Brien 236) This shows how the dead can still be alive through writing. He wants to show how she will continue to live on inside of his literature.

Women’s role in The Things They Carried is important to the storyline. Their purpose cannot just be defined by one stereotype. Their personalities and characteristics are all different. Each woman in this novel changed them or is an example of what happened to the soldiers during the war. Starting with Martha, she was like a drug to Cross, in the beginning, he thought of her every second and grasped onto anything he could of her. Even though she didn’t love him the way he did, he still desperately cared about her and cherished what she gave him. Even though he did burn her letters he still held onto her gift of a pebble. She represented the danger of love and what it can do to someone in the war. Martha’s effect caused Cross to not be focused enough on his duties causing negative consequences of his neglect to his men. Mary was also an important woman in this story. Her role as an innocent girl at first becoming a cold bitter soldier is an example of the innocence the men had about war and having no knowledge of what to expect of combat. She is a symbol of growth in the soldiers. Growing in the sense of maturity on the topic of war and how it’s not what it is glamorized to be. Linda is the symbol of men’s change and adaptation. Somewhat like Mary’s purpose she was O’Brien’s first love and signified the grief of death. The imagination of having the unliving be alive and as a sort of coping mechanism. Dealing with the unimaginable loss of fellow partners and friends in combat. She is what helps him sleep at night knowing it doesn’t matter if she’s dead because he can always think of her another way. These women all helped shape the story of The Things They Carried, and how important they were to mature the men’s mind of war.

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